Kęstutis Girnius. LRT financing review is no assault on the freedom of press

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

On Friday a clear majority in Seimas voted in favour of a parliamentary investigation of Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) management, financial and business activities.

MPs who support the initiative stated that they are exclusively interested in the financial and administrative situation of the national broadcaster, as well as the transparency of the LRT as a state financed public institution.

The LRT and its defenders, on an energetic counterattack, explained that the “Farmers” are assaulting the freedom of press. Hints are made that the “Farmers” may follow the Polish example in limiting or removing the LRT’s independence, make the national broadcaster into the ruling coalition’s tool.

I was not convinced by the LRT council’s statements that it cannot grant information about the specific wages of LRT staff and contracts with production companies because this would supposedly breach data protection legislation and confidentiality agreements.

As an institution funded through the money of Lithuanian tax payers, the LRT must work openly and transparently without withholding anything, similarly to the Ministry of National Defence and others. The refusal to provide the requested information raises suspicions that these are efforts to conceal the clientele networks established in the LRT.

I had no doubt that the Seimas should support the measures which would allow to perform parliamentary control in unison. After all the Seimas’ institutional dignity demands that it would defend its rights and prerogatives. But there is no institutional solidarity, in Lithuania it is more important to see your enemy’s enemy as your ally, especially if the enemy is R. Karbauskis and the “Farmers”, thus I was concerned that the investigation won’t garner support.

A number of opposition members took to defending the LRT. E. Gentvilas states that the planned investigation appears to be political interference in the news media’s work and could be seen as an attempt to pressure and influence the media.

It is hard to believe that Gentvilas earnestly thinks this nonsense. After all it is the same as claiming that efforts to uncover paedophiliac clergy are an assault on the freedom of religion. Furthermore how could the “Farmers” have a significant impact on the LRT when the director is elected by council members who do not depend on Karbauskis’ will and the president who is hostile to the “Farmers” elects an entire third of its members.

President Grybauskaitė, who always emphasises the importance of combatting corruption and ensuring transparency, has indirectly supported the LRT.

Her advisor Mindaugas Lingė stated that the Seimas must ensure the public broadcaster’s transparency, however when it is exclusively the ruling coalition that takes this up, questions are raised whether the LRT’s independence is not being breached.

Apparently the Constitutional Court has clearly stated that “control cannot be performed by individuals who hold certain interests”, that the MPs’ duty is to make sure that effective and independent control is created, rather than directly controlling.

There’s ample sophism here. It would be better if the Seimas had a united opinion and acted in unison. But consensus is rarely achieved, usually decisions are made by margins of just a few votes. The work of Seimas would cease if it was possible to pass legislation only when all groups support it or at least a significant majority.

It is unlikely that the Constitutional Court stated that “control cannot be performed by individuals who hold certain interests” because there are no individuals who wouldn’t hold interests. If such beings existed, they would be completely passive and inert. Everyone has interests, both the LRT’s critics and defenders.

It is undisputable that the Seimas should create independent and effective control instead of seeking to control by itself.

But a one-time investigation is not control, rather it is an effort to come to an understanding of the situation in order to create more effective control. You cannot control that which you do not understand. You cannot improve legislation if you do not know how current regulations are misused, what regulatory gaps there are.

Opposition members assure that the National Audit Office should review the LRT’s finances. But we must recall that the LRT management has covered its actions with silence and darkness for seven years now.

In March 2011, then council member Artūras Račas appealed to the LRT administration with a request to familiarise himself with the preliminary financial results for the LRT in 2010, the changes in pay for individual LRT branch staff, certain other documents. The administration refused because apparently it cannot reveal “commercial secrets”. The majority of the LRT council embarrassingly turned away from their colleague.

Instead of supporting Račas’ efforts to perform the duties of a council member and control the administration which is subordinate to the council, they reversed the chain of command and granted the administration to play around the council.

In its letter to the Seimas, the LRT admitted that “In 2014-2016 the National Audit Office did not perform a single audit of the LRT’s activities” and that over this period “not a single external audit of the LRT, whose conclusions would be taken as ones of audit under the Lithuanian Republic audit law” were performed.

A black hole. The council was criminally lenient, even making no effort to review the LRT finance and activities, not organising an audit. If the officials now emphasising the importance of the National Audit Office had demanded adequate oversight for the LRT earlier, it would not be needed now. But they did not do so, thus a review is needed. In order to not delay it even further, a parliamentary investigation is needed.

Andrius Kubilius has stressed the 2006 Constitutional Court (CT) ruling “Regarding the national broadcaster’s status, management and rights” a number of times. His main point, if I understand correctly, is as follows: the Seimas is not almighty, must respect the Constitution and CT rulings. In its ruling the CT emphasised that the independence of the national broadcaster cannot be breached in legislation that regulates the national broadcaster’s management model and the respective model of financial control for it. The CT notes that this “control envelops, among other things, financial and property audit which is an important part of this control.”

Has to be controlled, whether the national broadcaster is not abusing its special legal status and opportunities granted by the status… whether its activities do not deviate from the constitutional imperatives of fair competition and if the funds provided to perform the special constitutional mission are being used for exactly this.

I do not understand Kubilius’ complaints. The majority of MPs’ plans match the CT ruling, do not breach it. There are no plans to hand over permanent oversight of the LRT to the Seimas, thus it does not oppose the CT ruling.

A number of questions and doubts over staff wages and bonuses, relations with production companies and public procurements have arisen.

Only a more detailed investigation will reveal whether the LRT acted transparently, whether state funds were used correctly and whether there were abuses and clientele relations, under which rights and legislative measures they can be removed by improving legislation.

The issue is not one of the “Farmers” exceeding their competences, but that for many years the LRT has abused its position. It is fortunate that the Seimas majority understands that there can be no opaque and uncontrolled state institutions.

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