During the next two weeks, a traveling exhibition on the 90-year history of Latvia’s security police will be on display in the port city of Ventspils. It’s too bad the security police is now using tactics that are best left for the history books.
The security police on Nov. 21 detained and held for two days Dmitrijs Smirnovs, an economics lecturer from Ventspils Augstskola (Ventspils University College). His apparent crime: Saying things that could destabilize the country’s financial system, supposedly a violation of Section 194 of the criminal code.
Instead, the arrest of Smirnovs is a clear violation of Latvia’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
In an early October roundtable discussion published by the daily newspaper Ventas Balss, Smirnovs answered a journalist’s question about Latvia’s financial situation by saying, “The only thing I can suggest is, first, don’t save money in banks, second, don’t save money in lats, because right now that is very dangerous” (“Vienīgais, ko varu ieteikt: pirmkārt, neglabāt naudu bankās, otrkārt, neglabāt naudu latos, jo tagad tas ir ļoti bīstami”).
According to the criminal code, it is against the law to disseminate “untrue data or information orally, written or in other ways regarding the condition of the finance system of the Republic of Latvia.” A person convicted under Section 194 could face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 80 times the minimal monthly wage.
I don’t necessarily agree with Smirnovs, but are Latvian security officials really so silly to think that a little-known college lecturer’s statement in a regional newspaper could bring Latvia’s banks to their knees?
Actually, they are even sillier. Officials also have interviewed pop singer Valters Frīdenbergs of the ensemble Putnu balle. During a Nov. 9 concert in Jelgava, according to the newspaper Diena, Frīdenbergs joked during a pause in the performance that audience members would rush to automatic teller machines (in Latvian, bankomāti) to withdraw money, but he urged them to wait until after the concert. The newspaper cited a security police spokeswoman who said an investigation was started after a bank complained about Frīdenbergs’ statement.
That security officials are taking such extraordinary measures seems to suggest only that the financial system in Latvia really is in trouble. What’s next? Posting officers at bankomāti to make note of who is withdrawing cash?
Latvian-American journalist Juris Kaža, who works for the LETA news service in Rīga, has started a blog to address the situation, freespeechlatvia.blogspot.com. Kaža has some strong words for the security police—and Latvian officials in general.
Aleks Tapinsh, who blogs from Rīga on All About Latvia, suggested tongue-in-cheek in a Nov. 23 post that there are a few more folks who should be talked to by the security police, including well-known journalist Edward Lucas, a Danske Bank researcher and People’s Party (Tautas partija) leader Gundars Bērziņš. For kicks, throw in the guy who designed the commemmorative 1-lat coin honoring the 90th anniversary of Latvia’s declaration of independence—I just don’t like it.
In recent international assessments of freedom of expression, Latvia has fared relatively well. It is ironic that as the nation this month was celebrating its freedom, it also took a step backward.
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