Lithuania: free speech vs. fee speech 

By Sarunas Cerniauskas

Lithuania doesn‘t face the kind of challenges to the freedom of speech that are very much visible in the examples of Poland or Hungary. However, several attempts to tamper with the legislation were recently undertaken. 

Lithuania: free press vs.fee press By Jsx - Own work, Public Domain,

Probably the biggest challenge to the freedom of press was delivered by a person who is supposed to be the independent intermediary between the reporters and the people who are unhappy with the stories. Gražina Ramanauskaitė-Tiumenevienė, the inspector of journalist ethics, recently came up with a suggestion to broaden her own power over the media. In particular, she aimed at controlling the media‘s coverage of legal entities.

Under the current law, individuals can easily address the inspector with claims against journalists reporting on them.

Businesses and other legal entities, if they feel the reporting damaged their reputation, can address another institution, the Commission on the Ethics of Public Information, or go to court.  

At first, Tiumenevienė's amendments were portrayed as ‘cosmetic’ and non-significant to the media organisations. However, experts considered them to be an instrument for censorship, several major media outlets stood up against the regulation, and it was rejected by the parliament in May 2017.

Another bizarre effort to overwrite the law came in March 2017. Then, three members of the governing coalition came up with an idea to regulate the quantity of positive news in the media. They registered a law project that would oblige the media to have at least 50 per cent of positive news in their news stream, including the opening (for TV shows) and the frontpage (for newspapers and internet portals). The media strongly opposed the 50/50 regulation and it never made it to the plenary session of the parliament.

Also, several members of the parliament tried to censor the national TV. For example, it was suggested that national TV should be banned from hiring production companies. This kind of regulation would, for example, kick out one of the leading journalists in the country, Edmundas Jakilaitis and his show Dėmesio Centre – the Lithuanian version of the BBC World Service show HardTalk. Then it was suggested that the method of appointing the CEO of the national radio and television should be changed, by granting the Culture Committee of the parliament the power to nominate the candidate. The Culture Committee is headed by Ramūnas Karbauskis – the leader of the ruling party. Karbauskis has been in an open conflict with the media from the very beginning of his term in the parliament. After stepping into power in late 2016, Karbauskis accused several media outlets and journalists of being biased and spreading ‘fake news’. 

MP resigned from parliament

The conflict escalated after the media went after Greta Kildišienė, an MP who is considered to be Karbauskis‘s protegée. The media revealed that Kildišienė – a previously unknown textile worker from the town of Panevėžys – was using a Range Rover Evoque that belonged to Karbauskis‘ company and misrepresented her education while running for parliament. Later, media reported further allegations. After this, Kildišienė resigned from the parliament.

Probably the most serious case of the state using its power against the media happened in 2013. Then, the local anti-corruption agency (STT) raided the office of the BNS news agency and the flat of Jūratė Damulytė, one of its leading journalists, while investigating allegations into leaking secret information. Later, the higher court ruled the raid in the journalist‘s flat was sanctioned illegally. The court also overruled the earlier decision that obliged Damulytė to disclose her source. The STT‘s actions were condemned by the journalists’ community. Dozens of journalists gathered in front of the STT‘s headquarters and expressed their protest with a demonstration of ironic clapping.

After this incident, there were no more major incidents of the state using its power against reporters. However, the relationship between the media and the people in power remains tense in Lithuania.

This article is produced as a co-operation between ECPMF and the investigative journalism network EIJC. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ECPMF.

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