Press freedom in lithuania: “silent orbanisation”

The public broadcaster LRT is feeling increasing pressure from the Lithuanian parliament. Journalists fear restrictions on their work.

Lithuanian President Daria Grybauskaite Photo: reuters

Yellow, green and red – a meter-long fabric hangs from the highest floor of the skyscraper on Konarski Street in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The national flag of the Baltic Republic dominates the headquarters of the public TV and radio broadcaster LRT from the outside. But journalists also fear a dominating influence inside. In the corridors of LRT, there is talk of an attack on the station – it is about the freedom of the press of Lithuania.

"Looking at LRT, one sees new intentions to restrict press freedom," says media scholar Deimantas Jastramskis, carefully describing the public debate of recent weeks. LRT head Monika GarbaCiauskaitė-Budrienė is less diplomatic: "This is a precedent in the EU. Never before has a public broadcaster been investigated in parliament. It stirs up fears," says the LRT director. "In the end, there is a 150-page report. And one of the proposals from it is to change the management system of the broadcaster. That shows that it’s about political interference in our public broadcasting system."

The background is that the coalition of the "Union of Farmers and Greens" and Social Democrats launched an investigative committee in the Lithuanian parliament in early 2018. The goal was to shed light on LRT’s work. The final report from October criticized above all the lack of transparency at the broadcaster with its three radio and three TV channels. Agnė Širinskienė, who sat on the committee for the ruling Farmers’ Party and is a prominent critic of the LRT, repeatedly cites the lack of standards in materials procurement as an example in interviews. And LRT head GarbaCiauskaitė also agrees on many points: "Even without this report, we would work on our efficiency to become better."

GarbaCiauskaitė, until six months ago editor-in-chief of the largest online newspaper, established a new investigative editorial department at LRT, for example, and hired new editors for this purpose. According to media scientist Jastramskis, this is a step in the right direction. After all, political scandals are being uncovered and the LRT televizija TV channel, which is only in third place among viewers, is now becoming a role model for other media. "The standard of our media is thus raised," says Jastramskis.

The outcome of the elections is open

Lithuania currently far ahead of Poland and Hungary in press freedom rankings

The most controversial proposal is to replace the current 12-member LRT Council, consisting of representatives of parliament, the presidential chancellery and NGOs, and to supplement it with a board of directors. The LRT Council would confirm it, but the Parliament would appoint it. In a statement, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) expressed concern that this would allow political influence on the broadcaster. After the Parliament narrowly passed the recommendations into committee at a meeting in late October, things have quieted down around a new LRT law. But in journalistic circles, fears of "silent Orbanisation" are rife.

Šarūnas Cerniauskas, an investigative journalist for the online newspaper 15min, points to Hungary and Poland, where the ruling parties are now instrumentalizing public broadcasting for their own purposes. "All previous governments in Lithuania had tried to curtail press freedom. But the current rulers are the most determined there," Cerniauskas says. "They tried ridiculous ideas, such as that 15 percent of coverage should be positive news."

As recently as September, there was another attempt: journalists suddenly had their access to the state registry center closed, and only in exchange for money were they supposed to receive information about, for example, the ownership of companies. "For our newspaper, which often researches several Lithuanian companies at the same time, a large investigation would immediately cost tens of thousands of euros," says Cerniauskas.

If Reporters Without Borders is anything to go by, the country often paraphrased as "post-Soviet" ranks 36th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, far ahead of Poland and Hungary, but also ahead of Great Britain. However, its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia rank higher. Media scholar Jastramskis points to President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who has stopped previous government attempts to restrict press freedom. But 2019 is a super election year in Lithuania: In addition to the EU Parliament and local elections, a new head of state will also be chosen. The outcome is open. For Lithuanian press freedom, too.

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