Warning over news media: situation compared to state of war

Having to prove you’re not an elephant

“I have worked in this area for twenty years, but never seen such things before,” the head of the Init information service Jurgita Barzdžiuvienė described the current situation. Her editorial office, as she describes it, is flooded by various complaints, but there are few resources for it: “Even without the amendments, we have major problems. One example is how we are thrust into court proceedings and are reported to various institutions.”

She recounted a situation where a specialist was asked to comment on a minister’s statements on off brand drugs. “From that time, we have not been able to work normally. Just now (and this was a few months ago), a statement was released that the state’s foundation is being harmed, banning the specialist from lecturing at university and declaring that the tiny television station and that professor are a threat to security,” the media representative said at the conference.

On Saturday, the Seimas approved amendments to the public information law, based on which news media is prohibited from spreading not only disinformation and war propaganda, but also information, which encourages distrust in the Lithuanian state and its institutions, democratic system and state defence, seeking to strengthen national and cultural divides, weakening national identity and civic mindedness, weakening the citizens’ resolve to defend the state.

“This already exists, but the proposals are to go even further,” J. Barzdžiuvienė stated. Such cases, the head of the information service points out, massively complicate work because despite having little resources, you have to continue working and also “keep proving you’re not an elephant.”

The story of Init’s representative was described as a familiar matter by LRT director general Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, who described it as legal persecution.

“In a sense we too are already experiencing it and I have no doubt that other media outlets also do. It is a way to stop media work,” the LRT director general said. According to her, manifestations of such legal persecution appear before the public broadcaster following every one of its investigations, for example the one, which investigated, from whom Agrokoncernas purchases its fertiliser.

“Large businesses, who have the opportunities to hire the best lawyers and defend their interests at any cost, are seeking to narrow the scope of news media and I see it as our duty as the public broadcaster to defend this scope,” M. Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė said.

Head of the LRT: amendments are rushed and undiscussed

Another set of amendments currently presented to Seimas are in regard to the LRT law. There are so many parts that the majority wishes to change in it that a whole new redaction of the law is presented. It was prepared based on the conclusions made by the ad hoc parliamentary commission. That said, the conclusions were not approved by the Seimas in the end.

The new redaction proposes to establish an LRT board and ombudsman, the number of politically delegated LRT Council members is halved, the administrative commission is abolished, the redaction makes equal the regulation of the LRT internet portal, radio and television, applying advertising prohibition on the portal.

While the LRT leadership and ad hoc commission agreed on certain aspects, such as the ombudsman office, the final variant describes an ombudsman institution, which according to M. Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė is no longer alike the one discussed earlier.

The Conservative party has registered another variant of the LRT law amendments. It is apparently based on the BBC model. “While we see nothing bad with the current LRT, things to fix in it, if there is this much desire to change, we propose to base it on the highest standard, that is to say the BBC. Especially with the BBC’s management model being akin to the LRT’s,” Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat party member Andrius Kubilius said in the discussion.

Among the amendments planned by the majority, the head of the LRT sees the bulldozer as the biggest problem, efforts to rush through amendments without discussion. This discussion, she notes, was the first to be organised at politicians’ initiative.

“The Culture Committee‘s response to our requests was that there is no need for a cabinet workgroup or expert conclusions. Apparently, the members of the Culture Committee will cope just fine and the composition of the legislation will be excellent,” she recalled.

Rise of self-censorship?

The president of the Lithuanian Cable Television Association and deputy chairwoman of the Ethics Commission for Public Information Vaiva Žukienė was also critical of the current situation, which has emerged even before the amendments come into power.

“I have never seen this sort of push before. And we, as the Ethics Commission for Public Information, have made a public statement. We already see how things are proceeding. For example, one municipality manages to send seven complaints to one newspaper.

There is no meeting where we would not review some mayor’s, municipality’s, ministry’s or some other state institution’s complaint. What is most interesting is that they all conclude that trust in the institution or official is diminished,” she said.

The public information law amendments specify that news media will be prohibited to decrease confidence in state institutions. “I know what will happen – simply put, newspapers and especially smaller ones, will begin to self-censor. Because imagine how every week or two, you have to go to a commission or wherever else – people will simply not have time to write,” she emphasised.

Deputy chairman to the Journalist Union Darius Lukoševičius recounted how he recently visited China and spoke with local journalists there. Their censorship institution was abolished 14 years ago and now there is no longer need to present information to anyone before publishing. However, people work in fear because journalists are jailed for unsuitable work. Their editorial offices have an individual working, who, if questions arise, calls the party committee and finds out how certain information must be presented.

LŽS representative: defend what if there’s no more democracy?

Commenting on the public information law amendments, D. Lukoševičius compared it to declaring a state of war.

“This is really a declaration of war. […] Let me remind that the Constitution guarantees not only the freedom of expression, but also of opinion. That is to say, an individual may have an opinion that is mistaken. And this does not weaken democracy,” he stated. He did not change his opinion even with conservative MP Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė suggesting to consult on which phrases could be removed from the amendments and what amendments could be presented to Seimas.

D. Lukoševičius stressed that while the majority is talking about how the law is supposedly intended to protect from hostile countries’ disinformation during the elections, he sees no indication in the project, based on which the law could be applied to foreign news media. The discussion also found that there is a fairly large number of international news media outlets in Lithuania.

According to the deputy LŽS chairman, the law, if it is passed in one form or another, should stop in the Constitutional Court and with disinformation from hostile countries spreading through the country, he believes that Lithuanian news media outlets would deny it even without the law.

15min.lt journalist Paulius Gritėnas emphasised that through the investigation commissions and the LRT law amendments, the majority is seeking to show that the news media outlet is unable to manage itself.

“More or less, but distrust in the media is being fostered. In the case of the LRT, through the process of legislation, it is sought to establish and portray that the LRT is unable to manage itself. […] In commercial news media outlets, we for example face various attempts to portray that the content or editorial decisions are influenced,” he said, pointing to the example of MP Agnė Širinskienė writing on Facebook that 15min.lt is being influenced by the pharmacy industry.

Criticising the public information law amendments, P. Gritėnas noted a paradox, which D. Lukoševičius had brought up: “Their principle is to defend the democratic system in Lithuania – sovereignty. One of the main elements of democracy is freedom of press and expression. Hence, what is being done is that these freedoms are restricted in the defence of democracy.”

D. Lukoševičius wondered, what the point is to defend from non-democratic neighbours if we ourselves will no longer have democracy. “One of the conditions of establishing dictatorship is distrust in the news media. It is the first step,” the Journalist Union representative emphasised.

Jurist: this is going too far

The Seimas legal department has stated regarding these amendments that the project was poorly made. Advisor to the Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics Jūratė Kučinskaitė was also critical of it, stating that there are often attempts to change the public information law, but each law should only be changed if there truly is need for it.

“In fact, the public information law is of very high quality, something that is recognised by experts from European Union institutions,” she emphasised.

The directive, which the amendments are justified by, is according to the jurist only there to present goals – the state is to decide measures and means itself.

“I believe that with such flexibility, the state made use of it to the point where it was taken too far,” the jurist said.

The Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics service is preparing remarks, which will be presented to the committee. “In my opinion, the greatest number of problems are caused by the definitions because they are unclear and ambiguous, which no doubt would cause difficulties in real life,” J. Kučinskaitė emphasised.

To her knowledge, the Ministry of Culture has formed a workgroup on public information law amendments, but has not held a single meeting.

The discussion was organised by the Conservative party members in Seimas.

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