“Their democracy is zero”: why Russian journalists are prosecuted in Latvia?


On 13 March, Latvian Russian Union (LRU) held on-line conference devoted to repression against Russian journalists in Latvia.

Over the last 30 years, Latvia has seen all sorts of things: Russian social activists and publicists have been repressed, but never before has an entire cohort of professional journalists come under attack. We are talking here about detention and searches in the homes of eight Russian journalists between December 2020 and March 2021, confiscation of all information carriers, personal archives, bank cards, cash, signatures of non-disclosure and prohibition to leave the republic.

The conference was attended both by the journalists, who were persecuted themselves by the State Security Service of the Republic of Latvia (SSR), and their colleagues from Estonia, Germany and Russia, as well as  a member of the European Parliament from Latvia Tatyana Zhdanok; a member of the Russian Public Chamber, human rights defender and publicist, repressed by US authorities in 2019 and tortured in a US prison Maria Butina; and an executive director of the Foundation for the Support and Protection of Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad Vladimir Pozdorovkin. For more details, see the article by the correspondent of the Federal News Agency.

What “economic resources” did journalists from Riga pass on to Dmitry Kiselev?

All our colleagues’ fault was only in the fact that, as freelance authors, they wrote notes about what was happening in the republic for the websites Baltnews and Sputnik Latvija, which are part of the international news agency Russia Today, whose head – Dmitry Kiselev – is under European sanctions as a natural person. And now this “criminal activity” has been linked to Article 84 (1) of the Criminal Law of the Republic of Latvia for allegedly violating Latvian and international sanctions, which carries a heavy fine or imprisonment of up to four years!

If this had been the case, the persecution would have affected the entire European Union, many of our colleagues working in different countries,” said conference host Miroslav Mitrofanov, RSL co-chairman and member of the Riga City Council. – But it all started in Latvia. What message do the Latvian authorities want to send to the Russian opposition, to journalists in the republic itself, and to the Russian Federation with these repressions? There was no trial of journalists, probably these cases will not come to the court at all. But people have already been punished by loss of time and nerves during arrests, searches and interrogations, confiscation of communication facilities, computers and money. Journalists are deprived of their tools for work.

Former VGTRK correspondent in Riga Andrei Yakovlev, who headed Baltnews for two years and was also subjected to reprisals, recalled that the SSB justified the criminal cases against journalists by saying that “information obtained during the investigation gives grounds to suspect that there has been a transfer of economic resources to a person who is under EU sanctions”.

In other words, journalists from Riga appear to be handing over to the Russian state official with a fixed salaryYakovlev Dmitry Kiselev  some resourses,  which, according to Andrei Yakovlev, initially seemed like nonsense.

But the staff of the SSB (formerly the Security Police of the Republic of Latvia) apparently do not think so. That is why they had confiscated bank cards of some colleagues, depriving them of access to their money. What if they, who receive very modest, by Latvian standards, fees, periodically share them with Kiselev? Or do they work in some candle factory in Riga and send part of their income to poor Dimitri Konstantinovich, who is suffering from  EU sanctions?

Anyway, both Andrei Yakovlev and his “accomplices”, whose circle he predicts may expand, are themselves in need of material assistance. The processes that have been initiated are likely to last a long time.

The journalist recalled that the news service of the First Baltic TV Channel (broadcasting in Russian) had recently been smashed under the same article – 60 people lost their jobs, which is a lot by Latvian standards.

From Andrei Yakovlev, among other things were confiscated video archives and materials for two documentaries, one of which is about the soldiers of the 130th Latvian Rifle Corps who liberated Latvia from the Nazis as part of two Baltic fronts.

The journalist thanked Maria Butina and executive director of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency and a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Kirill Vyshinsky , who has served almost 1 year and 4 months in prison in Ukraine, for extensive work in defending the rights of  their colleagues persecuted in Latvia.

There is no way to intimidate Russian journalists

Alla Berezovskaya, writing for Baltnews, and who is also a suspect, has spoken about her case, which is like all the others. She has thanked “Russian Union of Latvia” that turned out to be the only influential political force in Latvia that came out against the attack on freedom of speech and the absolute lawlessness. On 4 December 2020, the day after the mass searches of Russian journalists, members of the RUL together with its co-chair, Latvian MEP Tatyana Zhdanok, stood in a picket at the Freedom Monument in Riga.

“Personal sanctions imposed on one person cannot extend to a thousand others,” stressed Alla Berezovskaya. – In no way can freelancers from Latvia affect Kiselev’s well-being, whether we write articles for him or not. But the prosecutor Madara Gryke found our opinion unfounded. We are appealing this decision to the general prosecutor’s office. If they refuse even there, we should walk around with a sign saying “They collaborated with the Russian media”.

