Hefty European dough for Lithuanian media bends journalism’s core

  • 2011-05-04
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Dainius Radzevicius argues that EU funds influence the media’s reporting.

KLAIPEDA - For Tauragiskiu Balsas (Taurage Voice), a regional newspaper published in Taurage, a severely crisis-affected industrial town of 30,000 inhabitants in the southwest of Lithuania, the solemn days of the 17,000-something subscription, a staggering achievement for a small town publication, goes back to a not-so-old history.

Five years ago, seeing continuously crumbling subscription numbers, the newspaper had to forsake its independence, becoming a PR source of the local Social Democrat party branch. Despite its contributions, the newspaper kept struggling, plunging its hands deeper into the coffers, as the irate new owners scrambled to find new monetary resources.
Help has come quite suddenly from an unexpected source - the European Union. The deep structural funds, for 2010, have generously allocated 400,000 euros, averaging 4,000 euros per publication for 91 regional, local and ethnic minority-oriented Lithuanian newspapers, including Tauragiskiu Balsas, to publicize and inform the public about EU- financed projects.

It may seem like petty amounts in a Western country; however, not in Lithuania. With the money, the Taurage newspaper could settle nearly three months’ due bills for newspaper printing. Otherwise speaking, the amount equals a yearly salary of a journalist in Taurage. The EU allocation for the newspaper this year has been even slightly bigger.
While most editors rejoice over the streaming EU cash, some, like the 66-year-old ex-editor of Tauragiskiu Balsas, Tadas Meizelis, scoffs at milking the EU cow: “I remember the way journalists blew the Soviet pipe. Are we going to smoke the EU pipe now?” His less worrisome colleagues respond: “He who pays the piper calls the tune!”

Though the EU project for media is seen as a newspaper-nourishing artery, press freedom-conscious journalists and editors question the financing in terms of journalist ethics and objectivity. Can the journalists involved in the project express grounded negativity towards the EU-co-financed projects that are underway or in the pipeline if they find it necessary to do so? Will the prudent editors, fearing angering the EU money distributors - the Finance Ministry, and the project administer, Idea Prima - humbly close their eyes and stick with the all-caress-no-scratch attitude? It seems the latter attitude has been a widely accepted stance, brushing away the journalism ethics and impartiality - something that journalism in a democratic country is unimaginable without.

Though public “guidelines” defining the ability to view implementation of EU-financed projects in a critical way have not been put down, the unwritten “recommendation” circling the regional media is clear - avoid criticism. Proponents of the EU project, known as “Publicizing and Informing about EU Structural Funds’ Support in Local Regional Media during 2007-2013,” probably would counter-argue that the project is not about criticizing - it is about “publicizing and informing.”
Oh, well, if you are a conscientious journalist, you have to agree that quenching “the itch for criticism” is a hard thing to do, even if doing a story on such a seemingly tedious topic as an EU- financed project.

“For Lithuania’s Ministry of Finance, in charge of heading and coordinating the process of EU structural fund support, educating and informing society about EU investments in Lithuania is of the utmost importance. At the peak of the crisis, in 2009, the EU support was started to be used in full swing in Lithuania, requiring more precise and timely information on the use of EU projects as well as its multifaceted value and perceptions. Naturally, there emerged more interesting EU-related topics that needed journalists’ attention,” Jonas Balkevicius, head of Action Program Publicizing Division at the Ministry’s Action Program Administering Department, pointed out.

However, abundant naysayers assert the European funding is aimed at keeping often negativism-laden Lithuanians EU-friendly, particularly in less-educated provinces, where the EU support is generally lesser.
Some argue that is the reason why local, regional and ethnic-oriented newspapers, but not national dailies or weeklies, were invited to partake in the EU project. However, Vladas Gaidys, a prominent Lithuanian sociologist and director of public survey company Vilmorus, disagrees: “The EU support in Lithuania has been one of the highest; to be exact, the fourth in the European Union, averaging 66 percent lately.”

Balkevicius from the Ministry of Finance also dissents with the trendy reasoning in some media circles, asserting, “The project is being carried out in this kind of media for a single reason – its relatively wide accessibility. According to a 2009 survey, every second Lithuanian inhabitant points out that the most accessible source of information on EU support is the regional media.” He also emphasizes that, throughout 2004-2009, the general information on the EU support-related fields in the Lithuanian media had often been “misunderstood and remembered as more difficult.” This prompted the Ministry to seek other ways of EU information dissemination.

