Journalist ruffles feathers with architecture research at embassies

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A journalist is claiming that Latvia's Foreign Ministry was unhelpful when she was trying to write stories about its embassies, in stark contrast to its official pronouncements on the importance of a free press and critical thinking.

Nor was this as a result of producing "fake news" or politically-slanted coverage, the journalist and architect Baiba Vērpe claimed on LTV's "Aizliegtais paņēmiens" (Forbidden Methods) investigative show: Verpe was in fact carrying out research on the architecture of Latvia's embassies for the respected trade journal Latvian Architecture.

Last year, Vērpe decided to produce a story on the embassies in honor of Latvia's 100th anniversary to describe their architecture, interior design and ornamentation. The journalist met with representatives of the Foreign Ministry who were initially responsive. She had to sign a co-operation agreement with the ministry for the production of the articles and began her work.

"I started the research and was surprised to find out there wasn't much information about Latvia's embassies, neither on the internet nor in publications," Vērpe told the show. 

Vērpe told the TV show that she was unpleasantly surprised by what she saw at several embassies, naming Latvia's embassy in the US as a prime example with scrawny trees, a faded flag, unraked leaves, a sculpture in appalling condition and trash piled up near the building. These facts were acknowledged to the TV show by ambassador Andris Teikmanis, who said they had been rectified and an overhaul of building maintenance procedures introduced.

Vērpe said other issues had concerned the way her article had been edited by foreign ministry officials. A reference to a sauna installed at the embassy in the UK was deleted, apparently at the behest of the ambassador. At the embassy in South Korea, the journalist wanted to feature work by renowned interior designers Brandeleven, who designed the interior at a cost of 40 thousand euros, but it turned out that the interior designers had not even seen the finished work themselves and asked the journalist to send them pictures.

Then, having already bought air tickets for Moscow to visit the Latvian embassy in Russia, the Foreign Ministry announced to her that the agreement had been terminated and there would be no follow-up. As a result the whole project had to be stopped.

Vērpe said she was shocked by the attitude of the Foreign Ministry, because, as she pointed out, she was only covering the public aspects of these state-owned buildings and not writing about anything secret. In addition, she was not receiving a single euro from the ministry to complete the centenary project, though public money was supporting the project via the State Cultural Capital Fund.

As Forbidden Methods reported, the ministry does not deny that it limited the activities of Baiba Vērpe, but says that the way she went about compiling her pieces did not meet with their approval. The ministry objected to grammatical mistakes in the text they were sent. They felt that the journalist herself could have found much of the data they were asked to supply, objected to some of the language (for example using the variant sūtniecība in place of the official vēstniecība  to mean "embassy") and, in brief, did not particularly like her attitude.

"There is one nuance why the ministry ended this cooperation. Due to the coincidence of certain circumstances, the particular person, the way she tried to do it, did not serve that purpose. And it has never been said that we have to directly engage in cooperation with this individual," said Gints Jegermanis, spokeswoman for the ministry.

Alda Vanaga, the Foreign Ministry official who sent Vērpe a letter terminating cooperation and who is now ambassador to Denmark, told the show: "She's a journalist? Really?... Journalists must have some known work of quality." Vanaga criticised what she described as grammatical errors and said all visits to embassies should have been organized via Rīga instead of with the individual embassies themselves.

In another puzzling twist, Vērpe said in her report from the Latvian representative office in New York that a painting by famous artists Janis Rozentāls was hanging on the wall, apparently part of the collection of the Latvian national art museum. This also was removed from the text. The museum itself told the TV show it had never heard of such a picture.  

Vērpe said in conclusion: "Overall I got the feeling that the idea is cultivated that embassies are secret objects."

The claim was emphatically denied by the Foreign Ministry's Atis Lots in the studio, saying: "The Foreign Ministry is not secret, does not censor and does not threaten press freedom."

Ivonna Plaude, editor in chief of the Latvian Association of Journalists and editor-in-chief of the Independent Tukums News, disagreed, saying said that this is an example of censorship. 

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