Kęstutis Girnius. Is the freedom of the press under threat?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The answer to this question is clear. There are no serious threats. The journalists are exaggerating. The government is not seeking to rein in the media, it backs away when it faces criticism over supposed attempts on the freedom of the press. If it had intentions to rein in the media, it would take a firm stand and would intensify its assault.

There is no doubt there is little love and trust for the media in the government. Meanwhile, many journalists are negatively inclined regarding the current government from day on and are convinced that “the wrong side” won the elections.

Thus, there will be confrontations, disagreements, accusations, tensions, a few protests perhaps, where journalists will voice their concerns. Such protests may be useful, they highlight dubious government actions to the public.

To clarify. Not all journalists view the situation the same, some, such as those of the BNS agency, refused to participate in the protest.

There is no ban on complaining about the government. The new Centre of Registers head S. Urbanavičius ended a longstanding practice in September to grant data based on journalist enquiries for free.

When journalists requested the government to present a recording of the meeting where the question of Centre of Registers information provision to the media was discussed, Prime Minister S. Skvernelis declared that the meetings are usually held behind closed doors and thus sees no reason to hand over the recording. Soon it turned out the recording was destroyed.

The Seimas commission’s proposals to change the LRT Council formation regulations and management model for the national broadcaster were met with criticism.

The changes supposedly open the door to LRT politicization. A similar reaction was evoked by legislative amendments, which expand the authority of the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK).

The amendments would allow the LRTK to apply sanctions to online broadcasters of unlicensed radio and television programmes. There were concerns that this could threaten the internet television Laisvės TV.

Not all of these complaints have a serious basis and the most important of them has essentially been resolved. Last Wednesday the government made a ruling, which will allow journalists to access Centre of Registers data free of charge. The data access expenses will be compensated by the budget up to the point where amendments will come into power, which regulate journalists’ access to free of charge registry data for the purpose of informing the public.

An uproar arose due to the government’s refusal to release the aforementioned meeting’s sound recording and the decision to destroy it.

By explaining that recordings of meetings held behind closed doors do not have to be publicised and the recording can be destroyed, Skvernelis clearly tripped up. BNS specified that the government chancellery’s work regulations specify that the digital recordings of cabinet meetings must be stored in data catalogues and on the end of a calendar month – transferred and stored in the government chancellery’s archive.

That the prime minister and his close advisors do not know or disregard their own chancellery’s regulations is nothing to applaud. Regulations must be upheld, even if they are poor.

On the other hand, it is unwise to demand that ministers’ meetings and discussions, even when they do not touch upon state secrets, would be accessible to journalists or the public.

Conditions must be ensured that in deliberations on serious questions, ministers or the prime minister’s advisors would be able to openly, acutely and even brutally express their opinion without sugar-coating. It will not happen if their remarks are made public.

They will pick their words with care to protect themselves from criticism, so that their image is not harmed and this way, the president or prime minister may not receive necessary advice.

It was claimed that in the meeting, Skvernelis spoke rudely about journalists. This would not surprise me. Politicians are not nuns. I neither have no doubt that many a journalist in their conversations cursed Skvernelis, Širinskienė and Karbauskis with various profanities. Journalists aren’t nuns either. There’s no need to pretend and be hypocritical.

Concerns were expressed regarding the potential politicization of the LRT, if some of the Seimas commission’s proposals were implemented, especially those regarding LRT Council member appointment regulations.

The commission’s proposals are debatable, they need careful reviewing. Some are acceptable, some aren’t, but the commission performed an important task, revealing the flaws in LRT administration, especially the lack of transparency and breaches in public procurement regulations.

As soon as the commission began to investigate the LRT, the usual accusations poured in that these are efforts to limit the freedom of the press. Nothing of the kind happened, equally how efforts to uncover paedophile priests is no attempt at freedom of religion.

It has been clear since 2011 that the LRT administration is performing abuses and is covering its activities with silence and shadow. The then LRT Council member A. Račas called upon the LRT administration with a request to access the broadcaster’s 2010 financial results, changes in wages for separate department staff, certain other documents.

The administration refused the request because it supposedly cannot reveal “trade secrets.” This was approved with a shameful majority consent from the LRT Council, which showed that they had no intent or could not perform their duty to oversee the administration.

While the LRT Council slept and the LRT administration, the journalists, made abuses, things turned sour. LRT management must be changed, a council should be formed, which is familiar with finances and business (let’s not forget the LRT budget is around 40 million euro), thus not just appoint poets and singers, but lawyers and businessmen with a spine, who would not care about the modest wage paid for participating in council meetings.

It is necessary to ensure that there would be no “trade secrets,” that information about staff wages and bonuses would be made public, as would be relations with production companies about public procurements. And to strictly prohibit all advertising, be it on television or online.

The president got involved in the discussions, declaring that attempts on the national broadcaster’s independence are a threat to the freedom of speech. During the commission’s investigations, she and her team did not conceal their favour for the LRT.

It is unfortunate that the president is once more indulging in repeating tired rebukes instead of presenting specific and formal proposals, the implementation of which would allow the LRT to perform more transparently and effectively. Serious structural changes are needed, not just the election of a new director general.

In the LRT case, the clan solidarity of journalists sprung to action, even if not of all of them. Even after the scandalous behaviour with Račas, there was no more serious journalistic investigation.

With the administration refusing to grant the commission information, the usual news media demands to ensure transparency and protect the people’s right to know, what is being done with tax payers’ money, was nowhere to be heard. Silence reigned, as if in conspiracy.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the government faltered by ceasing Centre of Registers data provision, destroying the recording and a number of commission proposals over LRT reform are worth criticising. Journalists have the duty to evaluate government reform proposals with criticism.

But the situation should not be overly dramatized, especially knowing that the government is inclined to concede to criticism and back down. It would be even better if journalists were to occasionally review themselves and news media institutions.

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