The constitution and the law provide for freedom of speech, including for members of the press, but there were legal restrictions involving racial and ethnic incitement, denial or glorification of crimes against humanity and certain war crimes. There were also restrictions on speech deemed a threat to the country’s national security. Authorities generally respected the law.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Although the laws generally provide for freedom of speech, incitement to racial or ethnic hatred, and the spreading of false information about the financial system are crimes. The law forbids glorifying or denying genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the country perpetrated by the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Violation of these provisions can lead to a sentence of five years in prison, community service, or a fine.
In April the Saeima adopted amendments to the criminal code to criminalize nonviolent acts committed against the state or that challenge its “independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, or authority.” Critics asserted the legislation leaves room for a broad interpretation that could be used to restrict free speech.
In November the Saeima passed “teacher loyalty” amendments to the education law establishing a set of rules for firing teachers found to be “disloyal to the State of Latvia” or who promoted “unpatriotic ideas” among their students. The amendment stipulates it is the duty of teachers to “raise virtuous, honest, and responsible patriots of Latvia, who will feel that they belong to the Republic of Latvia.” Members of the Russian-speaking community argued that the legislation could be used to “engage in a witch hunt” against Russian schools and teachers.
The State Police opened a criminal investigation of a public broadcast journalist from the Latvian Television investigative news show Forbidden Method after she pretended to be a Latvian official in order to discover potential corruption in the awarding of state honors. During the investigation, the president’s then chief of staff requested police to wiretap the journalist. The show’s editor expressed concern over whether wiretaps and a major investigation were an appropriate use of resources, and the board of the Latvian Journalists’ Association condemned the move as “inappropriate for a democratic society.”
Police opened criminal proceedings against Deniss Barteckis, a Russian activist, who drafted an online petition calling for the country to join the United States. Barteckis was mimicking a similar 2015 online petition that called for the country to join Russia, for which the perpetrator was sentenced to six months in prison for seeking to overthrow “the independence of Latvian statehood.” An appeal in that case was pending at year’s end. Authorities also revoked the temporary residency permit of Elena Lukyanova, the attorney for exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, after she made comments on Radio 4 faulting the country for ignoring and forcibly assimilating its Russian-speaking population.
Press and Media Freedoms: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with few restrictions. The law requires that 65 percent of all television broadcast airtime in national and regional electronic media be in Latvian or dubbed or subtitled. Extensive Russian-language programming was also available. The restrictions on speech that incites racial hatred, spreads false information about the financial system, or glorifies or denies genocide, crimes against humanity, or crimes against the country by the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany also apply to the print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.
In March the country’s media and broadcast regulator, the National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP), asked police to identify the persons who leaked confidential information to Latvian Radio journalist Vita Anstrate, a move seen by many as a violation of NEPLP’s mission and standards. Anstrate publically revealed the names of likely new appointees to the board of the public broadcaster, Latvian Television, before the list had been released officially. Under questioning by police, Anstrate refused to provide her sources, and the case was ultimately dropped.
Violence and Harassment: NGOs asserted that some journalists who reported on immigration and refugee issues were harassed and verbally abused online by citizens. Those expressing open attitudes towards asylum seekers were dubbed “welcomisti.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In March the country’s Network Information Center (NIC) suspended sputniknews.lv, the local domain of the Russian Government-funded media outlet, Sputnik. According to an official NIC statement, the website was closed due to “activities that violate EU sanctions imposed against those endangering the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.” Within hours of the move, Sputnik set up a new domain at sputniknewslv.com, available in Latvian, English, and Russian.
In April the National Electronic Mass Media Council announced restrictions on the rebroadcast of the Russian television channel, Rossiya RTR, in the country for six months for repeated violations of the law against inciting ethnic hatred and for broadcasting biased information about Ukraine. Rossiya RTR had previously been banned in 2014 on similar grounds. The channel began broadcasting again in October.
The Latvian Journalists Association expressed concerns regarding the independence and viability of local newspapers. Some municipalities provided funding to local newspapers in exchange for editorial control, an arrangement that drove many independent competitors out of business. In August the regional newspaper Bauskas Dzive sued the Iecava municipality on the grounds that the subsidies it provided to a rival outlet violated the law. The case remained under review at year’s end.
Libel/Slander Laws: During the year Riga’s Vidzeme District Court handed down the country’s largest fine for libel, 129,873 euros ($143,000), to the internet news portal TVNET.LV for reporting that the Latvian National Opera and Ballet (LNOB) had turned into “a public house of Putin’s court” after LNOB rented its premises to Russian musician Igor Krutoy for his birthday party. The Latvian Journalists Association criticized this decision for setting a dangerous precedent that threatens freedom of speech.
Aside from the suspension of sputniknews.lv, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Akamai Technologies’ State of the Internet Q1 2016 report, 95 percent of the country’s residents had access to broadband internet. Internet speech was subject to the same restrictions as other forms of speech and the media.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were few government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. In June KNAB reportedly filed a complaint with the criminal police against a researcher, Liga Stafecka, who had published a study critical of KNAB’s management. The complaint claimed that Stafecka had used classified information for her report. Stafecka was questioned by police but was not charged. KNAB officials subsequently denied the reports.