An echo of Soviet-era censorship and meddling in Latvia?

The prosecution and brief institutionalization of a muckraking journalist, and a proposal to rein in academic freedom, stir memories of Latvia under Soviet rule.

By , Correspondent

Latvia left behind the repression of dissent and state control of academic research when the Soviet Union started breaking apart 25 years ago, but recent events have left Latvians wondering whether some old habits are returning.

The country has been shaken by disclosures that a journalist accused of leaking a politician’s suspicious emails spent a month in a mental hospital last summer having his sanity checked alongside accused murderers and violent criminals. Meanwhile, the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, narrowly avoided passing a law that would have allowed Latvia’s intelligence services to stop any scientific or academic research deemed harmful to national security.

The threats to press and academic freedom stirred memories of Latvia under Soviet rule, such as when Latvian dissident Gederts Melngailis was sent for psychiatric treatment in 1983, before serving a prison sentence for trying to renounce his Soviet citizenship and refusing to serve in the Soviet Army.

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The journalist, Leonids Jakobsons, who runs Russian-language news site Kompromat.lv, faces criminal charges and possible imprisonment for actions that would likely be regarded as legitimate journalistic “whistle-blowing” in most Western democracies.

Punished for muckraking?

Mr. Jakobsons published copies of emails sent by Riga's mayor, Nils Usakovs, who was a member of Latvia’s parliament for the Harmony Center party at the time he sent them in 2008 and 2009. Jakobsons is not charged with personally hacking the mayor’s email account, but rather of obtaining and publishing copies of the electronic correspondence – suggesting he got the compromising emails from someone else and his alleged crime is publishing and writing about them.

The emails, published by Jakobsons in November 2011, seemed to show that Mr. Usakovs was planning to exceed campaign spending limits for his party in the 2009 municipal elections that got him elected mayor. He was also shown communicating with a diplomat at the Russian Embassy who was later accused of spying. Other emails indicated Usakovs was calling the shots on which news stories were run by a Russian-language television station in Latvia.

Usakovs has been the subject of similar accusations before. He sued the weekly magazine IR for libel after the publication called his administration a "kleptocracy."

Immediately after the disclosures, Jakobsons’ servers came under cyberattack. When he summoned police for help on November 2011, the police initially seemed uninterested, but returned a month later with a search warrant to seize his server, laptop computer, and data storage. They also placed Jakobsons under arrest for two days.

Almost a year and a half later, last March 6, the Latvian prosecutor’s office summoned Jakobsons as “a witness” and informed him that a case would be prosecuted against him. Later that summer in July, he spent 30 days under observation in the mental hospital.

It is not clear why Jakobson didn’t publicize earlier his sojourn in the mental hospital. But his time there was confirmed by police officials, who said the journalist had gone voluntarily, a claim Jakobsons denies.

The Kompromat.lv editor's stint in the mental hospital was not the only traumatic experience he has suffered since November 2011. Last March, he was injured in an attack by two men in the stairwell of his apartment building with his young son. Police have not found the assailants.

And his news magazine has been the subject of several civil libel lawsuits in recent years. An administrator in bankruptcy sued over the site's investigative series on alleged corrupt practices, while a pro-life movement filed a claim over articles critical of its efforts to influence abortion legislation.

Chilling effect

The law that would have put academic research under the effective censorship of Latvia’s Bureau to Protect the Constitution (SAB) was reminiscent of times when the presence of Soviet KGB agents or Communist Party officials in the universities had such a strong chilling effect that few academics dared to even consider researching politically sensitive themes, while hard science of possible military use was done in closed, secret laboratories.

After protests by academic and scientific researchers, the SAB – headed by Janis Kazocins, a former high-ranking British military officer whose parents were born in Latvia – withdrew the draft law in early March and promised to drastically revise it.

The draft was apparently sent to Latvia’s parliament by mid-level SAB officials, and may not have been reviewed by Mr. Kazocins, who came to Latvia with decades of experience in the relations between security forces and civil society in the United Kingdom and NATO countries.

Even though the bill was ultimately withdrawn, it still represented an appalling failure of the entire legislative process, wrote Iveta Kazoka, a researcher with Latvia's Providus Center for Public Policy, wrote in a blog post. The Latvian Council of Science, which officially consults the government and parliament on legislation affecting science, "should have screamed about this," she wrote.

Ms. Kazoka, trained as a lawyer, also criticized Latvia's Ministry of Justice for failing to be a check on the "security mindset" of the SAB that produced the controversial draft law.

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