One of the fundamental values of a democratic state is respecting the freedom of speech of its citizens, and it is a very accurate indicator of whether a state is democratic or not.
Of course, the freedom of speech is not absolute – it can be restricted. Legitimate reasons to restrict the freedom of speech by law are usually intended to protect other people’s rights, for instance, by preventing the unauthorized publishing of private information, as well as to protect the state and the public by prohibiting incitement to hatred or by restricting the access to information containing state secrets.
Additionally, the freedom of speech can be restricted to ensure justice in court and the presumption of innocence, i.e. so that a person being accused of a crime isn’t found guilty by the media before a court verdict. Lastly, a state may restrict the freedom of speech in order to protect intellectual property, for example, by preventing online piracy.1
During the Covid-19 pandemic, some people in Latvia believe that the freedom of speech gives them the right to say anything that comes to their mind – people are speaking against the requirement to wear masks in public areas and alleging that the application Apturi Covid (Stop Covid) is used for surveillance of the public.
In other words, it is being propagated that everything is bad in Latvia. The poor people are being forced to go through the agony of wearing masks and there is even a mobile application that will follow not only your every move, but the every move of the people in your contacts list as well.
Let’s begin with the masks: Latvia isn’t behind the idea of wearing masks – masks are being used all over the world to reduce the spread of the virus. Are the masks 100% effective in protecting against the virus? No, of course, but they do reduce the possibility of contracting the virus. This was proven in an experiment conducted by Japanese scientists.2 Either way, anyone is free to express their opinion on this matter.
What concerns the mobile app Apturi Covid, I will not dive in to the reasons people are against it, but I will say that it’s not mandatory to download and use the application, and it does not gather user data, let alone the data of the user’s contacts.3 Everyone can freely discuss the application as well.
Everything is relative depending on our point of view. If we look at the situation in Latvia, it could seem that something’s not right, but if we look at the situation elsewhere in the world, everything starts to look different.
I will admit that it would be unfair to make a comparison with Belarus, that’s why I will compare us with Russia, as there still are people in Latvia who believe that everything in Russia is great. What is the situation with the freedom of speech in Russia, and does the government recommend that its citizens use a particular mobile application?
I will only give bare facts and try to minimize my own opinion on them.
Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva is facing a seven-year jail sentence for “justifying terrorism” – the criminal case against her was launched after she expressed her thoughts on the explosion at a branch of the FSB in Arkhangelsk in October 2018. Regarding the explosion, she said that the current Russian regime is to blame for bringing up a generation that now fights against it.4
One of the indicators of the freedom of speech in a country is its ranking according to the press freedom index. Latvia is ranked 22nd in this index, while Russia occupies the 149th place, right between Honduras and Kongo.5 Some of you might argue that those who make these rankings simply rank the countries as they wish. This could be true, but I already mentioned the fact that a criminal case was launched against a journalist for expressing her opinion.
One of the ways that the freedom of speech is systematically being curtailed in Russia is the implementation of different restrictive laws. One of the most recent such laws is the ban on disrespecting the government, signed by Putin in March 2019.
This law attracted the attention of independent Russian and foreign media when already after a month the first person received a fine of 30,000 rubles (418 euros) for calling Putin an “real moron” and posting a caricature of him in his VKontakte profile.
The Russian State Duma also passed a law banning “fake news”. The law doesn’t apply to “traditional media outlets” that have a license or permit (issued by the state, obviously). Other media outlets are required to immediately delete news articles deemed untrue or they will be blocked. The truthfulness of an article will be determined by the prosecutor’s office, and the most severe punishment includes closing the media outlet or a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles (20,000 euros).6
Russia has also passed laws “on foreign agents” in 2012 and “on undesirable organizations” in 2015 that grant the prosecutor general the rights to extrajudicially prohibit international organizations from operating in Russia if they are deemed “undesirable”.
Roughly 80 NGOs, including almost all the leading humans rights NGOs, are considered foreign agents in Russia. Additionally, ten media outlets linked with Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are also included in the list of foreign agents.
Since 2014, several dozen environmental organizations have been included in the list and many of them were forced to close to avoid being classified as foreign agents or because they were unable to pay their fines.
On 21 November 2019, the Russian State Duma passed the latest amendments to the law on foreign agents that expanded the list of entities that can be considered foreign agents to now include bloggers and independent journalists.
The law also defines specific requirements for registering publications and makes it illegal to disobey the requirements, with punishment including large fines or jailtime of up to two years.7
There’s nothing like this in Latvia, and anyone can easily verify that this is true.
But Russia hasn’t stopped there – a draft law is being prepared that will allow to block foreign social networks or media outlets if they feature information Russia dislikes.
Enough about the freedom of speech, I’ve given you plenty of examples. Now, let’s take a look at the applications.
Nothing surprising here – if in Latvia people are merely recommended to use a specific application, Russia approaches this issue quite differently. In December 2019, Putin signed a law that forbids the sale of devices, including smartphones and computers, that do not have pre-installed Russian-made software. An appropriate decree ensuring the implementation of the law has already been passed.8
This means that Russian citizens will not be able to purchase phones, computers or even TVs that don’t have government-accepted software. Knowing how Russia enjoys monitoring and controlling its people, you don’t have to be a psychic to predict that Russian intelligence services will have helped that this software also includes features they require.
It’s one thing when such devices are used in Russia, but it’s another when its being exported outside Russia’s borders. I already wrote that Chinese-produced surveillance systems can be exploited to acquire information of interest to the Chinese government. It seems that Russia is following China’s example.
I hope that Latvia and other countries will be able to thoroughly evaluate the software to prevent Chinese and Russian intelligence services from listening to our phone calls or gathering our data.
So, what about our comparison of the levels of freedom of speech in Latvia and Russia? The situation is not perfect in Latvia, but right next to us there is a country that’s beginning to transition to a totalitarian-level control of information and people.