The Government has taken several steps that pose a threat to the freedom of media in Lithuania. Even though the political leadership has not implemented all of their suggestions, the lack of respect to journalists and the public’s right to know raises many doubts about whether the pressure on the media will ever let up.
It has been two years since Lithuania has elected a new parliament, led by a new face in political establishment—the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS). In the previous years, the LVŽS has always acted on the margins of politics and has been unable to become a major player in national politics. Nonetheless, in 2016, in the midst of the biggest political corruption scandal in Lithuania’s modern history, LVŽS capitalized on falling trust in establishment parties and became one of the most popular parties in Lithuania. Despite its multitude of unfamiliar faces, the LVŽS was able to sell its political agenda with the help of two main figures at the centre of the party: Chairman and businessman Ramūnas Karbauskis, and soon-to-be Prime Minister, Saulius Skvernelis.
LVŽS came to power with promises that the new government will not only stick strictly to its campaign proposals, but that its workings will be guided by the principles of absolute transparency, which were declared as being at the core of their moral values. Yet, one small scandal after another gradually have deteriorated any premature trust or belief that the newcomers would be able to effectively implement their election campaign programme, while more people have started to admit that the Government has not proven itself to follow its own promises. Rising public criticism showed that the political elite does not have a thick skin. The media was always blamed for obstructing the work of the Government, but a wave of new proposals and incidents raised more questions about how the current leadership perceives freedom of media and whether it is time for the civil society to be more alert than ever.
Access to the Centre of Registries
On September 14, the Head of the Centre of Registries, Saulius Urbonavičius, took a sudden decision to stop a long-standing practice of providing journalists with free-of-charge access to its documented resources. He argued that the previous practice of open access was actually unlawful, as it had no existing legal basis. 1“Vyriausybė ir registrų centras duomenis žiniasklaidai žada atverti jau šią savaitę,” 15min.lt.
Newly issued regulations constitute that journalists would have to pay an additional fee to gain access to the Registries. Based on the new provisions, an average price for one journalistic investigation was assessed at around ten thousand euros 2“Valdžios siekiais apriboti žurnalistų ir lrt veiklą jau susirūpino ir tarptautinės organizacijos,” Delfi.. Karolis Liutkevičius, the Chief Legal Officer at the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius, emphasized that the government’s intention to discontinue a (technically) illegal practice and lay down a new set of clear legal rules should not be taken as an issue here per se. The biggest problem was rather the implementation of their decision: refusal to provide free access to journalists without no prior notice or explanation given to the media outlets.
On October 3, the Parliament of Lithuania (Seimas) scheduled a parliamentary debate on a possibility to grant free access to registry data, but the meeting was suddenly postponed without any justification or notice. As a response, a group of editors from various Lithuanian newspapers and the Chairman of the Union of Lithuanian Journalists (LŽS) issued an open letter to the Government asserting that the new provisions breached both the constitutional right of journalists to seek and receive information without any interference, and well as the public’s right to knowledge 3“Žurnalistai ragina atšaukti ribojimus gauti registrų duomenis,” Lietuvos žurnalistų sąjunga..
The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, joined the public discussion and increased the pressure on the government by underlining that this issue concerns not only the media, but the public at large. “Many countries have long been on the path of opening records to the public, as the open access has a positive impact on the economy, the spread of innovations, the progress of the state, and the daily life of our citizens.” 4“Prezidentė: valstybinių institucijų duomenys turi būti nemokami visiems,” 15min.lt. She also added that open access is one of the main drivers in a successful fight against corruption. This aspect has been specifically underlined in the recommendations to Lithuania by both the EU and OECD.
A few days later, rising public pressure pushed the Government to temporarily grant journalists access to the registries until the new amendments of the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public would enter into force. During this period, only the journalists and media outlets who have not been involved in any professional misconduct in the past year were able to gain access to the registries. These provisions finally allowed to establish a legal basis for providing access for journalists 5Rūta Balčiūnienė, “Registrų centro duomenys – vėl prieinami žiniasklaidai,” vz.lt..
On October 16, the Parliament agreed to submit the draft amendments of the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public. However, the new proposal indicates that the Registry Centre would not provide full access to its resources. Journalists will be prevented from accessing information about real estate and previous and current companies’ shareholders—a typical source of information for a majority of journalistic investigations. It is not clear yet whether these amendments were politically motivated and whether some points will be revisited in the upcoming parliamentary sessions 6“Seime pateikimo stadijoje pritarta pataisoms, atversiančioms dalį duomenų žurnalistams,” 15min.lt..
Yet, what occasioned the greatest uproar from the public and the journalists’ community was the fact that the Government has refused to provide the recording of the previously mentioned meeting to the public, once it became apparent that the PM may have used inflammatory language to describe the role of the media.
How one inconsiderate action can change everything
According to several sources, S. Skvernelis used a few eruptive phrases questioning the role of journalists in Lithuania and equating media outlets to regular businesses 7LaisvėsTV, #PremjereDuokĮrašą || Širinskienė VS Žilinskienė || Karštos Kėdės, YouTube video, 2018.
