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Latvia: Move To Silence Hatemongers Raises Rights Questions

  • Don Hill

A small group of radicals calling themselves "National Bolsheviks" seized a famous landmark in the Latvian capital, Riga, last month. It was more farce than terrorism, but many Latvians now want the group banned -- not because of what they did but what they stand for. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that this raises complex questions of free speech and free thought in a democratic society.

Prague, 14 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- On November 18, the eve of the 82nd anniversary of Latvia's independence, three young men inconspicuously joined a small throng of Latvians and tourists queued up to enter Saint Peter's Church in central Riga. They were members of a group called the National Bolsheviks. They dutifully bought tickets and climbed to a viewing tower built into the famous landmark's steeple.

Once there, they struck.

They unfurled Soviet-style red flags. They shouted demands: "Release fellow Bolsheviks detained for illegally crossing the border into Latvia from Russia!" "Give up joining NATO!"

The three men said they had a grenade and would blow up the steeple, one of Riga's most visited sites.

Riga's police called in the national Omega anti-terrorist squad. Omega negotiators coaxed the Bolsheviks down from the steeple, making only one concession. They were permitted to call the Russian Embassy. Searchers found the grenade. It was a dummy.

The Bolsheviks' action -- forecast for days -- turned out more farcical than terrifying. But Latvian prosecutors say they will charge the men with terrorism, a crime that carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment. And across the country, officials and citizens are calling for a ban on the National Bolsheviks group.

Janis Lagzdins, a member of the Latvian parliament, tells our correspondent that Latvian law permits courts to ban any organization that advocates lawbreaking, publicly displays communist or fascist symbols or disseminates hateful or racist ideas.

"The main problem is not the severity of the law. The law is strong enough. What's most important, though, is the ability of law-enforcement authorities to be aware of the activities of extremist organizations and to bring their leaders to justice when they attack or disparage the state and the people of Latvia."

Nobody seriously quarrels with the right, indeed the duty, of authorities to prosecute people who break the law -- say, by illegally crossing a border or by occupying and threatening to blow up a public building. But law and custom in democratic countries vary on placing restrictions on what people may say or believe.

Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights says this: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Various nations and groups of nations have modified this unequivocal expression over the year since it was adopted 52 years ago this month (December 10, 1948).

Helen Darbishire is a media law program manager for the Open Society Institute in Budapest. She says that what she calls the Anglo-Saxon model, promoted in the United States and Britain, calls for -- as she puts it -- "only the narrowest restrictions which are absolutely necessary [to] be imposed." In Darbishire's words: "It is strongly argued that the best antidote to speech is more speech. Intolerant speech can be countered, ridiculed and shunned by tolerant speech."

But the Open Society's media law expert notes that continental Europe -- affected by the legacy of World War II -- tends to approve laws penalizing speech which promotes hatred.

Even the London-based non-governmental group that calls itself "Article 19 -- the Global Campaign for Free Expression" contends that the U.S. emphasis on free speech and press as the pre-eminent right among human rights goes too far.

Article 19 Executive Director Andrew Puddephatt tells our correspondent that free expression should take its place among other human rights.

"There's a balance sometimes that has to be struck and we certainly recognize, you know, the validity of restricting speech that incites -- directly incites -- hatred and violence against a particular group."

In Germany and France, this balance permits laws absolutely banning the Nazi Party, neo-Nazis, and Nazi symbolism. A French court ordered the giant U.S. Internet firm Yahoo last month to bar French users from sites selling Nazi memorabilia. The court upheld an earlier ruling despite Yahoo's argument that obeying the French injunction would force the company to contravene U.S. law forbidding restrictions on free speech.

But both Germany and France have found that suppressing certain groups and certain kinds of expression presents problems. German extreme right groups dodge the ban against Nazis simply by changing their groups' names. In France, Jean Marie Le Pen, head of the extreme-right National Front party, actually turns restrictions on speech to his benefit. "You know what I mean," he tells followers in effect in his fiery addresses, "but I'm not allowed to say it." This permits adherents to fill in the blanks with their own pet hatreds.

In Germany last week, a group of some 10,000 demonstrators assembled by churches, political parties and other mainline organizations turned intolerance on its ear. They tried to assault a group of about 120 right-wing activists on a court-approved march through central Cologne. Attempting to breach a cordon of police protecting the activists, the counter-demonstrators injured at least one policeman.

Tina Walter, one of the organizers of the counter-demonstration, explained their behavior. She said: "Fascism is not an opinion. Fascism is a crime."

Germany's parliament decided last week to join the government in asking the country's Federal Constitutional Court to extend its ban on hate organizations to include the far-right National Democratic Party.

Even in Europe, where vulnerability to hate speech remains a recent memory, a democratic nation can carry speech suppression beyond what the culture permits. In Denmark seven years ago, newsman Jens Olaf Jersild broadcast a program over Danish television in which he interviewed members of the Green-Jackets, an extreme racist youth group. Citing Danish laws against hate speech, prosecutors went after not only the Green-Jackets for what they said in the program, but also against Jersild himself. The journalist appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in Jersild vs. Denmark, 1994, that news outlets must be free to report on hate speech, even when the speech itself is unlawful.

Article 19 Executive Director Puddephatt says misuse of speech-restriction statutes can be more blatant that that. In Turkey, for example, he says, the national authorities regularly invoke laws against speech that incites violence to suppress newspapers published by the Kurdish minority.

"We have got a problem with general hate-speech laws in that, you know, [those] where there is not clear identifiable harm that follows from the speech, because they're very elastic and can be used to suppress all kinds of people."

Russia is still widely seen in Latvia as an occupying power -- following 46 years of Soviet rule -- and many Latvians feel they have a justifiable reason to detest any group that calls itself Bolshevik.

But Latvia is somewhat even-handed in its approach to speech suppression. There's also widespread distaste for Fascism, stemming from the nation's experience with World War II German occupation and the Holocaust of Baltic Jews. The courts are now moving against an organization named the Perkonkrusts, or Thunder-Cross, charged with vandalizing a war monument commemorating Latvian liberation from the Nazis.

What appears to remain unclear in both cases -- that of the Perkonkrusts and that of the Bolsheviks -- is a key distinction. That is the difference between groups which hold unpopular views and individual members of those groups who commit recognizable unlawful acts.

(RFE/RL's Iveta Medina, in the Riga Bureau, and Maruta Karklis of the Latvian Service contributed to this report.)