Hounding the free media in Latvia on their coverage of what is starting to look like a lame-duck law, one which requires residents of that country who are Russian citizens to get a basic knowledge of the Latvian language or leave the country, amounts to a 'witch hunt', a Latvian journalist says.
Inga Spring is a co-founder of investigative journalism site Re:Baltica and has been awarded several times in her home country. She is resident in Estonia.
Springe made her remarks in an interview given to ERR following a decision by the Latvian state e-media regulatory body, the NEPLP, to fine a news portal €8,500 over its use of the word "deportation", in the context of Latvia's Russian-speaking population, more specifically Russian citizens who are resident in Latvia.
The term itself was used by a politician who was speaking about migration law on a Russian-language webcast broadcast by Tvnet.lv (link in Estonian) – the politician reportedly used the Latvian term for "deportation".
While the politician was speaking with reference to a requirement to learn Latvian to A2 level in the Common European Framework (CEF), the NEPLP found that the politician should have been corrected, by the interviewer, so as to say "expulsion", rather than "deportation" – the term the politician reportedly used.
Springe told ERR that: "In my opinion, as well as that of many other Latvian journalists and press organizations, is that this is nonsense ,since if you read the NEPLP document in which they outline the reasons for their decision, it becomes clear from its context that they are actually opposed to the use of such a word in the broadcast."
"To sum up, one may not use the word 'deportation' in the context of the migration law in Latvia, on the grounds of its being impermissible and wrong."
"In my opinion, this is completely unacceptable, it amounts to censorship and means that we as journalists now have to weigh our every word. In this context, it also concerns all people, who have the right to their opinion," she added.
As for the reasons behind this censorship, Springe said that there was a "witch hunt" going on in Latvia, with the NEPLP as the witch-finder general, with regard to the media, and the Russian-language media in particular.
Moreover, the law itself was at fault, she added.
"I find that even if a thousand people have to leave the country because of this demand, that itself is already part of inciting hatred," she found.
Springe also said that the situation in Latvia with regard to symbols relict of the Soviet occupation, a hotly debated topic in Latvia's northern neighbor too, is far more fraught in her home country than in Estonia
Springe again used the term "witch hunt", some of which is carried out via social media, and a "de-Russification of Latvia" which is in fact abnormal, hinders debate, and is incitement to hatred, she said.
The migration law was changed just ahead of the parliamentary elections last autumn, she noted, under pressure from Latvian nationalists – the National alliance "All for Latvia!"-"For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK" (or simply the NA for short – the rather lengthy appellation refers to just one party, which has 13 seats at the 100-seat Saeima, though is in coalition too-ed.).
This legislation itself is "wrong" and "populist" Springe added, not to mention unrealistic.
Around half of the 20,000 people who would be required to take the language exam are over 65 years of age, and expecting them to pass this exam within six to eight months was grossly unfair.
The law contained an additional twist, she added, namely that to remain resident in Latvia the individual must have a monthly income of €650, but given the "miserable" pensions that many senior citizens in Latvia have, they would be caught out here, too, Springe said.
In fact, when Latvia became independent, many took Russian citizenship, solely because it would at the time have allowed them to retire earlier, she said.
This €650-per-month minimum earnings requirement was later ditched in any case, she noted.
The NEPLP itself is under nationalist pressure, she added, while some nationalist politicians do indeed believe that deportations are possible in the context of the migration law – dissent against this leads to accusations of "treason" and of being "Russian-friendly", she said.
Actually gong through with deportations would be a PR disaster for Latvia, internationally, Springe said.
She remained skeptical that the language issue was one of security.
"I agree ... that these people have had 30 years to learn the language and they should have done so, but that's not how the law works," she said.
In any case, the deadline by which Russian-speaking residents would have had to have learned Latvian proved unrealistic simply on the basis of the migration board's resources – there was an insufficient number of times available to take the language exam – meaning the deadline had to be extend.
"They're backing down, but they're saying it's not because it was a stupid decision, but because we don't have enough capacity," Springe added, also referring to the backtrack on the €620-per-month criteria.
Editor: Mait Ots, Andrew Whyte