New York, May 12, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the detention and harassment this week of a Latvian television crew by local police and federal agents in Pytalovo, a district on the Latvia-Russia border.
Reporter Ivo Kirsblats, cameraman Maris Jurgensons, and driver Eriks Pakalns of the Riga-based Latvian public television LTV were detained for three hours on the morning of May 9 at the Pytalovo police station. Police forced them to destroy video footage and to leave the country by 6 p.m. that day, Kirsblats told CPJ in a telephone interview yesterday.
“We thought we’d better leave,” Kirsblats said. “We were afraid for our safety.”
The crew arrived in Russia on the evening of May 8 to cover the Victory Day celebration in Pytalovo the next day, and do a feature about the way people live on the border, Kirsblats told CPJ.
The crew had obtained proper press accreditation from Russia’s Foreign Ministry on May 7 and obtained one-month Russian visas, according to Kirsblats and LTV Editor-in-Chief Inta Lase. They had planned to complete their assignment in three days.
Local police detained the crew after it started shooting footage on the morning of May 9. Several police officers, a person who identified himself as a Federal Security Services (FSB) agent, and at least one immigration officer questioned the crew members, Kirsblats told CPJ. Police accused the journalists of filming forbidden sites, and the immigration officer told them “he had never seen such press passes as theirs,” Kirsblats told CPJ.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement late yesterday that the Latvian crew was filming without authorization a railway station that serves as an international transit point, Agence France-Presse reported.
“The journalists tried to film the railway station as background footage for their story,” Lase told CPJ in a telephone interview today. “The railway is old and does not work anymore. It used to connect Latvia with Russia, and the crew wanted to use it as a symbol of the lost connection between the two countries. If that was a forbidden site, nowhere was it noted so.”
Vandals broke the windshield of the LTV crew’s car, which was parked next to its hotel, while the journalists were being detained.
“We would like to go back [to do the story] but we’re anxious. This time our car was vandalized; maybe we would be attacked next time,” Kirsblats said.
The crew members tried to take additional footage of people in the Pytalovo streets before leaving Russia, but police ordered them to stop taping and erase the footage.
“We’re dismayed by the unjustified actions of the Pytalovo police against journalists who were doing their jobs,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Russian authorities to ensure that international journalists can do their work without such unwarranted obstruction.”
The incident comes during border treaty talks between Latvia and Russia, in which the national affiliation of the Pytalovo district is in dispute.