Is there an ongoing information attack against Latvia?


Last week the Latvian Ministry of Defence published a press release announcing that there was a high probability of an ongoing information attack against the nation. Since this is an issue that Propastop directly deals with, we are trying to find out the real truth. At the same time, we will try to compare this incident from our southern neighbour to our own similar cases in Estonia.

Chronology of events

Tuesday 13. February

The US Treasury Department issues a memo that accuses Latvia’s third largest bank, ABLV of money laundering. On the initiative of the European Central Bank, a moratorium against ABLV is imposed, basically it is forbidden from paying out monies.

Friday 16. February

The Latvian anti-corruption bureau KNAB searches the home and office of the Latvian bank president, Ilmārs Rimšēvičsi and he is arrested but later released on bail. Rimšēvičsi is suspected of taking bribes.

Monday 19. February

Latvia launches a criminal case on the initiative of Latvia’s fifth largest bank, Nordvik, which accuses a high-level official in the banking sector of extorting bribes.

On the same day, an article by Carlo Piovano of the Associated Press (AP) appears based on an interview given by Norvik’s large shareholder Grigori Guselnikov. Guselnikov claims that Rimšēvičs has asked for bribes from him and alludes to the relationship between the Latvian bank president and the Kremlin. The story includes a picture from 2010 where Rimšēvičs is at a hunting lodge dinner with top Russian authorities.

Tuesday 20. February

The Latvian Ministry of Defence puts out a press release announcing that there is possibly an information operation aimed at compromising the Latvian image internationally, interfering in internal affairs as well as influencing the election process of Saeima.

The story from AP is used as the starting point of the security attack. In the press release, it gives the impression that the included photo is incorrect: that it is registered on Scanpix photo directory on February 19, 2018 not in 2010. In addition, the AP story has been re-published by many other outlets that generally are not interested in Latvian topics – it is suspected that the story has been distributed with the aid of bot’s edited, false accounts.

 Are the claims of the Latvian Ministry of Defence true?

Several international fact controllers analyze the allegations and they generally have not been validated. For example, DFRlab who believes the photo genuine and made in 2010 gives a good overview. The issue is being analyzed in the media and they believe that it is spreading due to Rimšēvičs arrest warrant. It is also added that the Russian media has not significantly given much attention to the story.

Propastop can add that the recent upload of the old photo is not a basis of suspecting it. Probably the picture was given to the journalist in connection with the story to be published and it was simply uploaded then. The Latvian banking scandal is however news of such a caliber that interests the media worldwide.

Please note that while the ABLV moratorium is at the same period as the AP story, nether is associated with Rimšēvičs’ criminal case according to KNAB. Still many publications and journalists have assumed a link, which has contributed to the spread of confusing information and the theory of information attacks.

What can Estonia learn from this case?

Let us dismiss the debate about how to prevent the reputation of Estonia due to the Latvian Banking scandal. Instead, let us concentrate on the press releases on information attacks, which is the oddest part of the incident.

If Estonia ever wanted to come out with such a serious accusation at a state or ministries level, the argument must be absolutely and irrevocably substantiated. It should also be able to show who is behind the attack. Writing prose that allude to an attack actually happening should be avoided. If there is any doubt about an attack is taking place, it should be substantiated prior to publishing it.

Also according to Propastop, it is not suitable to forward such a statement to the Ministry of Defence – this source of the message influences the view of the fact that it is known as war. We should try to stop notifiers whose communication would act as gasoline on a fire.

Who could be a notifier in Estonia? Perhaps the most appropriate is the Government Communication Office. Propastop has promoted the creation of a national reviewer post, who would best suit intermediation in information matters.

In addition, we can bring forward consistent communication recommendations. If such massive allegations are only reported through a brief press release, then followed by silence, it is better not to create such a situation. It is necessary to inform the public with updates on a day-to-day basis, otherwise the message about the confusing situation creates an even more blurred situation.

In the pictures: a screenshot of the AP article with the discussed photo; a screenshot of the Latvian Ministry of Defence press release.