RIGA, December 2 – Speaking out about the economic crisis has become dangerous in the Baltic state of Latvia where a new law against spreading false financial information has outraged human rights campaigners.
In one of a string of high-profile cases, Latvian musician Valters Fridenbergs faced a police investigation after he urged the audience to withdraw their money from two major banks — but only after the show ended.
He later claimed it was a joke, but the police launched a probe nonetheless.
Earlier, Latvia\’s security police detained Dmitrijs Smirnovs, a college lecturer in economics in the coastal city of Ventspils.
He was taken into custody for "distributing untrue data or news about the conditions of the finance system of the Republic of Latvia", and spent two days behind bars before being bailed on the condition he will not leave the country.
In a newspaper article, Smirnovs had urged Latvians not to leave their money in the bank or keep their savings in lats — the local currency, which is pegged to the euro — saying it was "very dangerous".
Latvian authorities passed the law last year after a mysterious flurry of mobile phone text messages warning that the lat was to be devalued in March 2007.
The law stipulates that violators can be jailed for up to two years for knowingly distributing false information about the country\’s financial system.
"This has, undoubtedly, been a highly disproportionate response by the security police, and freedom of expression has been dealt a blow in Latvia because it stifles free expression of opinions in what is a legitimate public debate," Anhelina Kamenska of Latvia\’s Human Rights Centre told AFP last week.
"It could be likened to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer," she said.
Latvia, which broke free from the crumbling Soviet bloc in 1991, has been a success story in recent years, notably since joining the European Union in 2004.
But after several years of double-digit growth, the country of 2.3 million people is in the deepest recession in the 27-nation EU, and a string of factors have fuelled the local rumour mill.
Earlier this month, in what it called a move to ward off a wider crisis in the financial sector, the government took over the nation\’s second-largest bank, Parex, after an exodus of deposits.
On November 20, Riga formally turned to Brussels and the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package, joining the ranks of other ex-communist states such as Hungary.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis has acknowledged that the police may have misinterpreted the law in going after the alleged doomsayers, but nonetheless cautioned that rules are there to be obeyed.
"It cannot be the case that the law is adopted and then it doesn\’t apply to anyone in this country," he told Latvian Radio.
But the actions have caused jitters among economists, prompting many to be cautious in comments about the stability of the lat.
A leading economist told AFP on condition of anonymity that he refuses to discuss currency-related issues publicly.
Political scientist Nils Muiznieks of the University of Latvia said the authorities were "ridiculous".
"Going after currency speculators and traders is one thing, but when it\’s an economist and a musician making jokes, it\’s completely different," Muiznieks told AFP.
Writing in the daily Diena, commentator Askolds Rodins said that chasing alleged rumourmongers "moves us dangerously closer to our neighbour, Russia."
"Of course there are areas, such as sport, where being like Russia is a case of honour. But you cannot say that about freedom of speech," he wrote.
Earlier this month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tasked regional prosecutors with preventing media coverage that could spark panic in the population at a time of crisis.
For example, Russian authorities recently warned the Vedomosti business newspaper after it published an article on the possible consequences of the crisis in Russia.