. Various media outlets demanded that the PM’s office publish the recording of the meeting; the request was, however, denied on the basis that the remarks made in the meeting did not represent the official opinion of the PM 8“Vyriausybė sunaikino įrašą su S. Skvernelio pasisakymais apie žodžio laisvę,” Lietuvos Radijas ir Televizija.. The crisis was further exacerbated when it was revealed that the recording was deleted after the request was made. The PM’s Office has been providing conflicting reasons for these occurrences.
Transparency International Office in Lithuania has emphasized that, currently, information provision is not adequately regulated. The existing Rules of Procedure do not clearly outline where and which type of information should be saved and archived, and who should be responsible and accountable for completing these tasks 9Interview with Eglė Kavoliūnaitė, Project Manager and Lawyer at Transparency International Lithuania. The government’s inability to appropriately explain their reasoning for deleting the recording has only further exposed the lack of legal clarity on this matter. Nonetheless, the Chancellery of the Government has already prepared a draft amendment in order to clarify the regulations of how recordings (and videos) should be managed and preserved, while the PM has underlined that a format for closed meetings should be defined as well 10“Skvernelis neneigia, kad uždariems pokalbiams bus surasti nauji formatai,” DELFI..
The argument that information from closed meetings should remain inaccessible to the public has also been refuted. The Inspector of Journalist Ethics, Gražina Ramanauskaitė, has stated that the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public prevents the Government from sharinginformation from working meetings only if it dealt with state secrets, which was not the case here. Vytautas Sinkevičius, a former member of Lithuania’s Constitutional Court, emphasized that knowing for a fact that the Government has been dealing with the questions of great public interest—the right to access and spread information—the leadership should have had a vested interest to be fully transparent on this matter 11“Žurnalistų sąjunga dėl Vyriausybės veiksmų kreipsis į teismą: ar Skvernelio laukia teisinės problemos?”.. The LŽS has already made an application to the Court in order to clarify whether the Government had the right to conceal the recording; the Court’s judgment on this application might turn crucial in determining the state of journalistic freedoms in the country.
These developments have also encouraged civil society activists to publicly express their displeasure with the government. On October 8, the Liberal Lithuanian Youth Association, together with the LŽS, organized a protest next to the Government building demanding it to stop implementing new measures aimed at obstructing the freedom of media in Lithuania 12Jūratė Damulytė, “Keli šimtai protestuotojų prie Vyriausybės reikalavo nevaržyti žiniasklaidos laisvės,” 15min.lt.. Yet, the fact that only a few hundred people came to the manifestation raises doubts how important this fundamental democratic right is to the general public.
Can regulations go too far?
The uproar created by the disappearance of a governmental recording has partially overshadowed two other important developments that could negatively affect the freedom of media in Lithuania.
In the beginning of October, the Seimas has finished its parliamentary commission investigation into the managerial and financial activities of the Council of the LRT (Lithuania’s National Radio and Television Broadcaster). As a solution to issues identified, the commission suggested to create a supplementary executive organ—the Board of the LRT. Its members would be appointed entirely by a new government commission and would be in charge of the LRT’s management. The Managing Director of LRT, Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, sees these changes as an intention to politicize the LRT 13“Valdžios Siekiais Apriboti Žurnalistų Ir LRT Veiklą Jau Susirūpino Ir Tarptautinės Organizacijos.”, since the appointments of both, the Board and the Council, would also coincide with the President’s and the Parliament’s terms of office. Newly suggested provisions would imply that two-thirds of LRT executives would be selected by various political agents 14Jūratė Skėrytė, “R.Karbauskis: Kultūros Komitetas Svarstys LRT Tarybos Depolitizavimą,” 15min.lt.. Official letters have already been issued to UNESCO 15https://www.lrt.lt/userfiles/files/LRT_Letter_to%20UNESCO.pdf(2).pdf, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the European Federation of Journalists, asking for any assistance to ensure the independence of LRT 16“Dainius Radzevičius kreipėsi į tarptautinius partnerius: valdantieji turės pasiaiškinti dėl LRT,” lrytas.lt, October 15, 2018,..
At the same time, the leader of LVŽS, R. Karbauskis, also issued new proposals to introduce new regulations on video content online. He suggested to give more powers to the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK) to oversee, manage, and even block content and access to video material online. New regulations, if passed, would imply that every channel or individual creator would have to notify the Commission about the content it uploads to online services, such as “YouTube,” and declare itself as an official broadcaster. LVŽS members claimed that new measures are being considered for three main reasons: to regulate the re-broadcasted video content (protecting copyright), to monitor the use of advertisements online, and simply to fill the existing gaps in law that had appeared due to massive technological advancements in a recent decade 17LaisvėsTV, #PremjereDuokĮrašą || Širinskienė VS Žilinskienė || Karštos Kėdės. Aušrinė Armonaitė (Liberal Party) commented that the new changes provide the Commission instruments allowing the Government to easily remove any content it finds displeasing. The timing of this proposal raised even more doubts about the real intentions of the authorities.
