Asset freeze raises press freedom concerns

A decision by a Riga court to freeze the assets of a trailblazing investigative journal has put Latvia's press freedom credentials under fresh scrutiny.

In a surprise move on July 31 Riga Central District court granted an application by bankruptcy administrator Maris Spruds to freeze the assets of Ir, the country's leading investigative weekly magazine which has in the past won international praise and awards for its high-class journalism.

Assets worth nearly 23,000 euros belonging to Ir's publisher, AS Cits Medijs are now locked out of the company's control, threatening the existence of a publication that is regarded as a rare haven for quality investigative journalism.

The court decision precedes a defamation claim against Ir launched by Spruds after the magazine published a series of articles in September 2012 probing his professional activities. The civil suit for defamation was filed in December, 2012. Ir rejects Mr Spruds' claim and stands by its articles.

However, in a legal first for Latvia, the asset freeze has been initiated before the defamation action has even begun, raising serious questions about its propriety.

“The action by the court is absurd. Instead of finally hearing the case and deciding whether Mr. Spruds has been defamed and his claim for damages is well-founded, the court has on three occasions heard the issue of seizing the assets of Ir," the magazine's editor-in-chief Nellija Locmele said in response to the court ruling.

“Mr. Spruds has no hope of winning the case in a trial, so he is playing for time and trying to harm Ir by whatever means he can. This parody of justice affirms how much the Latvian court system is in need of real reforms,” Locmele said, adding that the case could eventually find its way to the European Court of Human Rights.

This parody of justice affirms how much the Latvian court system is in need of real reforms"

In a statement, the Latvian Journalists' Association (LZA) said it “strongly condemned” the court action and said it indicated financial measures were being taken in preference to the normal practice of pointing out if and when journalists had actually made factual mistakes.

“This case shows that Latvian media is faced with a new level of restriction. It's no longer about intimidation of journalists by police or courts but about acting against the [publishing] company itself,” said LZA chairperson Anda Rozukalne.

“This court decision shows how weak the Latvian court system is and how it benefits the country's political and economic elite,” Rozukalne said.

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