Sad week for Lithuania

  • 2005-07-13
Last week a Vilnius court found publisher and editor Vitas Tomkus guilty of inciting racial and ethnic hatred for a series of scathing articles he personally penned in his newspaper in the beginning of 2004. That's the good news. The bad news is that not only was the defendant not compelled to appear in court to answer questions, but the judge ordered Tomkus, who believes that Jews and gays run the world, to pay a paltry penalty of 3,000 litas.

Now, at least, we know the price of anti-Semitism in Lithuania: a mere 870 euros 's chump-change for small businessmen, let alone media tycoons like Tomkus, whose publishing business has the second largest position on the Lithuanian advertising market and last year racked up sales of 20 million euros. The judge felt, however, that since it was Tomkus' first offense, there was no need to seize assets. Something akin to letting a first-time killer keep the gun.

Those who bothered to read Tomkus' long-winded, stream-of-consciousness ravings in Respublika, a paper published in both Lithuanian and Russian, understand that the only possible thing more openly anti-Semitic is a World War II concentration camp. Yet sadly, the racism charges against him almost never made it to court: the original case was closed in February of this year on the basis that the articles did not constitute a criminal offense. Astonishing, yet true. It is as if in Lithuania one can write about nations, culture, religions, entire groups of people whatever one wants and not have to bear any liability.

Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, the drama continued soon after the court verdict. Five days later, a Tomkus' company won an auction for a 40 percent interest in Elta, Lithuania's leading news and photo agency. Though a controlling stake remains in the hands of the MG Baltic concern, there is no telling what the future holds. Considering that Tomkus paid 1.3 million euros over the starting price (580,000 euros), it would appear that he intends to gain control over the agency. Lo and behold, on July 13, the morning after the auction, the Lithuania media was reporting just that: Tomkus is obsessed with acquiring MG Baltic's stake.

It does not take a genius to see what will happen to the news agency once it in the hands of a Tomkus. At the same time, such a development needn't be the worst thing for those in the business of news in the Baltics. Market forces will balance things out. If a madman takes over a business, even a monopolistic one, that only opens up doors for entrepreneurial individuals to open up a competing outfit and fill in the niche.

Elta employees beware.