KLAIPEDA - Arturas Racas has spent over 25 years as a journalist in numerous high-profile positions, which included representing France’s AFP, and heading up BNS, a reputable Lithuanian news agency. But he has been closely watched by Lithuania’s State Security Department ever since moderating star-studded discussions at a debate club that they deem too pro-Kremlin.
49-year old Racas. currently embarking on his new endeavor, the launching of an ambitious news portal – one he insists is telling the news “differently” -- took time out from his hectic schedule to sit down with The Baltic Times .
You have recently started off www.faktai.lt How challenging is it? Where do you see its niche in the otherwise crammed e-news market?
If I had not believed that it can work, I’d have not launched it. I believe that it does stand a good chance of making it into the best of digital press. But, obviously, it cannot square off with some of the biggest of what you call the e-news behemoths.
Frankly, it’s not even about that for me. For me, it is about scrupulous news selection — posting more quality content, let me put it that way. We are striving each day to put out some entirely fresh piece of news — unpublished by anyone else, in other words. Unlike elsewhere, you won’t see names of authors in faktai.lt.
I do believe there is room for everyone under the sun. The UK media is an example of that: both Daily Mirror and Financial Times are doing fine with the readership they have and do not wade much into each other’s ambits.
In Lithuania, likewise, when it comes to looking for news, one can choose jaw-dropping headlines-led stories, which often, by the way, have little to do with the headlines. Delfi.lt is a good example of that kind of journalism, or get on a website, like ours, content and quality oriented.
In other words, faktai.lt caters to online readers who are fed up with boobs, bums and juicy news from a wannabie’s party.
Every time when I flip through the pages of most Lithuanian online news platforms, like Delfi, again, I get cheesed off seeing those horrible discrepancies between the headlines and the content under them.
Lithuanian journalists, obviously, need to get a Reuters journalism handbook and look through what it says about headlines. It definitely says nothing about making the headline eye-catchy by any means!
From the standpoint of good journalism, don’t you think we should be more worried now about the stream of “white” propaganda in Lithuanian media, which, not only by the political elite but by Lithuanian journalism watchdogs, too, is perceived as a necessary evil in defusing Russia’s “black” propaganda in the context of information warfare?
Indeed, this is what I’ve written and spoken a lot about- fighting Russian propaganda with another kind of propaganda. I see this happening all the time in our media. And Delfi.lt, again, leads the chorus.
Regrettably, in Lithuania, we often don’t even raise the issue. I happened to participate in a forum of journalism pundits in Brussels in the beginning of 2015, and the question “should Russian black propaganda be staved off with white propaganda?” popped up quite naturally. The debaters came unanimously to this conclusion: propaganda can be fought only with ethical journalism — i.e. precise information and reliable facts.
Personally, I do not believe Lithuania is capable of cranking up an anti-Russian propaganda machine able to outweigh what we call Russian propaganda.
But on the other hand, you have to agree that few people perhaps question what propaganda —white or black — is, so putting up five new stories daily on the bellicose Russia and Putin must get the work done and keep Russia and its leader thumbed down all the time.
I remember talking to a couple of Latvian journalists recently. You know, they were very surprised at the big difference between Lithuanian Delfi’s take on Russia and Ukrainian issues compared to that of Latvian Delfi. They kept asking me: “How come in Delfi.lt we see only news about Russia and Ukraine? Isn’t there anything else going on in your country?” There was not much I could tell them in explaining their observation. Obviously, we’re over exerting ourselves with the gushing Russia-and-Ukraine-news stream. It is a pity that some people do not understand that with the abundance of otherwise unilateral information we fail with the ultimate mission — withstand black propaganda.
What are your sources on the goings on in Russia and Ukraine?
First of all, I rely on the news by internationally acknowledged news agencies, including Reuters and the BBC. I do go over news in Lithuanian media, but I tend to double check them with Reuters, for example. The other day, I stumbled upon a front-page e-story- again with a screaming headline- on Russian tanks and military helicopters moving to the Red Square in Moscow. To my astonishment, there was nothing mentioned about on the BBC or Reuters. Just a few days later, it turned out that the Russians had been rehearsing the 70th anniversary since the victory in WWII. Is it a biggie? How important — journalism-wise — is that sort of news? It is not, obviously, but the reader is kept deliberately on alert.
Speaking of Lithuanian sources of information, I still trust BNS, a news agency I have worked for.
If you were to look at the profession of a journalist from the perspective of your own 25-year career, what biggest disappointments and discoveries would you discern?
Talking of the disappointments, I have never frankly expected that media will ever become the way it is today — that it will be awash with unreliable information, warped facts, plain eye-detectable propaganda and trivial or juicy news.
I’m also disappointed how some of the analysts out there are getting increasingly out of touch with what analysis even means, and can ramble on with pejorative, demeaning cliches, monikers and so on. It’s amazing to me to hear how such a “reputable analyst” can be referring to 15 really reputable economy pundits as dullards and no one really cares about it. This is something that could have been unheard of some time ago. I reckon the quality of news was better before, too.
