Musicians sue party over racy ad

  • 2002-07-25
  • Steven C. Johnson

Two black African musicians who say they were defamed by a political advertisement are suing the fledgling Freedom Party for 60,000 lats ($100,000) in damages.

Piter Mensah and Chined Christofer Ejugo, founding members of the popular reggae band Los Amigos, claim the Freedom Party defamed them by tricking them into appearing in what they claim was a racist political advertisement.

In the ad, Mensah is wearing a Latvian military uniform and Ejugo is dressed in traditional African clothing. Both are standing at the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga, and Mensah is kissing a Latvian girl. Then, a voice-over says "Today, he defends your country. Tomorrow, he could be your son-in-law."

Raimonds Liepins, the lawyer for Mensah and Ejugo, said the two men suffered from negative publicity from the ad and 180,000 leaflets featuring a black man in Latvian uniform that were mailed to voters. The two are seeking moral damages of 30,000 lats each.

"We think these damages are sufficient to compensate these men for what they went through," Liepins said.

Mensah, who hails from Sierra Leone, and Ejugo, from Nigeria, front the popular local band Los Amigos. The remaining members of the band are Latvians from Riga.

Mensah said he and Ejugo were told the commercial would be used to promote Latvia's membership in the EU and racial harmony.

"Had we known that it would be used for such a despicable thing, we would never have agreed," he said soon after the commercial aired.

After the commercial aired, Mensah said he received calls from several frightened African and Asian residents in Latvia.

"They wanted to know why we had appeared in something like that, and some were scared, wondering whether they should be worried about racial discrimination here," he said.The Freedom Party, a right-wing group that includes former Interior Minister Ziedonis Cevers, was formed earlier this year to run in parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

The party has questioned whether Latvia is ready to join the Europan Union, one of the government's top foreign policy goals, saying it could bring with it an influx of immigrants that Latvia is ill-prepared to accommodate.

It's a strategy, analysts say, designed to capture support from segments of society who harbor fears of immigrants and foreigners.

"Xenephobia exists in Latvia, and stereotypes are quite strong in society, at least among the older population," said Liga Biksiniece, an analyst at the Latvian National Human Rights Office, the government's human rights ombudsman.

"Politicians are just using this to their advantage and trying to turn empty ideas into votes."

Party officials did not answer calls to their main office in Riga.

Similar sentiments have influenced political elections in Western Europe as well.

In Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and elsewhere, right-wing, anti-immigration parties are either in governments or offer key support for minority coalitions.

But in Latvia, Biksiniece said the fears were fed by Latvia's relative isolation for most of the 20th century as well as bitter memories of recent history.

"We have been independent for just more than 10 years and for people here, this sense of nationality is very strong," she said.

"Many feel frustrated at people coming from outside, taking our jobs, diluting our language, gaining equal rights."

"I think you can explain it partly in this way."

Mensah, who first came to Latvia as a student in 1993, conceded that some in Latvia cast strange looks at him but added that he has never felt overtly discriminated against.

"Sometimes on the tram I'm aware of people pointing at me or laughing, but generally I've felt warmly welcomed," he said.

State-owned Latvijas Televi-zija, or LTV, broadcast the ad twice in one day in late June before pulling it, saying it violates a discrimination article in the Latvian law on radio and television and aims to stir up anti-immigration sentiment.

"We have a responsibility when it comes to building a civic society without hatred and discrimination," LTV director Uldis Grava told The Baltic Times earlier this month.

LTV officials said the ad slipped through the usual screening of ads during a management change that included the hiring of Grava in May.

LTV as well as the two musicians also asked the Prosecutor General's Office to open a criminal case against the ad for inciting racial hatred.

Nils Muiznieks, director of the Riga-based Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, said that might be taking the issue too far.

"I think this is undoubtedly racist, but I'm not so sure it's illegal," he said. "I well understand state television deciding that this is not something that conforms to their values and choosing not to air it, but calling it criminal may not be the best thing to do."

Added Biksiniece, "There are no legal precedents here in cases like this, and everyone has his own opinion about what does incite racial hatred and what doesn't.

"Perhaps this is why the law is not sufficiently understood," she said.