CSOs demand greater involvement in decision-making processes, migrant pushbacks & obstruction of NGOs’ work at Belarusian border concerning
On 1st October 2022, a general election was held in Latvia. Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš’ New Unity party captured 19 percent support, while the opposition Greens and Farmers Union was second with 12.5 percent and the new centrist electoral alliance United List — made up of several regional parties — was third with 10.9 percent.
As discussions continue on the formation of the next government, Prime Minister Kariņš met with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola to reiterate Latvia’s support to Ukraine and push the European Union for a decisive stance against Russia and to act decisively in supporting solutions to overcome the energy crisis and high energy prices.
Eiropas Savienībai jāatbalsta Ukraina līdz tās pilnīgai uzvarai. Tiekoties ar @EP_President Robertu Metsolu, pārrunājām ģeopolitisko situāciju, sankcijas pret Krieviju un #ES līmeņa mehānismu ieviešanu augsto energoresursu cenu samazināšanai.— Krišjānis Kariņš (@krisjaniskarins) October 27, 2022
In June 2022, the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) unanimously adopted the draft "Law on Transparency of Representation of Interests" on the second reading. The new law is expected to promote transparency in the decision-making process and also help the public better understand the decisions taken by the various authorities.
CSOs demand greater involvement in decision-making processes
Civil society – most notably the Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the largest network of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the country – is pushing for greater engagement with local and national decision-makers.
On 4th October 2022, CAL sent an official letter to the President of Latvia, Egils Levits, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, potential coalition parties and their alliances to ensure the involvement of civil society in the process of drafting the government declaration. CAL calls for the declaration to include a commitment to building a stable and organised civil society in Latvia, based on democratic values.
CSOs are also demanding a bigger role in the programming of state budgets and in the implementation and monitoring of EU funds.
In January 2022, CAL called on the Budget and Finance Commission of parliament to include civil society in discussions on the state budget law. Civil society is also acting as watchdog over the principles of good governance and transparency rules in the allocation of state-managed funds. For instance, the non-governmental organisations of the Memorandum Council have called on the Government to amend a governmental decision reallocating state budget funding of 650,000 euros to the Society Integration Fund's budget programme "Management of the Society Integration Fund" for the implementation of family support policy priorities and to allocate the total additional funding in accordance with the procedure set out in the tender regulations.
In September 2022, the Memorandum Council agreed on a solution for Latvia not to lose the opportunity to attract additional EU funding of up to four million euros for the activities of NGOs by requesting 10 percent co-financing from the state budget, a mandatory requirement of the European Commission. However, Latvian organisations do not have the capacity to provide it. Understanding the situation, the Ministry of Finance called on the Public Integration Fund, together with NGOs, to prepare a financial request in October and submit it to the 2023 state budget preparation process in order not to lose the opportunity to attract this funding.
In March 2022, the government rejected the demands made by CAL to include NGO-friendly provisions in the projects implemented under the Recovery and Resilience Mechanism Plan. The government decided to exempt NGOs from VAT only if they perform a function delegated by the state, while other categories will only be able to get VAT refunds through open calls for proposals. CAL believes that this restriction excludes associations and foundations from access to investment, as it is likely that organisations will not participate in project tenders due to lack of financial resources and, as a result, capacity-building objectives will not be achieved. However, after successful advocacy by CAL, the State Chancellery has made adjustments to the provisions of the Recovery and Resilience Facility Plan to strengthen platforms and cooperation between organisations in representing the interests of vulnerable groups and public monitoring. In addition, the Ministry of Finance has announced that NGOs will be consulted in decisions on additional Recovery Fund investments.
CAL is also advocating for a structural role for CSOs within the Monitoring Committee of European Union structural funds for the 2021-2027 period. It is calling for the establishment of a Monitoring Committee through an open competition that includes an appropriate selection procedure, specific eligibility criteria and other good governance principles, including transparency. CAL believes that NGO representation should be balanced - the Monitoring Committee should be representative and diverse and include not only NGOs representing a field or sector, but also NGOs working for the common public good, active in good governance or anti-corruption, and public participation issues.
