VILNIUS - Vitas Tomkus, the notorious publisher and owners of the Respublika group, recently bought the Elta news agency, one of Lithuania's two main wire services, through his newly established company Ziniu Partneriai.
The news was the industry equivalent of a bombshell, since many fear that the writer of anti-Semitic and homophobic articles and ally of Rolandas Paksas would transform the agency into a pocket propaganda machine.
To be sure, others maintained it was a straightforward business deal, since Elta sits on a prized piece of property. Still, given the exorbitant sum Tomkus (pictured above) paid for the state's stake in Elta, many observers felt there was more to the deal than just real estate.
Controversy surrounds Tomkus. He was impugned for ordering one of his journalists to collect signatures in his support during last year's presidential campaign. Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas accused him of blackmail. And just recently prosecutors have reopened the case over Tomkus' publication of anti-Semitic and homophobic articles in the bilingual Respublika newspaper.
a deeper look into the Elta deal raises more consternation. The same day the Competition Council gave permission to Ziniu Partneriai to take control of the agency, a total of five Elta staff members, including editor in chief Virgis Valentinavicius, left the company.
In an interview with Bernardinai.lt, Valentinavicius openly announced that his decision to leave was closely related to new ownership. "There were two major motives: the new owners' incompetence and lack of professionalism and also an unacceptable attitude toward journalism ethics," he said.
"The present owners tend to intervene into the work of journalists, to control every step and even to push through some topics. For instance, they stubbornly recommend following the achievements of the Respublika publishing group and suggest who is unworthy of interviewing," Valentinavicius explained. "I don't think it's possible to maintain an objective news agency in such an environment."
He added, "I was surprised to learn that the owner's interests were more important than reliability."
Already, several Elta journalists who were associated with the agency's recent escalation left.
Romas Sakadolskis, a former reporter for the Voice of America, and a professor at Vilnius University's journalism department, commented, "The people who made Elta, who rebuilt it to a large degree, are now leaving or have left. If that continues, I don't see Elta surviving as the kind of institution it was. It will be something else. Will this [new agency] provide the kind of service that the Elta we know provided? Likely, that's not the case."
Those journalists who did stay are said to be living in uncertainty and don't know what to expect from their new owners. As one confessed to The Baltic Times, "Although there haven't been any changes yet, we can sense some psychological fear 's fear of Respublika, fear of Tomkus. This person is renowned for his methods of work."
But Vilnius is rife with legend about how Tomkus intervenes into the work of Respublika journalists. He allows some topics to be covered, others he does not.
"The [Elta] writers are worried that the new owners might be intervening into the content they write," the Elta journalist said. "There are many deliberations as to why there was such a big price given 's was it solely for the building and does that mean that the agency can be closed down after all?"
The end result could be a mass exodus.
"Many have thought about leaving," said the journalist. "But everybody is waiting for the owner's first move, when someone will call and say, 'Here we begin a series against this and that.' So far, we haven't heard any of this, it's only in our fears."
One thing is clear: Tomkus' methods, and style, could jeopardize Elta's integrity.
"How much control will he try to exercise? We don't know. But the suspicion is that there will be control. Suspicion is a terrible thing for a news agency because you lose trust," Sakadolskis said.
Elta's performance over the past few years has improved significantly, and the agency provides an alternative to the Baltic News Service, the other big wire agency in Lithuania.
"Of late, Elta had risen like a Phoenix from the ashes. It really made a difference. And BNS people had to watch over their shoulder because Elta was there," Sakadolskis said. "All of this was good for the consumer of news. It made everyone work a little bit harder. Competition like that is very healthy. I'm not sure that this will be the case under Mr. Tomkus' ownership."
If, however, Elta's content is altered, the market will see a drop in good material, experts say.
"Elta provided an interesting alternative because it offered commentary, interviews and a forum for other voices to be heard on a news-agency level. Now these are not very profitable ventures, but it owned a building in downtown Vilnius. And that was the saving grace of it," Sakadolskis said.
"If you take Elta out of this kind of endeavor, then what happens is that the public sphere narrows a little. Because of all the service that Elta provided, I don't think that BNS will [be able to keep up]. They don't have a nice uncle who can pay the bill. Elta did, and that uncle was called 'the building downtown, he said.
Rimantas Kanaspienis, the new head of Elta and one of the shareholders of Ziniu Partneriai, was quoted as saying that the building's real estate - 1,500-square-meters in the heart of Vilnius - was not the only perk in acquiring the agency.
"The main reason why we wanted the news agency was the ambition of a journalist: we wanted journalists and not businesspeople to control such means of mass media," Kanapienis said.
Nevertheless, many doubt the competence of Kanapienis, who is returning to journalism after many years of selling paint.
"I also doubt his competence. He introduces himself as a journalist, but at the same time he earns his money from selling paint. So, he may as well call himself a 'house builder,'" said one Elta writer.