In his turn, Andrey Solopenko pointed out that the purpose of these persecutions was to influence journalists to stop their cooperation with Russian portals. He regretted that the international human rights organisation Amnesty International, based in London, brushed aside (tellingly!) the case of Russian journalists, but urged not to give up and fight for their rights.

Especially since MEP Tatyana Zhdanok together with the Latvian Human Rights Committee prepared a report for the European Union on the mass persecution of journalists, the closure of 16 Russian TV channels in Latvia and other attacks on freedom of expression and human rights. In addition, Tatyana addressed a separate letter to Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights.

Naturally, there are double standards – as in the case of Amnesty International – but they can hardly get away with it,” says Tetyana Zhdanok. – So far, we [the European Parliament] have three criticised countries – Poland, Hungary and Slovenia, which was added in the last debate. We are talking about violations of freedom of speech and journalists’ rights in them. We will make sure that the Latvian issue is also on the agenda.

So no one is going to give up, just as no one is going to keep silent. The Latvian authorities and special services will not intimidate Russian journalists (which was the plan), as they tried to do with Russian activists before, to no avail. All of them continue to work. This was stated by journalists Andrey Tatarchuk who was searched a fortnight ago and Vladimir Linderman who has been questioned by Latvian justice for decades.

The Latvian authorities go beyond even those restrictions and sanctions that Europe imposes, emphasises Vladimir Linderman:

“They always act like this, trying to expand any anti-Russian, anti-Russian undertaking and probe some new opportunities”.

Nevertheless, the publicist is optimistic, believing that there is every chance of winning the criminal case against the Russian journalists, if this goes to court, of course.

Maria Butina: “For Latvia’s Russian journalists was created  year 37 “.

Maria Butina, member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and member of the expert council under the commissioner for human rights in the Russian Federation, pointed out the similarities between her US case and what is happening now with regard to Russian journalists in Latvia.

She stressed that searches and confiscations of personal belongings are an extraordinary event – it’s a serious lifelong shock, interference in personal affairs, surveillance and understanding that they can come after you any day.

“I just spoke a few days ago at an OSCE panel specifically on the situation in Latvia and talked about it,” said Maria Butina. – What is life like when you flinch at any moment when there is a knock on the door – maybe they are after you… And these people say they are condemning the year 37? Yes, they are creating it right now. In full bloom.”

Nevertheless, the political activist and publicist promised to do everything in her power to help Russian journalists in Latvia.

“We won’t leave you, colleagues! Be strong!” – Maria wished.

Vladimir Pozdorovkin, executive director of the Fund to Support and Protect the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad, offered material assistance to those persecuted. He said that in the Baltic republics, the foundation he works for without charge or trial has been declared a threat to the national security and territorial integrity of those states.

“People are persecuted for their association with our foundation, particularly in Latvia,” Vladimir Georgievich pointed out. – It is no secret to us that the active anti-Russian policy pursued in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is a coordinated policy. What is happening to journalists in Latvia is another example that their democracy is zero”.

Igor Teterin, publisher and editor-in-chief of KP – Northern Europe, offered information support and an opportunity to publish persecuted journalists.

And Andrey Starikov, editor-in-chief of Baltnews, said that now every European official who comes to Russia has to explain how such lawlessness is possible in the 21st century in the EU. The Latvian representative has to explain himself in the PACE and the OSCE.

“This endless pressure has a result,” emphasised the Moscow counterpart. – The main task is to make the situation for those who dared to illegally persecute journalists in Latvia toxic, not to let it go off the agenda. We have been keeping this topic on the agenda for four months now. It has been on the minds of both European officials and government officials in Russia who make political decisions. So this is our tactical victory, and the tactical one will be followed by the strategic one.

Nor have we forgotten the trial that has begun in Lithuania against Alexei Greychus, the organizer of the “Immortal Regiment” march in Klaipeda. By the way, on March 10, the Russian Union of Latvia held a picket in front of the Lithuanian embassy in Riga against far-fetched accusations of “espionage” against the Lithuanian civil activist.

The cases in Riga and Klaipeda seem to be different, but they have one thing in common – a sharp anti-Russian bias. The fate of those who are pressed now in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia depends on what Russia – its authorities and journalists, many of whom could have participated in the online conference – will behave this time. Today – there, tomorrow – all over Europe…

Author: Karen Markarian from Riga specially for FAN