Media integrity under question in scandal-weary Lithuania

  • 2004-01-22
  • By Ruta Ambultiene
KAUNAS - "There is no threat to Lithuania's national security - the biggest threat to all of us and public opinion comes from biased media reporting," Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas claimed in a radio interview last week.

This attack, along with the recent sale of one of Lithuania's largest television channels and the prospects of more media deals to come, has ignited fears that Lithuania's highly influential mass media may shed the last remnants of its impartiality and become the tool of political interests.
There is reason to believe that Paksas, who has frequently blamed the press for delivering biased information and complained about his limited access to it, may be preparing to conduct a media blitz to shore up support as the impeachment process gets dragged out. He and his administration have already stated that they must enlighten people about the "real causes" and "perpetrators" of the scandal.
On Jan. 16 a presidential advisory panel announced an initiative to publish a periodical news bulletin that would shed light on the president's activities, even though the Law on Provision of Information to the Public prohibits non-educational state institutions from publishing their own periodicals.
Vitale Vinickiene, adviser to Paksas on health issues, said the low-priced publication would primarily target rural residents who can't afford buying expensive newspapers and "should know what is going on."
The council also suggested the president might initiate changes allowing for the recall of presidential representatives on the Lithuanian Radio and Television Council, a move that would widely be perceived as a campaign to tighten grip on democratic media.
There is speculation, however, that any proposed changes to the council will be tailor-made to get rid of inconvenient council members. If this were the case, the first person to get the axe might be Rimvydas Valatka, deputy editor-in-chief of Lietuvos Rytas and a fierce critic of Paksas and the president's team.
Valatka was appointed to the council by former President Valdas Adamkus.
Paksas was swift to reject the idea that a media onslaught was in the offing. At a press conference on Jan. 19 he brushed aside the theories about pro-presidential publications and TV programs, assuring "there will be no such a thing."
Still, given the president's tenuous position and his need for damage control via the media, speculation is rife. Tension between Paksas and LRT peaked on New Year's Eve, when the state broadcaster failed to air the embattled president's celebratory speech. Demanding an explanation, Paksas admonished the television council, accusing it of violating their commitment to provide the president with broadcast time. The council replied that no laws were breached since the speech reached them too late, as a result of which only a fragment was shown during the evening news broadcast.

Ownership changes
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.