Are the threats real?
Can we see these developments as a clear attempt to limit the freedom of media in Lithuania? Yes and no. It would be difficult to make definite conclusions here, as the Government and LVŽS seem to have toned out the majority of initial proposals as soon as the media and the civil society became more vocal about these issues. Arguably, if the Government was to take targeted steps and measure to curb the freedom of media, it would have probably taken a more aggressive and forceful stance. And while some legal proposals do contain possible risks to the media, no concrete steps have been taken to enforce legal restrictions or obstructing the public’s right to know. Rather what we see is the inability of some political figures to admit that premature decisions were taken.
A lack of respect to the freedom of the media on the part of the current leadership might, instead, be considered as the most crucial factor here. K. Liutkevičius clearly notes that the statements made by the Prime Minister demonstrate that the freedom of media is not perceived by the Government as a fundamental value in a democratic country. This is by far not the first time when the parliament or the government has tried to apply pressure on various media outlets. History has already shown that the political elite always had problems taking any criticism lightly—which partially explains why there is so much tension and distrust between the media and the government. It has been remarked previously by various commentators that it was never the intention of the central authorities to systematically limit freedom of speech; the goal was simply to create more ‘breathing space’ for themselves. The current power dynamics and public discourses could definitely be considered as the relics of a post-Soviet mentality, where the media is perceived as having only one goal in mind—namely, to relentlessly criticize the authorities and to interfere with their work wherever possible. Of course, this should not undermine or disregard the possible risks and threats of discussed proposals, but it should rather aim at providing a more subtle reasoning for explaining the current developments.
Nonetheless, events over the last two years have showed that the general approach to human rights in Lithuania has not been improving. The current Government has consistently taken decisions disrespecting human rights and freedoms in one field or another 18Interview with Karolis Liutkevičius.. While it would probably be an overstatement to conclude that the situation is deteriorating drastically, recent developments are an indicative example of the political elite displaying signs of disrespect and contempt for civil freedoms in Lithuania. Only sustained and committed work towards ensuring and protecting human rights will enable to (re-)build trust between Lithuania’s government and civil society, and demonstrate that the government’s actions can be guided by the principles of transparency and openness, as it declared at the very beginning of its tenure.
|↑1||“Vyriausybė ir registrų centras duomenis žiniasklaidai žada atverti jau šią savaitę,” 15min.lt.|
|↑2||“Valdžios siekiais apriboti žurnalistų ir lrt veiklą jau susirūpino ir tarptautinės organizacijos,” Delfi.|
|↑3||“Žurnalistai ragina atšaukti ribojimus gauti registrų duomenis,” Lietuvos žurnalistų sąjunga.|
|↑4||“Prezidentė: valstybinių institucijų duomenys turi būti nemokami visiems,” 15min.lt.|
|↑5||Rūta Balčiūnienė, “Registrų centro duomenys – vėl prieinami žiniasklaidai,” vz.lt.|
|↑6||“Seime pateikimo stadijoje pritarta pataisoms, atversiančioms dalį duomenų žurnalistams,” 15min.lt.|
|↑7||LaisvėsTV, #PremjereDuokĮrašą || Širinskienė VS Žilinskienė || Karštos Kėdės, YouTube video, 2018.|
|↑8||“Vyriausybė sunaikino įrašą su S. Skvernelio pasisakymais apie žodžio laisvę,” Lietuvos Radijas ir Televizija.|
|↑9||Interview with Eglė Kavoliūnaitė, Project Manager and Lawyer at Transparency International Lithuania|
|↑10||“Skvernelis neneigia, kad uždariems pokalbiams bus surasti nauji formatai,” DELFI.|
|↑11||“Žurnalistų sąjunga dėl Vyriausybės veiksmų kreipsis į teismą: ar Skvernelio laukia teisinės problemos?”.|
|↑12||Jūratė Damulytė, “Keli šimtai protestuotojų prie Vyriausybės reikalavo nevaržyti žiniasklaidos laisvės,” 15min.lt.|
|↑13||“Valdžios Siekiais Apriboti Žurnalistų Ir LRT Veiklą Jau Susirūpino Ir Tarptautinės Organizacijos.”|
|↑14||Jūratė Skėrytė, “R.Karbauskis: Kultūros Komitetas Svarstys LRT Tarybos Depolitizavimą,” 15min.lt.|
|↑16||“Dainius Radzevičius kreipėsi į tarptautinius partnerius: valdantieji turės pasiaiškinti dėl LRT,” lrytas.lt, October 15, 2018,.|
|↑17||LaisvėsTV, #PremjereDuokĮrašą || Širinskienė VS Žilinskienė || Karštos Kėdės|
|↑18||Interview with Karolis Liutkevičius.|