Latvian Journalist Who Exposed Government Corruption Honored Ilze Jaunalksne receives International Women of Courage Award

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer
Department of State
March 9, 2007

Ilze Jaunalksne, journalist and anchor for Latvian television news programs De Facto (Photo courtesy of Ilze Jaunalksne)

Washington — A journalist and anchor for one of Latvia’s leading television news programs, Ilze Jaunalksne braved threats against her life to expose political corruption in Latvia.

Jaunalksne led the fight against Latvia’s widespread political corruption by breaking the story of a vote-buying scandal on her current affairs program De Facto in March 2006. Her investigation revealed that the entrenched practice was protected by prominent leaders at the highest level of government, and her courageous exposé resulted in the indictment of some of these leaders and the resignation of a government minister.

Jaunalksne’s successful promotion of the rule of law and good governance in the face of institutionalized corruption led to her being one of 10 women receiving the first U.S. State Department Women of Courage Awards on March 7. The 10 honorees were selected from a list of 82 nominations made by U.S. embassies around the world. Other recipients came from Afghanistan, Argentina, Indonesia, Iraq, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. (Seerelated article.)

Jaunalksne risked her personal safety by airing the corruption story, received death threats and continues to be vilified by those implicated in the scandal. To discredit her, opponents in the government instigated the illegal tapping of her mobile phone. They leaked transcripts of her conversations to the media.

She challenged the government in court for this invasion of her privacy, the first case of its kind in Latvia. She won. The Latvian Financial Police were ordered by the Riga regional court to pay Jaunalksne 100,000 lats ($187,000) in damages for illegally recording her calls and making the transcripts public. The February 9 ruling also found the Finance Ministry and State Revenue Service guilty of invading the journalist’s privacy.

Speaking to USINFO from the Riga hospital where she is staying with her prematurely born infant daughter, she said the final verdict is yet to come down because the case is being appealed. But, she added, “It was the first verdict like this and I think the state institutions that have the really strong power, they will … think before they start to listen to somebody’s telephone conversations. … I’m sure this verdict will be a lesson not only for some journalists who also became a victim like me, but also other citizens,” who now can be more confident about opposing corrupt officials.

Since the ruling, a criminal case has been filed by the prosecutor general’s office against the police officers involved. The judge who authorized the wiretap was suspended — another first, she said.

Latvia, formerly part of the now-defunct Soviet Union, declared its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Latvia is among the new member countries of the European Union that the 2006 Reporters Without Borders annual report named “havens of freedom of expression.” Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, in an international free press advocacy group.

Jaunalksne said that journalists in Latvia sometimes come under pressure. Because the government partially funds media outlets, it can exert control by cutting funding, she said.

After her daughter is stronger, she said, “My big wish” is to “come back in the battlefield, let’s say, and really to make a stronger journalist association.”

“When we have this association, we can start, step by step, to make better laws.” Jaunalksne said other colleagues have the same goals. “We can raise our voice more internationally,” and develop a system “based on good standards for a free press. I hope we will manage it.”

She was surprised that the initial ruling in the wiretapping case was in her favor and thinks that Latvia’s membership in the European Union likely helped. The judge “probably understood it very correctly, very honestly, this will be what comes to the European Court [of Human Rights] in Strasbourg” if his ruling was perceived to be influenced by the accused.

She said that after the ruling she was flooded with phone calls and messages, some from people who were “inspired by this,” people with their own grievances against corruption. “It inspired them to go to court.”

Jaunalksne said of the award from the U.S. State Department, “This was a strong message to the Latvian government” and those who would criminally harass journalists and other citizens “to make people feel fear all the time.”

She hopes to return to De Facto and continue to strengthen “the standards of democracy” in Latvia.

For more information, see Women in the Global Community.

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