There Is No Freedom of Speech in Latvia and There Will Never Be

Professor and human rights activist Aleksandr Gaponenko in Latvia was sentenced to one year of suspended imprisonment under the article “inciting ethnic hatred using electronic media”.

The paradox is that regimes that are far from respecting human rights and protecting national minorities accuse real human rights defenders of crimes that are actually committed by their representatives themselves.
Professor Gaponenko is known not only in Latvia and not only among the defenders of the rights of the Russian-speaking population of this country.

He is known for his consistent, clear position. He is an anti-fascist, and not in a politically correct spirit, like many of the liberal activists in western Europe, where the struggle against fascism is perceived as a struggle against any manifestations of value traditionalism and political conservatism.

Latvia is a country where the threat of the revival of fascism is very real. And it’s not about marginal, youth far-right movements, their concerts and street events. It’s about politicians, many of whom have held public office. It’s the classic language of hostility that permeates the mainstream media and the public space.

The fight against this kind of neo-Nazism is much more difficult and dangerous than tracking the rallies of several dozen right-wing extremists from the neo-Nazi underground. It is a struggle with a real thing, not an imaginary thing.

Gaponenko’s unequivocally anti-fascist position has been reflected in his statements for many years. At the same time, it is worth noting that he did not offend anyone, but rather objectively, reasonably criticised, using the elementary principles of logic.

A few years ago, no one could even imagine that such a person could be accused of illegal actions. No one could have imagined that the ruling regime in Latvia would bring criminal cases against people like him.

What’s next?

Since about 2014, a number of European countries have decided to tighten the crackdown on dissent. The principles of liberal democracy were rejected in countries that previously justified the legitimacy of the government during the transformation after the collapse of the eastern bloc by the liberal-democratic doctrine. Apparently, the story did not end, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed.

After a brief period of domination by a liberal paradigm based on the rule of law, we are returning to the practices of the very hard times of the cold war.

More and more countries in eastern and central Europe are seeking to revive authoritarianism as the most effective system for suppressing dissent. Only the pretext used for repression has changed. Previously, we were talking about communism, now we are talking about relations with states that pose a threat to national security.

The accusation that the Latvian human rights defender and anti-fascist has committed crimes associated with Nazism, extremist, ethnic nationalism is a hybrid option used temporarily against political opponents.

The next step: direct accusations of forming public opinion, i.e., the criminalisation of any opposition public activity.

Themis is blind

Legislation designed and adopted to effectively protect oppressed minorities (the legal term is “ethnic hate speech”) has become a tool for the persecution of the very minorities it is supposed to protect.

According to this logic, a representative of a minority who calls for the observance of his own rights and the rights of his compatriots insults the majority.

An activist who opposes Nazi symbols, without calling, by the way, for physical violence against supporters of neo-Nazism, is guilty, according to the court, of spreading the language of hostility. The human rights activist, who speaks out in support of peace, against the military threat that increases the military presence of foreign bases in his home country, calls for “hatred” against the people who make up the majority of the armed contingent.

In Poland, local activists denouncing the ideology of neo-banderism in Ukraine were accused of hating Ukrainians, thereby claiming that either all Ukrainians are Banderists (which is a real insult to the Ukrainian ethnic group), or “Banderists” are a new nationality that ethnology does not yet know about.

The Latvian regime is still shy to say directly: there is no freedom of speech and opinion and there never will be. Therefore, it uses a counter-logical interpretation of the law from the past liberal era. The next step ahead is the direct criminalisation of opposition statements.

This peculiar practice, however, has been used for several years in Poland. Aleksandr Gaponenko has a chance to stop the introduction of this dangerous, from the point of view of human rights, model in Latvia. Therefore, his case does not concern only the Russian community or non-citizens. The future contours of the system depend on its fate.

Mateusz Piskorski

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