Having proposed that suspect news media outlets should have their licenses stripped, Vytautas Bakas is backing away, claiming that this is not his opinion. The head of the Lithuanian branch of Freedom House Vytis Jurkonis says that Lithuanian news media’s issues have been brought up in a number of international reports and the problem should not be dealt with by demonising or destroying a media outlet.
Discussions arose when V. Bakas stated on a Sunday interview with the LRT television that he believed there was room to restrict media control by halting licenses. This was stated after it was revealed that the MG Baltic group influenced politicians through media outlets it owns. V. Bakas described such actions as shooting at the state through news media.
MG Baltic owns the company Laisvas ir Nepriklausomas Kanalas, which controls the largest television group in the country – LNK, BTV, the women oriented TV1, the information and publicist channel Info TV and the leisure channel Liuks!.
On Monday Lithuanian Journalist Union (LŽS) chairman Dainius Radzevičius warned that this initiative could draw Lithuania into an international scandal.
Problems regarding more than one media group
The chief of Freedom House in Lithuania V. Jurkonis says that he can understand V. Bakas’ concern.
“The influence of businesses and transparency problems in Lithuanian news media have been brought up in a number of international reports and conferences. When looking at the Freedom House investigation Nations in Transit, the independent media index in Lithuania has been rather stable in recent years, but in a decade perspective there are worries of something of a negative trend. It is not as dramatic as in, say Poland, but neither is it as stable as in Estonia,” V. Jurkonis explains.
The revealed documents show that there certainly are issues in Lithuanian news media. However, according to V. Jurkonis, it would be naïve to believe that this is linked to solely one company or one media group.
“This is exactly why the problem should not be resolved by demonising and destroying a single media outlet, but a systematic implementation of transparency, accountability and ethics standards.
Politicians are also a part of this story – they do not live in a vacuum. You would probably be unable to find a single party, where you couldn’t levy a single complaint in terms of transparency. Dismissing one or other journalist or accusing one or other business group, politicians can mark a checkbox, but we must admit that it will not be a solution in the long term,” V. Jurkonis spoke.
According to him, the journalism community clearly needs to answer certain important questions for itself, rather than scare itself with politicians’ declarations. “Because the impression arises at times that they create it themselves. If all the limelight is now on the head of the NSGK and based on this example there is trumpeting how supposedly all politicians are aiming at press freedom, it will relay a (sub) conscious intent to bypass entrenched issues,” the head of the Lithuanian branch of Freedom House stated.
Jurist doubts prospects
Business dispute legal office Jurex partner Agnė Bilotaitė says that despite comments floating around in public, when looking from a legal standpoint, the prospects for stripping a media outlet’s license are more theoretical than practical.
“Based on the public information law, a basis to strip a license could be surfacing information that the media outlet, in its efforts to obtain the license, presented a fraudulent confirmation that individuals directly or indirectly controlling the outlet were or are not linked to any organised criminal groups.
Nevertheless, when seeking to strip a license on this basis, it would be necessary to establish legally both the existence of the organised criminal group and links to it,” A. Bilotaitė commented.
V. Jurkonis reminds that issuing licenses and stripping them is within the authority of the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK). The Seimas has its representatives in the commission, but it also contains representatives of other institutions, who ensure balance and the structure’s impartiality. “Of course, politicians have the right to share their opinion, but the LRTK is name there so that it would not yield to one or other politician’s opinion or mood,” V. Jurkonis says.
V. Bakas; unfortunately D. Radzevičius’ logic favours the current system more
Following a floor of criticism, V. Bakas excuses himself by stating he simply expressed his opinion.
“I only raised the idea that news media may not be performing its mission. This is not simple economic activity, it is licensed. Mr. Radzevičius can read the latest Reporters Without Borders report, where it is stated that the main remark for Lithuania’s media index is an excessive media dependency on major business. It is unfortunate that Mr. Radzevičius perhaps still does not believe that international organisations value media freedom in Lithuania,” V. Bakas responded to D. Radzevičius’ criticism.
According to him, Lithuanian news media is not unfree because of his own opinion, but because media freedom is being harmed by selfish power centres, who exploit the media not to strengthen democracy or inform society, but to satisfy personal interests.
According to the committee chairman, the LRTK is accountable to the Seimas and will have to review the circumstances currently in place.
“It is simply my opinion, currently it is not a part of the [committee] conclusions or anything else,” V. Bakas emphasised.
According to him, media representatives will express themselves, how news media should be strengthened. “I believe that a critical mass of people will form in our news media, ones who will be unwilling to yield to the tools being in the hands of narrow interest groups. After all, they are performing an important mission and I have no doubt that the media will make a decision itself. Unfortunately Mr. Radzevičius’ logic is more favourable for the current system. I completely disagree with Mr. Radzevičius that as a politician I cannot express a justified opinion. We are performing a parliamentary investigation and these are the processes we see, but D. Radzevičius cannot tell me, what I have the right to speak of,” V. Bakas said.
According to him, the LŽS is representing mostly regional news media and the situation in it is particularly difficult. According to V. Bakas there is desperate need to seek measures to ensure that regional media would perform its function and people would be informed of municipal processes.
V. Bakas does not dismiss he could be mistaken, however notes it is simply his opinion.
Opposed by D. Grybauskaitė, R. Karbauskis and S. Skvernelis
President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday that the actions of the MG Baltic group are an example of oligarchy, but that there is no legal basis to strip the license of LNK television, which is owned by the group.
“When I began talking about oligarchy in Lithuania, it was exactly the classical definition of oligarchs, when business intersects with politics and has media outlets to support its interests, which may not match the public interest. We are seeing a classical example of this in specifically the actions of MG Baltic,” the head of state said on a Žinių Radijas broadcast on Tuesday.
She stated that based on the current situation there is no basis to strip LNK of its license.
“But what I would really want to clearly state without raising expectations is that Lithuania is a country under the rule of law and we have legislation, which specifies the bases on which a license can be stripped or temporarily halted. We know it is only the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission that can do this and that the public information law is very clear and its foundations are very clear. As such I would want to responsibly say that under the current circumstances, at least in regard to LNK this law does not establish any such basis for its license to be halted,” D. Grybauskaitė said.
As “Farmer” leader Ramūnas Karbauskis told Delfi, V. Bakas’ thoughts on media control were “emotional.”
“But this is not talk of a specific group. The essence of the NSGK investigation is safeguards. What safeguards must appear so that the situation would not repeat, that the news media could not become hostage to some business groups or politicians who are pressuring one or other media owner,” he explained.
According to the politician, there is talk on the principle of who should not own media outlets and how they should operate. “The question arises from principle, how should media owners’ interests and public interest to receive accurate information be separated,” R. Karbauskis said.
Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis also disagrees with V. Bakas’ idea.
“I believe that the media itself will be able to do more through its self-regulation. I do not believe that there is need for talk of such cardinal or strict measures,” S. Skvernelis said on Monday.