Latvia rapidly descends the freedom of speech ladder

The Baltic state of Latvia used to rank highly on international surveys assessing the freedom of the press. But a series of incidents involving raids on the homes of journalists are pointing to a change in direction, sparking international concern.

Ilze Nagla, a Latvian TV reporter, has been interviewing politicians for socially important stories for 20 years. One of those interviews got her into serious trouble. After Ilze broke the news on a security breach in Latvia’s state revenue body, police came to search her apartment.

With force they opened my door and went inside. They told me they had a search warrant. Once they acquired information from my computer, they also acquired information on my sources of information, which by law I am allowed to protect. So the problem was for me as a journalist that I failed to protect my information sources,” she says.

Ilze’s story shocked Latvia, a country which has seen very few cases of press scrutiny.

But experts say that despite this particular case receiving a lot of public attention, it is by far not the only one.

Sergey Kruk, a professor at Riga University, recalls another incident of the same nature: “A scholar from the Ventspils Higher School of Economy was charged by the secret police – and he was actually arrested for two days – for disseminating an alternative opinion on the state of the local currency. He said that the devaluation of the Lat was imminent. We are losing the last support for alternative information among the press outlets in this country.”

Lato Lapsa is a journalist, whose investigation into the Latvian foreign minister’s actions caused a scandal in the press. However, Lapsa remains defiant that Riga is deliberately strangling the freedom of the press. He believes the reason for the country’s fall in the ratings is down to economic reasons.

Most of our newspapers went bankrupt after the recession hit Latvia. Others just came to their owners for money to survive. So the owners started single-handedly shifting the papers’ editorial policies at their own choice – simply for the sake of earning a healthy dollar. And that has become a direct hit to the freedom of the press here,” says Lapsa.

Just a couple of years ago, Latvia boasted one of the highest freedom of the press ratings in all of Europe, being ranked 7th on the annual Reporters Without Borders index. But in 2010 Latvia fell almost 50 places.

Some believe that Latvia is spiraling down the freedom of the press ratings not because of the pressure from the state on journalists, but because the people behind the index are biased. They also think that Riga might be out of geopolitical favor which results in the current low marks. But Ilze Nagla believes that as long as nobody has been punished for the forceful search of her apartment, the concerns about the freedom of the press may after all have some grounds.