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Latvia's Free, But Her Press Isn't

By Juris KazaJuris Kaza is a Latvian-American journalist based in Stockholm. / November 23, 1992



THE honeymoon is over for freedom of the press in Latvia. Having closed Pilsonis (The Citizen), a sometimes stridently antigovernment newspaper, on Oct. 19, Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis's administration is now looking for ways to clamp down on the circulation of foreign newspapers seen as hostile to Latvian interests.

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According to recent Latvian press reports, the Latvian Minister of Justice, Viktors Skudra, is distressed that there are no legal mechanisms for stopping the distribution in Latvia of the Russian newspaper Den, which has urged Russians in Latvia to engage in passive resistance in everyday life and deliberate carelessness at their workplaces in order to undermine Latvia's independence.

Mr. Skudra told Latvian journalists that he had asked the government to prepare "with all due haste" rules for the import and distribution of foreign publications in Latvia. It appears that the minister is looking for regulations similar to those used some years ago by Singapore to throttle the circulation of "undesirable" publications such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review.

Certainly, Den is not on the same level as these international publications. The organ of the Russian Union of Writers has not only attacked Baltic independence, but has, according to those familiar with it, published a steady stream of Russian chauvinist tirades, some of them anti-Semitic.

In the present political mood in Latvia, few Latvians and democratically minded Russians would mourn the banning of Den, but, then, struggles for the principles of press freedom in more or less democratic countries seldom involve the expression of popular or even fully rational opinions.

More alarming is what has happened to Pilsonis, the weekly newspaper of the radical opposition Citizens' Movement, which says it defends the rights of Latvia's prewar citizens and their descendants against what it considers a neo-colonialist government imposed to ensure that Latvia remains a de facto colony of Russia. The tone of Pilsonis is frequently strident, but it reflects the anger and frustration of many ordinary Latvians who see that little of the old communist system has been dismantled.

If nothing else, the banned newspaper was a vent for pent-up emotions that have been suppressed for 50 years, but it also has attempted to document corruption by local and national governments and to warn of resurgent Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism.

The charges filed against Pilsonis stated that the paper "published materials hostile to the policies of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia and the Council of Ministers and inciting to defiance of the laws of the Republic of Latvia as well as the overthrow of the existing government." The petition went on to say that Pilsonis had violated specific chapters of the Latvian Law on the Press, which forbids incitement to violate laws or overthrow the government in terms that go overboard, by Wester n standards. Most United States courts would find that such a law has an unacceptably "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

The specific passage for which Pilsonis was closed by a Latvian District Court reads, to my mind, like a paraphrase of the US Declaration of Independence: "... we have to reexamine our tactics....

"The time has passed when, hoping to arouse the indignation of Latvian citizens, we only engage in the criticism and unmasking of the ... regime. The time has come for active measures....

"Therefore, we must consider a plan for the taking of power by a Latvian provisional government.

"And finally, we must clear up whether with political means it is possible to topple an illegal regime, whether this has been experience in world history. I know of no such instance, but international law recognizes national and colonial liberation struggles against tyrannical regimes, even with arms. The overthrow of a tyrannical regime is the sacred duty of an oppressed people. This is democracy."

At the trial of the newspaper, the prosecution called in "expert" witnesses, who, citing Soviet or East German political dictionaries, said it was wrong for Pilsonis to call the Godmanis government "collaborationists" or a "regime." This was an Orwellian attempt to dictate how journalists should use language in articles that were indisputably opinion pieces. It also reveals that defenders of old-style Soviet "political correctness" permeate the organs of justice in Latvia.

In fact, the old-style censors appear to have been revived in the Information Matters Department of the Ministry of Justice, headed by a former official of Glavlit, the infamous Soviet censorship authority. Asked why the Ministry of Justice had taken several weeks to start investigating Den, Mr. Skudra replied that "the Information Matters Department employs only four people, who are unable to monitor everything that is written in the newspapers and magazines that are distributed in Latvia." In other wor ds, Latvia has too few censors.

In the meantime, Pilsonis has reappeared under a new name, Pavalstnieks (a synonym, like "national," for "citizen"), rather than appealing the court decision to close it. How long it will remain open may well depend on how quickly Skudra can hire new censors to help his overworked staff. But according to Pavalstnieks' editor, Janis Kucinskis, the court decision already has had a chilling effect on free expression in a country where relative press freedom has existed for less than five years, and where mo st of the adult population has been conditioned to live in fear of authority.

"We had an old lady call us about a letter to the editor she sent us," Mr. Kucinskis recently told me on the phone, "Now she wants to take it back. She is afraid she will be arrested for speaking her mind." Those interested in seeing Latvia's freedom not only regained, but retained, should take note.