Latvia readies for – information – war

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A prison sentence for non-violent activities considered a threat to state security? If a new bill passes the second reading, now planned for 21 April 2016, this will become a reality in Latvia. The bill has raised concerns that it may jeopardise freedom of speech, but security experts consider it a necessary measure in the ‘information war’ with Russia.

The politicians and experts who prepared the bill fear that in using conventional and social media, as well as events such as youth camps, propagandists could fuel ethnic tensions and separatist movements in Latvia, as it happened in eastern Ukraine.

The legislative proposal passed the first reading on 3 March. It consists of several amendments to provisions on crimes against the state. Latvian MPs considered these revisions urgent enough to have opted for a fast-track legislative procedure of two readings instead of three. A second reading was expected on 7 April, but was postponed to give time to prepare amendments.

Small protests have taken place against the proposed bill. Human rights lawyer Elizabete Krivcova tells Equal Times: “Because of the pressure from the civil society and press, the authors agreed to change the proposal. However, they refuse any broad discussion on it.”

If adopted, the amendments will punish individuals who are considered to be acting against Latvian independence, sovereignty, territorial unity, or who call for the overthrow of state power.

Incitement to overthrow the Latvian state, modify the structure of the state or assist a foreign country or organisation to do so, may be punished with up to five years in prison. Current legal provisions only criminalise violent actions. “If passed, the law could be challenged in the Constitutional Court,” says Aleksejs Dimitrovs, a legal adviser to Greens-European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament, who has done extensive research on minority and citizenship issues in Latvia.

He outlines the outcome of similar cases: the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission (which provides legal advice to European states) once reprimanded Romania’s constitutional provisions on ‘defamation of country’ and maintained that “speech is protected even though it may shock, offend or disturb and has protected the rights of political parties who support separatism provided they use and advocate only peaceful means to bring about change.”

Several cases in the European Court of Human Rights (Akgöl and Göl v. Turkey, 2011, Murat Vural v. Turkey, 2014, for example) have established that “peaceful and non-violent forms of expression should not be made subject to the threat of imposition of a custodial sentence.”

Dimitrovs is certain that “if applied in an individual criminal case, the person convicted by a final judgment in Latvia could submit an application to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Growing ‘soft power’

On the other hand, the current provisions are seen as outdated in the context of Russia’s growing ‘soft power’ in the Baltic state. A press release issued on the first reading of the bill quotes Evika Siliņa, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of the Interior, as stating that the suggested provisions would allow the government to tackle the foreign-funded youth military camps, which are a source of great concern in Latvia.

Moreover, the current provisions are deemed too weak to counter any espionage.

Andis Kudors, executive director of the Centre for East European Policy Studies in the Latvian capital of Riga, supports the new proposal to criminalise non-violent action.

“Individual activists can use media, social media, NGO networking and other instruments and activities to harm the work of state institutions, to undermine the democratic political process and to increase social divisions along ethnic lines,” he tells Equal Times.

Kudors believes that the new law protects rather than threatens fundamental freedoms in Latvia. “Russia is using our open political system and open society to undermine our freedom.”

Māris Andžāns, of the Latvian Institute for International Affairs think-tank, shares this view.

“Given the evolving nature of methods and tools in use of certain states to endanger the national security of other states, it is necessary to strengthen the tools at the possession of the targeted or defending states. Some of those methods and instruments used by certain states involve employing the intrinsic weaknesses of liberal democracies for rogue purposes, in particular the freedom of speech and freedom of mass media.”

There have been reports of Russian entities funding advocacy groups in the Baltic states. Chatham House, a UK-based think tank, estimates that around 150 government-funded groups having been operating outside Russia since 2014, funded by grants worth US$70 million per year.

While many countries provide NGOs and media grants abroad (for example, USAID spent over US$300 million in 2014 on grants to European and Eurasian countries, and Norway contributed €804 million to the EU’s poorer members in 2009–2014), the movement of funds from countries like Russia or China are being watched with concern because of current geopolitical tensions.

Latvia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the influence of the Kremlin because its large Russian-speaking minority is largely disenfranchised.

According to the latest census, 27 per cent of residents in Latvia identify as ethnic Russian, Meanwhile, 14 per cent of the Latvian population – mostly Russian-speakers – do not have Latvian citizenship because they have not passed a Latvian language test.

Not just Latvia

But the fear of an ‘information war’ with Russia is certainly not exclusive to Latvia.

Last year, the German TV station Deutsche Welle started a cooperation campaign with Lithuania and Latvia with the aim of countering pro-Kremlin propaganda, targeted at Russian-speaking minorities in these countries.

“Following the Ukrainian crisis and the new East-West confrontation, television has become a weapon,” Der Spiegel concluded when reporting about the cooperation.

The Latvia-based NATO Stratcom Centre of Intelligence recently published a report on information wars in Europe, taking Latvia as a case study.

The report introduced trolling and the “weaponisation of online media” as security threats. Chatham House also pointed out that trolling can even affect foreign investment by, for example, spreading opinions that certain countries may soon be invaded.

The NATO Stratcom Centre’s director has provided evidence that Russian ‘soft power’ channels were also “agitating in Germany” against Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year information war was a topic of an EU summit, where Latvia proposed founding an EU-funded Russian-language TV station to counter ideological pressure directed towards Russian-speaking minorities.

Even neutral Sweden has asserted the need to counter propaganda in its defence strategy for 2016-2020.

However, human rights lawyers fear that restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly will bring Latvia closer to, not further from, Russia.

In an interview with Baltkom Radio, lawyer Krivcova said that, without proper safeguards, the proposed law could be taken to extremes.

“For decades Latvian courts tended to interpret [the concept of] freedom of speech very broadly, and even in cases of credible allegations of hate speech, sentences were very mild," Dimitrovs said. "However, on 26 February, the Kurzemes District court of Riga City sentenced Maxim Koptelov to six months imprisonment for a petition published on the website calling for Latvia’s merger with Russia, despite the fact that the author mentioned in the text of his petition that it was a joke.”

“To discuss possible implications, look to the cases of state treason in Russia after similar amendments in 2012,” Krivcova tells Equal Times.

Russia’s current law on treason criminalises the provision of financial, technical or any other assistance to a foreign state or international organisation that aims to harm Russia’s security. Despite drawing criticism from human rights organisations, the Guardian recently reported that over 20 accusations of crimes against the state were pursued in Russia last year, with all details classified.

Andžāns admits that the “criminalisation of any new activities should not be the ultimate goal” of Latvia’s new bill and that the new proposal needs clear democratic supervisory mechanisms. “Any steps towards criminalisation of non-violent activities against the state have to be carefully formulated and discussed to avoid the use of then against independent media and civil society,” he tells Equal Times.