CSOs worried about their future in the wake of crisis
In August and September 2022, CAL carried out a survey of organisations' views on various crises (COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, energy crisis, etc.) in order to identify the current situation and the sector's views on the necessary solutions. A total of 43 organisations gave their views, half of them working in the field of civil society development and half in other areas (culture, charity, education, environment, etc.).
The organisations surveyed are concerned about their future and sustainability in autumn and winter as most of them do not have any financial reserves to cover the expected increase in costs.
In the last two years, some organisations have had to scale down their face-to-face activities due to COVID-19-related restrictions and thus increased the use of digital technologies. The introduction of digital technologies has also had negative consequences: those target groups of organisations who do not use modern technologies were no longer reachable and included in activities during the crisis (e.g. seniors or young people living in difficult financial conditions). Organisations also stress that after two years of active online use, both representatives of organisations and their target groups are exhausted by these channels and do not want to be as active in the digital environment.
Overall, about half of the organisations estimate that their work has increased in the last two years. Only about one in five organisations experienced a reduction in the volume of work, while the rest remained the same. While the volume of work has increased, many organisations claim that their working conditions have worsened. This applies to aspects such as working hours, workload, pay, social security, tax, working environment, etc. Only one in ten organisations recognises improvements in working conditions. This shows that the overall operating conditions in the non-governmental sector have deteriorated.
On 7thSeptember 2022, Latvian NGOs met to discuss their current needs. Participants agreed that there is still a need for capacity building programmes to channel funding towards basic needs, including permanent staff, as well as support for co-financing in calls for proposals. During the meeting, proposals were jointly identified to strengthen the sector's overall position and build its capacity, since, in the view of the participants, the non-governmental sector provides important support in emergency and crisis situations, but it also needs state support.
In the meantime, discussions on the enabling law for NGOs are continuing. CAL has put forward a proposal to amend the Law on Associations and Foundations to provide for thepossibility to transfer the assets of a liquidated association or foundation, including financial resources, to the non-governmental sector itself for its development, instead of leaving them as state property in cases where no creditors have applied for the assets.
Civic engagement at local level remains exclusionary despite progress
The newly adopted Law on Local Governments and Municipalities, which will come into force on 1st January 2023, contains a large section on civic engagement at local level. Municipalities will be able to elect advisory municipal institutions - residents’ councils - in order to ensure representation of the interests of local residents, contribute to the development of municipal territories and promote cooperation among residents.
The original text of the bill provided for broader engagement of all inhabitants of Latvia, but this was amended after the President refused to sign the bill for promulgation. Within the current framework, residents’ councils are less inclusive than originally planned, allowing participation of Latvian citizens only.
“There has been no progress in building a more inclusive civic dialogue which allows non-citizens and third state citizens to participate,” Iveta Kazoka of Providus commented.
Latvian Ombudsman withdraws his membership of European Ombudsman Institute
On 16th September 2022, Ombudsman Juris Jansons sent a letter to the European Ombudsman Institute (EOI) announcing his withdrawal from the organisation. The main reason for this step is the organisation’s dubious attitude towards the Russian Federation and its protracted military activities in Ukraine, as well as its continued cooperation with the National High Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation, Tatyana Moskalkova.
“It is not acceptable for me to be a member and board member of an organisation that does not have a clear and firm position in relation to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that the Russian human rights commissioner is still allowed to participate in the organisation is beyond any criticism. As a human rights defender, it is important for me to take a stance at the European level, so I call on other ombudsmen to evaluate their participation in the organisation. Otherwise, the EOI is only a prop for human rights defenders,” said Jansons.
‘The State of LGBT Rights in Latvia’ highlights achievements & challenges
On 28th October 2022, LGBTQI+ organisation Mozaika took part in a discussion in Riga on the progress achieved by the LGBTQI+ community in Latvia in terms of recognition and protection in the past thirty years and on the challenges that remain ahead. One of the themes of the discussion was the stagnation of the draft law on Civil Union which recognises rights for non-married couples, including same-sex couples. Presented in February 2022, the bill passed its first and second reading amid heated debate. The third and final reading, scheduled for June 2022, could not take place because attendance at parliament fell short of the quorum required to validate the vote. This was the second time this reading was postponed for this reason.