Frankly, I see Lithuanian media more regressing than progressing.
Speaking of the brightest discoveries about the profession, what comes off the top of my mind first are all the encounters with people I’ve come along at my work.
Obviously, journalism is a great profession to learn about things, and weigh in on them, too. I know quite a bit about Lithuanian energy, oil, law and politics, obviously. That I can go to court today alone, without an attorney, is also part of the savviness and shrewdness that journalism gives one.
That I could help quite a few people — really help —as a journalist is also quite a big thing to me. As a matter of fact, I’m proud that I may have been the trigger to helping some young people on their way to becoming journalists. It makes me feel good.
You have taught journalists at Lithuania’s main journalist forgery – the Institute of Journalism at Vilnius University. How was the experience? How is the high tech-savvy generation as future journalists?
Indeed, I’ve taught a course of business journalism for a half-year at the school. But, perhaps, I was too critical of the teaching programme, which seemed to me to be out of touch with today’s requirements for the profession, so I got cut from the staff at the end of the day. I kept receiving letters of acknowledgment from the students well after I left the Institute, which makes me feel good.
I do not feel like talking about generational things when it comes to the preparation of journalists, frankly-there were indolent journalism students in the old days and now alike; but, again, some things I found out in the school left me astonished. For example, I asked my second-year students on the first day to take a test gauging their intellect and knowledge. The test results left me dumbfounded. Only one out of 28 students could tell the name of chief of Bank of Lithuania, only two perhaps could explain what consumption taxes are about. Let’s leave alone that no one knew who the International Monetary Fund chief was, or what some well-known acronyms mean.
At the end of the course, however, I saw some good improvements, so not surprisingly, most students got very good marks.
You have to agree that journalism has often brought you on the verge of politics. I don’t doubt you could have clinched a parliamentary seat several times if you had pursued it, but you did not. Did you ever regret it? Don’t you believe that the MP status helps secure a better livelihood than juggling journalism jobs?
To tell the truth, I’ve thought about it — campaigning for election to the Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) — not a single time. Frankly, at one point or another in my life, I’d received invitations to join the electoral lists from nearly all Lithuanian parties. But, you know, when I look at the politics from the outside, I tend to realize two things. First, I’m too assertive and blunt for politics; second, I call myself a man of action. In other words, I like to take decisions and have them realized. So I told myself that I will go to Seimas if I’m sure that I have 71 seats under my supervision. As this seems beyond my reach for now, it means I won’t be exerting myself in that direction.
Look, to go back to your question on the best things of journalism, now I’m sitting in the terrace of my house and talking to you and working from it. How on earth could I want to swap this ambient working environment for the hostility-filled Seimas?
Is your assertiveness also to blame for the interest of Lithuania’s State Security Department (SSD) you have dealt with?
I really have no idea why the Department mentioned the name of club, Format A-3, as a Kremlin-friendly and Lithuania-hostile platform. The scandalous SSD report with the indirect reference to me was all about raving. The activities of Format A-3 date back, if I’m not mistaken, to the outset of 2013, when a Russian woman activist came my way. She was looking for someone knowledgeable of Lithuanian politics and the economy and someone who could moderate public events on the issues. The first high-profile gathering we had was all about Soviet basketball — among its big names were Sarunas Marciulionis [the first Lithuanian to make it to NBA], Gomelskis, a prominent Russian basketball expert, Sergeij Tarakanov, a legendary basketball player from the golden Soviet team.
Lithuanian media, including Delfi.lt, was eager to cover the series of debates under the format, until the myth on the purported Russian agents within the club has been created. I really cannot explain why and who fed it, but it has dwarfed the good and nice intention it had. I sometimes think that some of the interior opponents I obviously have stood behind all the brouhaha.
Let’s speak a little bit about the politics at the end. How you, once a staunch stickler of President Dalia Grybauskaite, have turned into such a big critic of her now?
I believe that any journalist must be critical of people in power and President Grybauskaite is no exception. But indeed, I had thought that she would make a lot better president than her predecessor Valdas Adamkus. But some of her actions in the Office have been bad, but, characteristically to her, she would never admit it. First, she has made a mistake refusing IMF aid, I believe. Look, Latvia’s decision in that regards has played out a whole lot better for the Latvian economy than the-then Lithuanian Government’s decision to proceed with horrible budget cuts. Then there was the Neringa Venckiene saga (Venckiene, a judge from Kaunas, had been embroiled in a high-profile pedophile case, now she on the run in the United States-L.J) and, with the justice against Venckiene, Grybauskaite has come in defense of her. And, finally, there came the story with the heads of Financial Crimes Investigation Service, whom she publicly blamed, though the court has exonerated them at the end. Grybauskaite has not mustered the courage to admit her blunder; again, I have to say. And there have been more dubious decisions by her.
Lately, her overly assertive and blunt take on Russia, overstepping the EU official position, has done quite a lot of harm to Lithuanian interests. Let’s face it all: she makes more harm than good to Lithuania now.
Arturas Racas’s articles can be read in Lithuanian at Factai.lt