The amendment was put for vote on Tuesday. Thirty-three MPs voted in favour, 13 voted against while 49 abstained. This was not enough for the bill to pass the first hearing. After a second vote the bill was returned for revision.
The bill was mostly supported by the conservative Homeland Union MPs and several liberals, while most members of the ruling centre-left majority abstained.
The president has suggested amending the Law on Public Information, stating that at least 90 percent of television programmes rebroadcast in Lithuania should be in the official languages of the European Union, except for special (thematic) packages.
In the president’s words, the measures have been proposed “in the wake of increasingly frequent information attacks and hostile propaganda” from Russia. Russian TV production accounts for up to 30 percent of all programmes rebroadcast in Lithuania.
Under the proposed amendments, propagation and instigation of war, calls to undermine Lithuania’s sovereignty and independence could lead to the suspension or termination of a broadcasting or rebroadcasting license as well as heavy fines by the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania. According to the President’s Office, similar rules are in force in Germany, France, Slovenia and Malta.
Calls to change Lithuania’s constitutional system by force, attempts to breach the country’s independence and instigation of war could lead to a fine of up to 100,000 litas (almost EUR 29,000).
Best way to fight propaganda?
During the presentation of the amendments, parliamentarians argued whether bans were the best way of fighting propaganda.
“Banning is not the way that would settle all problems, especially since today’s technologies, Internet, satellite TV, etc., make the action useless. Shouldn’t we ensure the influence of the Lithuanian radio and television in the country’s life so that the society is informed and educated in a proper manner? Let’s take the path of promotion, not bans,” said Social Democratic MP Mindaugas Bastys, chairman of the parliamentary Information Society Development Committee.
Presidential adviser Rūta Kackutė, who presented the amendments, said that the restrictions would apply to the main package of TV channels, while those willing to order specialized packages would be allowed to do so. “We are talking about restricting up to 10 percent of programs in the main package. As a matter of fact, residents of Lithuania will be able to see other programs, too, if they choose to, but this will not be in the main package offered by rebroadcasters,” said the adviser.
Meanwhile, Social Democratic MP Birutė Vėsaitė noted that the restrictions signaled a lack of confidence in critical thinking of Lithuanian citizens, adding that more Lithuanians still spoke Russian as a foreign language than English.
“Why do we think that the citizens of Lithuania are stupid and lack critical thinking, and that people will simply be unable to tell lies from truth. Don’t you think that such amendments will restrict people’s right to freedom of information? Who are the main TV viewers? Pensioners. Do they speak English? Polls show that 65 percent of Lithuania’s residents understand Russian and 30 percent speak English,” she said.
“We have been living in the European Union and NATO for ten years already, making decisions together with our partners, therefore, being in the Western information space is becoming increasingly important in Lithuania every day, and this would give Lithuanian residents access to all types of information,” the presidential adviser said in response.
Liberal MP Remigijus Šimašius said that while he supported the reasons behind the proposed amendments, he still feared that the effect may be quite the opposite. According to him, as providers are forced to drop great chunks of Russian-language production in their packages, what is left might turn out to be the most aggressive channels, while alternative oppositional Russian TV production is made casualty of the restrictions.
Opposition leader Andrius Kubilius, the leader of the conservatives, criticized the Seimas decision to vote down the president’s amendments.