I’ve been advised to read an essay by a Russian journalist published on NYTimes.com. This is supposed to reflect the situation in Latvia as much as the Russian journalist writes about his own country.
I am now reposting this text here, with some insignificant omissions, replacing “Russia” with “Latvia”, “Moscow” with “Riga”, etc. Will it help us understand better what’s behind the whole unintelligible crap in Latvia’s politics?
Are Latvia’s media seized and the journalists intimidated? Is the rule of law in Latvia in coma, even more so than it may seem?
Are we experiencing a creeping onslaught on democracy and individual freedoms? Is a Latvian on her/his own facing the beast of lawlessness, miserable and intimidated, helpless and disfranchised?
I mean is it really that bad?
Just one more thing. The journalist in this story is calling to a well-known (a million listeners every day as they say) radio committed to the freedom of speech (and as the matter of fact, having Gazprom as the owner…). He writes he still feels better after the radio has announced he had been detained by the Secret Service. I believe, this must give a great deal of comfort and is a tremendous source of superiority, at least moral, when helplessly exposed to the rotten stench of lawlessness, one on one with the beast. The intellectually miserable landscape of the Latvian media can’t promise anyone any comfort. Unless non-intellectual, cynical, zombie-technological or just apathetic noise may comfort you for some weird reason. This is, in fact, what the absence of a modern and professional talk radio in Latvia can cost us.
Here’s the story:
It’s a warm evening in the summer of 2010. I am leaving a cafe in the very centre of Riga when I notice my car is missing its license plate. I know what this means: I am being followed. Secret service agents steal license plates from the cars of their “clients” to prove that they really do their job. It would be silly to pretend that I am not afraid. I am afraid.
I am looking through my car. They could have planted a gun, drugs or extremist literature. “They” always means the security services, the government, the ones in power.
I have been advised that it is best not to inform the police that my license plate has been removed, or that I suspect it is tied to my activities as a journalist. If I do, an investigation will commence. But the police will not want to question the security services. They will simply take away my car for a few months, maybe a year. What would I do without a car?
A few days later, I am detained at a train station. A policeman stops me as I am about to board, demanding to see my documents. I demand to see a warrant, and he displays a creased fax. I can’t make anything of it; it shows neither my name nor any cause of complaint.
Ten minutes later he lets me go, just in time to make the train. Now I am angry. I call into the radio station Echo and tell the host what has happened. One minute later I hear: “The well-known journalist Vārds Uzvārds has been detained for questioning by the Secret Service.” The radio station calls the Security Services’ press representative, but no response.
Still, I feel better: now everything is public, exposed, and this is preferable to being the silent victim of concealed forces.
Crimes against the journalists are never fully investigated. Journalists covering the cases know only one thing for sure: that they are in danger as well. But these threats are not the worst of it.
Imagine that Bob Woodward reports on Watergate, and the next day there is only silence; no one responds, no one investigates. This is what happens to Latvian Watergates (Alehins).
In Latvia today, journalists are intimidated, but the real problem is that journalists are ignored. The risks they take in challenging the Latvian oligarchy have ceased to have meaning. One is valued only for telling a harmless story, an amusing anecdote that can exist, side by side, with ad space.
I’ve taken out a part about the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and human rights activist, who accused the president of Chechnya of kidnapping and murder, and the beating of Oleg Kashin, who criticised building a highway through the Khimki forest in a Moscow suburb. These are just two examples of severe crimes against journalists in Russia. This has not happened in Latvia (to my knowledge) and I think playing with these cases would be immoral. The reference to the violence against the journalists is somewhat far-fetched in Latvia.
Or is it?