On Jan. 8, the Competition Council permitted the MG Baltic concern to consolidate its domination in the media by acquiring a 100 percent stake in one of the country's largest TV companies - LNK television - from the Swedish Bonnier Entertainment AB enterprise.
The value of the transaction, whose began in mid-2002, is estimated at 60 million litas (17.3 million euros), half of which was covered by a syndicated loan from several national banks.
LNK television is MG Baltic's second investment in the domestic media. The concern entered the market a year ago when its subsidiary, MG Baltic Investment, purchased over 50 percent of the ELTA news agency's shares.
MG Baltic, which controls 29 companies across the Baltics - ranging from the Stumbras distillery to the Apranga textile producer - doesn't hide its ambitions to further expand its media empire.
Coming in the midst of the presidential impeachment proceedings, the LNK purchase stirred fears that the popular television channel, which extensively contributed to the investigation of "Paksagate," might be exploited by MG Baltic for the purposes of political propaganda. The concern's corporate manager Valdas Sutkus was recently Paksas' business development adviser, though he stepped down from the position shortly after the purchase contract was signed.
Sutkus, whose name appears in State Security Department's secret reports, allegedly influenced the privatization of Lithuania's major alcohol producer Stumbras last October.
MG Baltic denies any speculation that its investment was politically motivated. Corporate Vice President Raimondas Kurlianskis stressed that the channel would keep its staff and political neutrality.
"We are buying LNK as a valuable investment and will pursue good dividends," he was quoted as saying.
Other deals in the market involve the unprofitable Vilnius Regional Television, which was sold by its previous owner, MP Vytautas Kvietkauskas, for 2.3 million litas to the Rubikon Group, which is allegedly connected with Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas.
The Polish Polsat television is also reportedly negotiating the sale of its Lithuania-operated TV4 channel. One of the potential buyers may be Tautvydas Barstys, a presidential campaign backer who has been linked to organized crime.
With so many deals occurring at such a politically volatile time, speculation is rife. Media professionals, many of whom claim that MG Baltic has used ELTA to spread concern-friendly information, are not sanguine about the MG Baltic-LNK marriage. According to them, Lithuania is an increasingly media-dependent nation, and the mass media could easily become a handy tool to fight political battles. According to Gallup Poll survey findings, television is the number one information medium among Lithuanians. More importantly, in terms of media-credulity Lithuania surpasses all other EU member and candidate countries: 70 percent of the population has faith in the press and as much as 81 percent in television.
"It's hard to tell whether television companies change hands because of the current political turmoil and looming general elections," Dainius Radzevicius, president of the Lithuanian Journalist Union, told The Baltic Times.
"One thing is certain though: that by investing in television networks local tycoons expect some returns."
Still, we have yet to see if under new ownership the commercial media outlets preserve their inherent function to carry nonpartisan news and pluralist ideas or cater for their investors' political whims, Radzevicius said.