An annual report on hate speech was also presented. During the year, LGBTQI+ organisations were informed of nine violent attacks against members of the LGBTQI+ community, but none of the victims has turned to the police, said Kaspars Zālītis, board member of Mozaika. A total of 300 reports of cases of hate speech on the Internet have been reported to the police over the past year, resulting in seven decisions to initiate criminal proceedings and one decision to terminate criminal proceedings. The most common hate speech has been insults and stereotyping, as well as calls to restrict rights. In 73 percent of cases, content has been removed from social media within 24 hours, while in 10 percent of cases there has been no reaction from social media companies. According to Zālītis , although the content and prevalence of hate speech on social networks has not changed significantly compared to previous years, there has been a big improvement in terms of police response.
Additionally, despite the stagnation of the bill on Civil Union and attempts to narrow the concept of family, the overall legal situation and public attitude towards LGBTQI+ people in Latvia has significantly improved, according to Mozaika.
📢 JAUNS ZIŅOJUMS 📢 Neskatoties uz stagnāciju LGBT tiesību jomā Latvijā, īpaši ar Civilās savienības likuma nepieņemšanu un mēģinājumiem sašaurināt ģimenes jēdzienu, kopējā tiesību situācija un sabiedrības attieksme pret LGBT ir būtiski uzlabojusies.https://t.co/sBzQ1bLalW— MOZAIKA 🇱🇻🇺🇦 (@lgbt_mozaika) October 28, 2022
After being held online in 2021, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Riga Pride Week took place in June 2022. Around 5,000 people attended the march on 18thJune 2022, expressing solidarity with the LGBTQI+ community and with Ukraine, the focus of 2022 Pride. The march was supported for the first time by Riga’s mayor, Martins Stakis. A handful of people protested against the Pride march but the atmosphere was generally peaceful.
Paldies visiem tūkstošiem, kas izgāja gājienā par Brīvību. Mums rūp cilvēktiesības! Mēs iestājāmies par līdztiesību! https://t.co/qne7Fw2Ks2— Riga Pride #UntilWeAreAllFree (@RigaPride) June 18, 2022
On 5th March 2022, CAL organised a march in support of Ukraine, with more than 30,000 participants. CAL has organised several peaceful activities in support of Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Kopībā ir spēks! 🇺🇦— NVO.lv 🇱🇻🇺🇦 (@alianse) March 15, 2022
Pateicoties vairāk nekā 30 000 gājiena "Kopā par Ukrainu! Kopā pret Putinu!" dalībniekiem, mums izdevās paust savu pilsonisko nostāju, atbalstot Ukrainas brīvību un nosodot agresoru.
Apskati pasākuma foto un noskaties tā ierakstu: https://t.co/q0b5Vn09BH pic.twitter.com/VOT0j2pbrT
On 10thMay 2022, several hundred people gathered at the Riga Victory Park monument to praise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The demonstration was strongly condemned by CAL.
Report uncovers pushbacks of migrants and obstruction of NGOs’ work at the border with Belarus
Amnesty International’s report “Return home or never leave the woods” reveals the brutal treatment of migrants and refugees – including children – who have been held arbitrarily in undisclosed sites in the Latvian forest, and unlawfully and violently returned to Belarus. According to the report, many faced beatings and electric shocks with tasers, including on their genitals. Some were unlawfully forced to return ‘voluntarily’ to their home countries.
We urge #Latvia to suspend the state of emergency, restore the right to asylum for all people, no matter how they travel, and immediately investigate abuses.— Amnesty EU (@AmnestyEU) October 13, 2022
Read @amnesty' full report 👇https://t.co/znC4yFiRjP pic.twitter.com/QYOA5LwZVW
The report also highlights the lack of effective independent oversight of border police operations. According to the findings, the Latvian Border Guard severely limited the ability of NGOs and other actors to access the border area by suspending the issuance of special passes. Media coverage of the situation at the border was also impossible due to obstruction by the Latvian Border Guard. Members of the NGO “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem” (“I want to help refugees”, or GPB) were among the first actors to denounce the situation of people stranded at the border and to advocate for their access to asylum. The organisation never visited the border and was only able to arrange the provision of humanitarian aid through the mediation of the Border Guard. A representative of GPB remarked:
“There is a lack of transparency around what happens in areas under the state of emergency. Even if journalists or observers are granted access, they do not see migrants and refugees at the border. They only see a forest covered in snow.”
