Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Imprisoning the messenger

This news was passed on to me by one of the readers of both this and the EUReferendum blog. He sent me some links to a Russian-language newspaper in Latvia, Telegraf. The first article appeared on November 21, in which the newspaper reported that Dmitry Smirnov (or Dmitrijs Smirnovs in Latvian, though I suspect the man a Russian) a teacher of economics in the Ventspils University College was arrested by the Security Police and accused of undermining the Latvian financial system by taking part in a discussion about the ongoing crisis.

The story was confirmed three days later in which Mr Smirnov explained that he had been kept in solitary for two days but otherwise treated well. He had been arrested under Article 194 of the Criminal Code. Mr Smirnov added that it is clear from the conditions of his imprisonment that Latvia is now in the European Union though he does not actually want to return to the cell. I suspect Mr Smirnov does not know much about prisons in certain parts of France or Italy.

The Baltic Times, an English language newspaper had more on the story.
University College Rector Janis Vucans told the Baltic News Service that he did not know the exact reasons for the detention of lecturer Dmitrijs Smirnovs, but that he expected to receive a written explanation.

The rector said that the discussion that led to the lecturers detention was an ordinary talk in which each participant voiced his own opinion and vision.

Asked whether Smirnovs' detention should be taken as interference with a person's freedom of speech, Vucans said that Smirnovs is a lecturer at the Ventspils University College, delivering lectures on banks and monetary systems. "On what basis should we lecture? Not on examples of some Switzerland or the US, the situation in Latviais more important to us," he said.

"The question is whether we are teaching something abstract, what does not refer to us, or we are trying to educate our students on issues that are topical," said the rector. "As far as I understand, his statements are not populist, but based on analysis," said the rector.
It seems that Mr Smirnov argued that the lat may well be devalued very soon. It followed, according to the Baltic Times, a string of detentions connected with this rumour. One of those detained, according to the Telegraf, had been Valters Frïdenbergs, a singer with the group Putnu balle. And to think that the only thing our various singers and performers get arrested for is drunkenness, drug abuse and general bad behaviour. Something wrong here.

My informer wondered why the EU was not making any noises about Mr Smirnov’s rights to freedom of speech. I think I have the answer here:
Smirnovs said in the discussion: "The only thing I can advise: first, not to keep money in banks, second, not to accumulate savings in lats as it is very dangerous now. Convert them to the US dollars. The euro is an artificial currency, and what is achieved by the euro in a year, can be lost in a month. These are real threats to the value of the euro. Maybe some people do not understand it, but the main oppositionist and competitor to the US is the European Union (EU). The main goal of the US is to destroy the EU as it does not benefit from a strong and united Europe, strong currency -- the euro."
The man is not going to get support if he goes around saying that the euro is an artificial currency and is, therefore, very vulnerable. Then again, if he really believes that tosh about America’s main goal being the destruction of the EU then his opinions are hardly worth listening to, let alone paying him the compliment of arresting him.

Upon further enquiry I established this about Article 194:
According to the criminal code, it is against the law to disseminate “untrue data or information orally, written or in other ways regarding the condition of the finance system of the Republic of Latvia.” A person convicted under Section 194 could face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 80 times the minimal monthly wage.
When it comes to disseminating information about the country’s currency true or untrue becomes hard to judge. According to Andris Straumanis in Latvians Online the arrest is likely to be in contravention of the Latvian constitution, which guarantees free speech.

The Wall Street Journal, still the best newspaper around for news as opposed to discussion of rock music, fashion and obscure health problems, has caught up with the story. Apart from explaining why the Latvian authorities are so worried about unfounded rumours (though, perhaps, they should not assume that all economic discussions are that) Andrew Higgins makes an interesting point about the whole saga:
Virtually no one here worries that Latvia is reverting to the ways of the Soviet Union, when the KGB hunted down dissidents and kept the population in cowed silence. Unlike Russia, where state-controlled media largely ignore bad news, Latvia has a vibrant free press. Mr. Smirnovs's detention was front-page news and created an uproar. This, says the economist, "shows that we are still living in a democracy."
Indeed, a quick check on the internet confirms that the story is being vigorously discussed in various languages, though, for some reason it does not seem to have been picked up by the British media.


Juris Kaža said...

You might want to follow this story on freespeechlatvia.blogspot.com

Helen said...

Thank you, Juris, I shall do so. And thank you for linking to this blog.