Though cash-strapped journalists usually shun discussing a possible bending of journalism principles, some speak out bluntly. “If speaking on ‘the record,’ the project has helped local residents find out much more about the ongoing EU projects, or those in the pipeline. For example, a few years ago, a water pipeline was started to be built in the neighborhood; however, most found out about it being financed by European Union structural funds only when our newspaper did a news story on it. Surely, after we won the EU project for media. For most people in our region, EU financing means stability, continuity and implementation, which is something that cannot be said about the projects funded by the local municipality,” Aistas Mendeika, editor of Svyturys (Lighthouse), a twice-a-week newspaper in Kretinga, in the west of Lithuania, acknowledged.

Last year, the newspaper raked in nearly 8,000 euros from the EU project. In the town, where a journalist’s salary hardly exceeds 300 euros a month, it was a bulky sack of cash. This year, the newspaper has fetched a bit less EU money than last year. Mendeika agrees the EU support is very substantial for his newspaper. However, he voiced some dissatisfaction with the media project as well. “No doubt, the project is a source of easy big money for many newspapers. Nevertheless, to speak “off-the  record,” I see a good deal of “brainwashing” in it. The provisions of the project obligate everyone following the line to seek “creative informing,” “showing the exclusiveness,” “flexibility of form,” “revealing the impact of the EU-co-financed projects on other fields” and the “undeniable benefit for local settlements, towns and regions,” which all leave no room for doubt or healthy criticism. When reading the provisions of the project, I felt like reading a Soviet-era document obligating [us] to extol the system and its pursuits,” Mendeika emphasized.

An editor of another newspaper, who preferred not to be identified, was even blunter. “Lately all are observing a very bad trend in the Lithuanian media – financially struggling newspapers renounce their independence, impartiality and the Journalism Code of ethics and do whatever the customer with the thick wallet wants. The EU project for the Lithuanian media is not an exception. Speaking of the project, all know that there are many problems regarding the use of the EU fiscal support.

Municipalities, often, before giving a thought on implementation of a project, first try to secure EU financing. Public tenders in EU-related competitions are often far from being transparent. Winners of such public competitions turn head over heel trying to finish projects as fast as possible, neglecting work quality, as other numerous EU projects are on the way. Do newspapers, particularly those on the local level, highlight the issues? No, they do not, as all of them call the piper’s tune - EU stories radiate with ‘exclusiveness,’ ‘impeccability’ and ‘undoubtful EU prevalence.’ How about the critical point of view, objectivity and simple ethics of the craft that should be shown by each journalist? Alas, the folks at the newspapers have forgotten that,” the editor said, lambasting his counterparts.

However, not all media representatives are so blunt. “All daily-life fields profit from the fiscal assistance of the European Union. Why would the media be left without it? Without any doubt, the EU-funded media project raises EU awareness, shows the tangible use of the European Union, which the project aims for. I believe the majority of our readers have benefited a lot from the EU-funded stories finding out about the EU- financed projects in town. Our readers say that these stories help them realize the scope of the EU assistance. If not the European project for the media, most papers would likely skip EU-related topics, as they are considered by most editors to be tedious,” Ugne Raudyte, a journalist of Palangos Tiltas (Palanga Bridge), a newspaper published in the resort town of Palanga, in the west, said.

For the vast purposes, thousands of public Lithuanian facilities and institutions have received generous European Union assistance, consisting of more than 7 billion euros throughout 2007-2013. The numbers seem even more staggering when slicing up the annual Lithuanian budget – of this year’s 7.5 billion euro national budget, a chunk of it, to be exact 2 billion euros, is the EU’s allocation which, according to last year’s data by the European Commission, makes Lithuania the leader in soaking up European cash. “The support of the EU structural funds impacts directly the growth of the Lithuanian economy and increases competitiveness,” Gitanas Nauseda, a prominent Lithuanian financier, maintains.

However, Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of Lithuania’s Union of Journalism and a board member of the commission that evaluated the newspapers’ EU projects, admits that the European Union’s money for Lithuanian newspapers should also be seen as a form of advertising. “As with any advertiser, you do not mess with the advertising money. You are obligated to fulfill the order the way the customer wants. Obviously, the EU-resourced stories have usurped most of the newspaper content, as the newspapers competing for the EU money, in terms of EU material positioning, tended to give up their best pages, filling them extensively with often unilateral information. Where money is involved, you often cannot speak of impartiality and journalism ethics and standards,” Razevicius inferred.