Among independent observers, only UNHCR and the Latvian Ombudsman have conducted visits to the border area. However, due to the COVID-19 restrictions and national security concerns, UNHCR was not able to visit the border with Belarus between August 2021 and June 2022, after which the UNHCR agreed with the State Border Guard to resume the process of border monitoring visits along the EU external border.
Following the publication of the report, the Latvian Ombudsman sent a letter to the Amnesty International Director of the Europe Regional Office Nils Muižnieks regarding the organisation’s statements on the situation on the Latvian-Belarusian border. According to the Ombudsman, these statements lack factual evidence and do not accurately reflect the situation on the Latvian-Belarusian border in summer 2021 to winter 2022. In his letter, the Ombudsman asked Amnesty International to “avoid the publication of biased, incorrect and defamatory statements”.
For 460 days #Latvia's borders with #Belarus have been under a “state of emergency,” which allows border guards to push back refugees & migrants & suspends the rights to asylum.— Amnesty EU (@AmnestyEU) October 13, 2022
Latvia denies any #humanrights violations, but @amnesty's new report tells a different story.👇 pic.twitter.com/dYnGbMNcpQ
Right-wing MP insults journalist
As reported by Mapping Media Freedom, right-wing MP from the party "National Alliance" Aleksandrs Kiršteins insulted Latvian journalist and television presenter Anete Bērtule on Twitter on two occasions. In one tweet, he called her a “political prostitute”, in another he retweeted insults directed at her from another account accusing the journalist of being biased: "either she is in the party herself, or she has an obvious public loyalty to a particular party."
Defence Minster accuses journalist of spreading Russian propaganda
As reported by Mapping Media Freedom, in April 2022 Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin was accused by Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s Defence Minister, of being an agent of Russian propaganda and threatened with expulsion from Latvia. The threats came after Ragozin gave an interview on public Latvian television, LSM, on 29thMarch 2022, in which he denounced Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. Latvia’s regulatory body considered the minister’s accusations to be unfounded and LSM criticised the pressure from Pabriks to influence the editorial content of its programmes. Pabriks, invited onto the same television programme to explain his position, reiterated his claims and suggested that Ragozin’s work permit may not be renewed. Since 2019 Ragozin has been investigating links between the Latvian National Alliance party and Ukrainian neo-Nazi movement Azov, which has made him the target of death and rape threats.
Russian media blocked
In February 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the National Council for Electronic Media (NEPLP), the Latvian media regulating authority, suspended broadcasts of Rossija RTR for five years, Rossija 24 for four years and TV Centre International for three years. The decision was taken on emergency grounds, and more quickly than usually required, as it was considered that the channels posed a threat to national security. Bans are usually in place for a maximum of one year, but special derogations from this provision were taken due to the emergency situation. Over the past few years, 41 Russia-related channels were suspended or limited through various decisions.
On 17th March 2022, the NEPLP blocked 71 websites, including the official Russian Kremlin website, sparking a heated debate among journalists on whether the decision was justified in light of the circumstances, or whether the extension of such censorship power could be a worrisome trend.
On 6th June 2022, the NEPLP blocked all remaining Russian media channels from operating in Latvia. The decision was taken on the basis of newly adopted amendments to the Electronic Mass Media Law, which state that channels registered in a country ‘threatening the territorial integrity and independence of another country should not be operational in Latvia’. The decision concerned all Russia-based TV channels. A week later, the Administrative Regional Court decided to partly reverse the ban and allow the broadcasting of five Russian TV channels in Latvia, after the ban was challenged in court by the channels’ transmitter. However, the five channels were immediately banned again by the NEPLP on the same grounds. According to the NEPLP’s decision, the channels will be able to operate again in Latvia when Russia removes itself from Ukraine and returns occupied Crimea to Ukraine.
At the same time, a number of independent Russian journalists have found a new home in Latvia after being forced to leave their country. The NEPLP authorised broadcasting from Latvia for independent Russian TV channel TV Rain, whose journalists relocated to Latvia from Russia. Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta has been operating from Latvia since May 2022, with editions available in Latvian and Russian.