Police accused of lack of action in protecting Latvian journalists

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Police demonstrated alarming incompetence after an online and telephone harasser showed up in person at the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica editorial office with a funeral wreath and attempted to deliver the staff from evil with holy water, according to Re:Baltica editor Sanita Jemberga on December 16.

A man had long tormented the Re:Baltica editorial staff with crude phone calls to the journalists and their families, as well as posts on social media. However even after he turned up in person, the journalists had to resort to taking the issue public before the police began criminal proceedings against him. Jemberga said that at first the police didn’t want to drive to the editorial office, but in the end they did, as all of the evidence was at the office.

“They came, listened to witnesses with an attitude as if nothing had happened, why are you causing a scene. And after that the tormenting continued. With that, all we received from the police was a notice that a departmental investigation had begun,” said Jemberga.

27 days after the journalists were called in to produce witness testimony, both found out that the tormentor hadn’t even been questioned, because he lives in a different city. “When asked how we can protect ourselves if we encounter not just a crazy person, but someone who is ready to fulfill their threats, the answer was – well, let’s hope for the best,” said the editor.

“I don’t feel safe in a country where the police tells me “let’s hope for the best”,” said Jemberga.  

Council of Europe recommendations, which Latvia has signed on to, have declared journalism as a specially protected profession. Jemberga said that the police don’t take this sort of tormenting in her profession seriously, or know how to act.

Around a week and a half ago the Latvian Journalists Association invited Police Chief Ints Ķuzis to a discussion on the proper action in such instances. Association Board Chairwoman Arta Ģiga said that journalists frequently encounter all sorts of criticism and can differentiate between which type of criticism should be addressed by the police. “We journalists have pretty strong nerves and don’t worry unnecessarily, but if we’re worried, that means it’s something,” said the board chairwoman.

“We want to teach the police to create a system where they can immediately identify it and react quickly, not when it’s already far too late,” said Ģiga.

The Council of Europe has long recommended that the police dedicate one contact person for journalists, whom they can contact it there is a threat. Estonia has this practice and journalists in Latvia would also appreciate such a system where threats are taken seriously.

Ķuzis said that criminal procedures have now begun regarding the Re:Baltica tormentor, and that he had previously been on the police’s radar for various comments on internet platforms. However, he agrees that journalists should be a specially protected profession, and that police have to learn how to act in these situations.

“In regards to violence and use of force, there hasn’t been such a situation. The police know who he is, and the police are monitoring the situation,” said Ķuzis.

He admits there could have been instances in which the police acted unprofessionally, and that isn’t acceptable. His mission is to “lead them through training, explain their objectives, that these things deserve attention, must be evaluated and deserve a reaction.” The police chief has agreed to meet with the association to find a common solution.

For over a year there’s been a clause in the criminal law stipulating criminal liability for tormenting, however it must be added that journalists aren’t the only ones to encounter these sorts of issues. Many who suffer from threats and violence aren’t in the same position as journalists to shed light on the problem in society and can only rely on the system.

Centre MARTA is a non-governmental organization that aims to provide support to women in Latvia, and they said that such harassment is present in most cases of domestic violence, especially if a woman is trying to leave a relationship.

“Threats are made that the woman or her children will be killed, or that he will commit suicide. There are both stories where the police have done a good job, as well not so good ones where a woman’s safety is in her own hands,” said Board Member Iluta Lāce.

The crisis center said that in this area police work keeps improving, and the police themselves emphasize that until now the concept of torment or harrassment has been mostly applied to domestic violence, not to professional situations.

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