RIGA - In a ruling that some fear threatens press freedom in Latvia, the Riga Regional Court on Oct. 17 upheld a libel claim against the largest-circulation Latvian daily, Diena, which was brought by former Minister of Economy Laimonis Strujevics.
After a two-year court battle, Diena was ordered to pay 4,000 lats ($6,450) in damages and an additional 395 lats in legal fees to compensate for statements made in a string of opinion pieces published in the paper in 1999.
In the articles Aivars Ozolins, a Diena columnist, tackled the topic of Strujevics' activities in politics and business.
Strujevics had initially asked for 10,000 lats in moral damages to "him and his family" because his public reputation had been affected.
He believes he lost his position as chairman of the opposition political party the Farmers' Union because of the negative publicity the articles brought.
The case was brought under civil law rather than media law, because the latter prohibits people to sue for damages.
"We believe the law is on our side," said Pauls Raudseps, editor of the newspaper's editorial page. "We'll appeal again through the Latvian Supreme Court and then, if that doesn't work, to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg."
Strujevics, now a board member and financial director of A/S Ventamonjaks, a chemical cargo company based in Ventspils, emphasized to The Baltic Times that just as it is his right to sue Diena for slander, it is their right to appeal the court's verdict.
"It's up to the courts to decide who is right and who is wrong," he said.
The court called in another journalist, Karlis Streips, as an outside expert. He believes Diena's standpoint is the right one.
"Latvian law does not recognize the difference between opinion pieces and articles. This is a weakness in the law," he told The Baltic Times.
"I think that in the wake of this particular case, the law has to be strengthened. We should be able to criticize politicians in a sharper and harsher way in opinion pieces."
Another expert called in by the Riga Regional Court was a Latvian language professor at the University of Latvia, Ina Druviete. Her task was to help interpret the meaning of the words and phrases used in Ozolins' texts. She argued that opinion pieces could be regarded in the same vein as news articles.
Diena's lawyer Egils Radzins rejected this idea. Explaining the widely held view of the fundamental difference between these two very distinct parts of a newspaper, he said, "Subjective opinions cannot be regarded as news. Opinions are not right or wrong. They are just thoughts on a subject," he said.
The story on which the articles were based originated in early attempts to privatize Latvia's oil colossus Ventspils Nafta.
"Strujevics tried to push through the possibility of buying stocks in Ventspils Nafta for privatization vouchers rather than paying in cash," Streips said.
Ozolins wrote that this would have in fact saved the buyers of Ventspils Nafta shares some 8 million lats, and that this was basically fraud.
This was what Strujevics said hurt the most. "He wrote that I tried to steal 8 million lats from the state. This is not true."
In recent opinion polls the media have scored highly, with 60 percent approval ratings against less than 20 percent for the government, no matter which political forces are in power.
Ozolins remains unfazed. "I am still sure that I live in a democratic country where you don't get sued for expressing your opinion," he told the Baltic News Service. "I believe everything I wrote is for the benefit of society."