Russian website ban prompts discussion on free speech in Latvia

The National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) has blocked 91 websites in relation to sanctions imposed on Russia. Some media representatives are concerned whether the decision does not compromise freedom of expression in Latvia, Latvian Radio reported March 23.

NEPLP has blocked 91 websites. Of these, 20 websites were banned for violations of sanctions imposed by Russia's war, and 71 sites were blocked because of the proliferation of pro-Kremlin propaganda. The head of NEPLP, Ivars Āboliņš, said that similar decisions will likely be made in the future.

NEPLP could make these decisions since two weeks ago, amendments were made to the Electronic Communications Law. The amendments provide that NEPLP has the right to adopt a decision restricting access to websites the content of which threatens national security or public order. NEPLP alone cannot make the decision, first, information from the State Security Service (VDD) must be obtained. 

Concern about Internet censorship was expressed by Nellija Ločmele, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Ir”. She said that while she supports the closure of Kremlin propaganda television channels in Latvia, the new law amendments have been adopted in haste.

“This law has been adopted without any time limit. The first decision to block 71 websites doesn't create a conviction that a thorough analysis has been carried out. The Council refuses to make public its research. It explained to us that the Council did not publicly disclose its inspection methods. All this must be transparent because we are a democratic state. In Estonia, for example, five websites on television channels and two news agencies have been blocked. The regulator has published a 14-page-long extended justification for the decision with examples,” Ločmele said.

Āboliņš, in turn, said that all NEPLP decisions are legal and each blocked site has been checked.

Meanwhile, sworn lawyer Lauris Liepa is of the opinion that the NEPLP needs such a mandate at this moment. 

“Of course, any restriction on freedom of expression is a high risk to state democracy, a high risk to the public's right to express information and to have information. This means that these restrictions must be, firstly, very precise and, secondly, they must be necessary,” explained Liepa.

He said that Latvia follows the legislative framework by the European Court of Human Rights, the Latvian administrative courts, and also the Constitutional Court. It considers whether any particular case of freedom of expression is at odds with public safety and public order.

Media expert, public media ombud Professor Anda Rožukalne called blocking websites a short-term solution that is currently justified.

"Any web blocking is associated with authoritarian states. This raises concerns about the availability of information, diversity. I would like more detail, to hear the criteria for blocking, but to harbor a misleading illusion that blocking all propaganda sites means that we are no longer reached by war propaganda, war-related disinformation, is incorrect," said Rožukalne. This decision directly affects journalists and researchers by preventing them from obtaining information from the source, as official Russian information sites are also blocked.

"Also our study, a very recent study, shows that 2-5% of society use such circumvention methods. It is possible to do this and then it already depends on the professionalism and ability of each journalist to work on the Internet, the ability to work digitally, on ways to get the information," said Āboliņš from NEPLP.

Ločmele, in turn, asked “whether it is normal that for Latvian journalists to find out the official statements of the conflict neighbouring country, we must either violate the law by circumventing the blocking of these sites or wait for other media to announce it in other countries.”  

“I'm inspired by the example of Lithuania, they have thousands of [people] of the so-called “elf” army fighting Russian “trolls.” They started it eight years ago. Now even the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense has acknowledged that it is a very good way for volunteers to seek and find propaganda content on social networks, report it straight away, so that the networks actually remove those accounts and remove the lies,” added Ločmele.

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