VILNIUS - The timbre of scandal in Lithuania was elevated yet another notch recently when Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas accused one of the country's biggest dailies of bribery and blackmail.
Speaking to reporters at a news conference on Feb. 12, Zuokas said that Vitas Tomkus, editor in chief and stakeholder in the Respublika daily, had threatened to publish unflattering articles about him unless the mayor agreed to advertise with the newspaper.
According to Zuokas, Tomkus had extorted advertising contracts or benefits for Respublika and sister publication Vakaro zinios from five other large corporations. The mayor refused to name the companies.
A spokesman for Tomkus denied he had any knowledge of such activity at Respublika.
Zuokas, a rising political star and proponent of free-market reforms, said he had requested the Vilnius District Prosecutor's Office and the financial crimes investigation service to launch an official inquiry into the allegations.
"Protection racketeering is an unacceptable practice in a democratic state," said the mayor.
Zuokas' allegations were aired at a time when he had come under increasing scrutiny for his involvement in the controversial April mayoral elections, when he overcame an attempted political coup and retained his post after months of bitter haggling.
In late January, the special investigation service initiated a pretrial investigation pertaining to possible interference on Zuokas' part in the elections.
Amid the extensive media coverage of the pretrial investigation, Respublika wrote several negative articles about the mayor in early February. Using unnamed sources, the daily accused the mayor of keeping company with a vague circle of crooked businessmen.
While the conflict between the mayor and the editorial and commercial staff of Respublika has been enough to deflate public opinion of the press, onlookers fear that the scope of media corruption reaches much farther than the Vilnius municipality.
State television aired a story accusing the press staff of President Rolandas Paksas, one of Zuokas' archrivals, of favoritism toward journalists from Respublika and Vakaro zinios.
At Paksas' weekly press conference on Feb. 9, state television recorded how presidential staff allowed a disproportionately large number of questions to be asked by journalists working for Tomkus' newspapers, denying reporters from other publications and television stations their once-weekly opportunity to pose queries to the president.
Others view the current scandal is indicative of a greater culture of journalistic impropriety in Lithuania.
According to Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of the Lithuanian Journalists' Union, bribery and extortion are items on the everyday agenda of several national publications and television reports.
"I suppose it's the principle of it, strictly speaking - offering to publish positive material about a business or people in positions of power in the government in exchange for money can be called different things," Radzevicius said.
"Personally, I would call it bribery," he added.
The journalist further condemned sloppy and inattentive journalism for misinforming the public.
"Even a first-year student of journalism knows to get three independent sources for a given story, yet newspapers are full of single-source stories. If one were to read three or four newspapers a day it might be possible to gain a balanced viewpoint. But the end result is that a reader who has access to only one news source is often completely misled about events," Radzevicius said.
Nor is the tattered state of media affairs confined to Lithuania. Aukse Balcytiene, professor of journalism at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, contends that corruption in the media is rampant in the other Baltic states as well.
"In a study conducted a little over a year ago, 30 Latvian television journalists were approached and asked if they would air a positive report about a business in exchange for money. A majority of them said they would," she said.
A similar study conducted in Estonia yielded only slightly better results.
"The fact is that there has been wide proliferation in the number of publications in Lithuania, and many of them are turning to this type of practice as a sort of business model to maintain profitability," she said.
While the Respublika affair threatens to destabilize yet another crucial Lithuanian public institution at a time when the country's political system is already in a state of crisis, some remain hopeful that Zuokas' claims will, in one form or another, help to purge the media of unethical practices.
"I view it as a good, healthy start," said Balcytiene.