The VSD has proposed to criminalize disinformation, defined as “activities that publicly spread false information in order to do harm to national interests of the Republic of Lithuania or to destabilize the state”.
VSD head Darius Jauniškis told Žinių Radijas that when preparing for war, unfriendly countries, namely Russia, seek “to undermine the will to resist, which can be done through economy with information operations: scaring Lithuanian people, seeding uncertainty, criticizing the country’s leadership”. The VSD named two politicians and signatories to the 1990 Independence Act, Rolandas Paulauskas and Zigmas Vaišvila, whose statements allegedly represented threats to national security.
These statements from the VSD are disconcerting, but they should not be surprising to Lithuanians. VSD leadership has been voicing similar nonsense for several years, suggesting that criticism of the country’s leaders should be seen as almost criminal activity.
Two years ago, the VSD set its focus on MEP Valdemar Tomaševski, the leader of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, because he refused to meet with VSD officers. They probably didn’t like Tomaševski’s public comments that Ukraine’s new government was mistreating its ethnic minorities and that some Maidan leaders were veering into ultra-nationalism. On the other hand, Tomaševski’s ties to Russia do sometimes seem suspiciously cordial.
Last year, the report paid tribute to [journalist] Artūras Račas. His photo illustrated the report, which also critically spoke of his discussion club “Format A3”, without actually mentioning him by name.
Now, like then, the VSD has given itself the right to judge Lithuanian politicians’ public statements and classify them into patriotic/non-patriotic or worrying/non-worrying.
If Paulauskas and Vaišvila were secretly meeting with Russian security agents, if they were taking money for articles smearing Lithuania and perhaps Ukraine (they’re not), the VSD would be justified in issuing a warning, perhaps handing evidence over to prosecutors so they could investigate. However, the VSD has neither the competence nor the mandate to judge Lithuanian citizens’ public statements against their own scale of patriotism.
The VSD should focus its efforts on counter-intelligence, not discourse analysis.
Eight years ago, the then head of the VSD, Povilas Malakauskas, tried to wash my brain, too. He told me that, deplorably, some reporters were unwittingly or purposefully doing harm to Lithuania by criticizing the president and the Constitutional Court, those two pillars of the state. My impression was that the VSD wanted me to write more positively about Lithuanian leaders, close my eyes to their mistakes and stumbles – all for the sake of patriotism.
Eight years and three directors later, the VSD remains faithful to that same Soviet mentality, disregard for free speech, and hunt for “saboteurs”. Where do these directors come from, why can’t they learn from the nonsense of their predecessors? Are there really no people in the VSD ranks who could understand that the agency is thus discrediting itself and Lithuania.
Paulauskas and Vaišvila allegedly do harm to Lithuania, because the Russian media can report on their statements and use them for propaganda purposes. Well, that may be so. But by the same token, the VSD is doing even more harm to Lithuania.
The Russian media will jump on the opportunity to report that Lithuania’s state institutions are trying to silence two old inconsequential politicians and even want to change the Criminal Code in order to punish them for merely criticizing Lithuania’s policies vis-a-vis Russia or the European Union. Although Lithuania presents itself is a beacon of democracy and free speech, the freedom only stands as long as you agree with the government.
A week ago, DELFI published an op-ed piece by Bronislovas Genzelis and Aloyzas Sakalas who militantly, even spitefully criticized President Dalia Grybauskaitė. They argued that she lied a lot, tried to cover up her past and “treat[ed] the Constitution like Stalin”.
She allegedly smeared the country’s government abroad, accused it of corruption – something that “politicians staging a coup” would do, they wrote. Genzelis and Sakalas also wrote that “not everyone loudly speaking against the Russians is an enemy of Russia and not its special service agent” and, the final coup de grace, that not just Grybauskaitė, but Hitler, too, was elected by voters.
If Moscow wanted to smear Lithuania, this op-ed would be a goldmine, especially since Sakalas is an honorary chairman of the Social Democratic Party, not an inconsequential ex-politician. However, Sakalas and Genzelis will not be included in the list of “saboteurs”.
What about such inconsistency? Does the VSD only single out marginal characters? Perhaps the reasoning is that “bad guys” like Paulauskas and Vaišvila spread false information with the intention to “do harm to national interests of the Republic of Lithuania or to destabilize the state”.
The problem with this argument is that there are no reliable methods to say for certain when a person is lying and is not simply mistaken and what their motives are. I am certain that Genzelis and Sakalas want to draw people’s attention to what they believe are threats to the Lithuanian state posed by the president. But who can prove, rather than just guess, that Paulauskas and Vaišvila are acting in bad faith and not out of patriotism? Perhaps they sincerely believe that Lithuania would be better off out of the EU. Even if one is justified in being suspicious about their motives, free speech is not something granted exclusively to the pure-spirited.
One should not overstate the importance of what the VSD does. It is a confused service unable to learn from its own mistakes – that has been known all along. However, there are two aspects to this story that are puzzling. First, why didn’t more politicians come forward to criticize the VSD? Although perhaps they believe there is no point in wasting one’s breath on such a hopeless organization.
Second, there is a growing support in this country for introducing a thought police. There have already been moves to “protect” people of Lithuania, mostly Russian speakers, from Russian television. Now there is the motion to go one step further: punish those who spread disinformation.
Even Leonidas Donskis [liberal public intellectual and former MEP] seems to be in support of stricter measures when he writes: “I understand the intention to fight all attempts to destabilize the situation. In the case of malicious, cynical lies about the situation of minorities or democracy in Lithuania, such disinformation could be legally prosecuted and punished.”
Lithuania is winning the “information war” with Russia, but the question to ask is whether the price of victory – restriction of rights and criminalization of free thought – is not too high a price to pay.
Kęstutis Girnius is Associate Professor at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science