Top Lithuanian journalist: compromises in content necessary due to Russian information warfare

  • 2015-01-08
  • By Linas Jegelevičius

How has the Lithuanian media responded to information warfare from Russia? How is polarisation in media content bending the key principles of democracy and freedom of speech? Can conventional journalism withstand competition from outside? The year 2014 may have been more challenging than any year before for the Lithuanian media admits Dainius Radzevičius, chairman of the Lithuanian Union of Journalists. He agreed to share his thoughts with The Baltic Times about a range of issues facing the media .

What are the most discernible developments in the Lithuanian media this year, from a commercial and legislative point of view? How has the media’s key task — informing the public — been challenged in 2014?
First of all, in response to Russian information warfare against Lithuania, and the continuing standoff between Russia and the West, the Law on Informing the Public has been considerably amended several times.

First President Dalia Grybauskaitė submitted several legislative proposals, aiming to curb the dissemination of Russian propaganda - a powerful tool in Russian information warfare against Lithuania - and, recently, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture also amended some laws.

The instigation of enmity and war propaganda has been in full swing, so the proposals are timely and appropriate. Some of them directly tackle re-broadcasters of Russian TV programs. I believe that our legislative chambers, perhaps for the first time since the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, have very accurately estimated the potential threat from Russian information warfare and perceived that absence of legislative tools and policies to fend it off have allowed some media
structures to abuse laws and distort democracy, including the freedom of speech. Enacting amendments to address that is, definitely, very important.

Speaking about Lithuanian media from a commercial point of view, I can only repeat what I’ve been saying for quite some time now : it’s really hard to make any predictions as far as the future is concerned, even for the very near future.
That applies to print media, but also to electronic media, to TV and to radio. The recently launched weekly magazine Savaitė (Week) has been a big hit, quickly building the largest circulation of any press outlet in the country. Importantly, the weekly has shattered the misconception that only a yellow paper can find a spot under the sun today. The publication is, as a matter of fact, put together very well: it provides some really good analytical stuff and a nice mix of weekend reading.

The weekly is definitely setting a new trend in the media landscape. What I mean is that, in order to get the attention of the readers out there, launching a publication characterised by shady or cheesy content might not work out today as a business model, but providing quality content can lead to an instant hit. And the sad recent events concerning the Respublika media group has only confirmed my existing thoughts about the subject. As you know, the group’s daily newspaper Respublika, having infringed journalistic ethics and the law multiple times, had to slim down from a daily to a weekly; its prospects remain unclear.

Another daily, which has also been penalised for the same transgressions, is also seeing its subscription and sales tumbling. So the bottom line is definitely this: good, quality content has to go in hand with a good reputation and readers’ trust.

I really believe that the history of the Lithuanian news agency BNS has to be brought up when speaking about the most memorable developments affecting the national media in 2014. To remind one, following the leak of a document from Lithuania’s Presidential Palace about possible information attacks from Russia targeting the Lithuanian President and Lithuania, the news agency ran a story about the subject, but as a result of this, special law enforcers busted the agency in attempts to track down the source of the leak. It appeared that phones of a BNS editor and some reporters had been tapped, and the court had given the green light to the eavesdropping. It was ruled later on that the wiretapping was
excessive and justices from a higher-tier court has overturned the initial judicial body’s rulings securing rights for snooping.

By the way, in a recent Lithuanian Union of Journalists’ convention, BNS introduced some very interesting research on Lithuanian media consumer types. It turns out that the average Lithuanian is a very active media user, who spends actively up to eight hours with different media gadgets, ranging from watching TV to browsing tablets. This illustrates the fact that the average Joe cannot do without media in Lithuania.

To go back to the aforementioned amendments to the Law on Informing the Public, few doubt they are necessary during the rough times with Russia. But, still, don’t you see a possible danger here of overexerting ourselves legislatively in a bid to stave off Russian propaganda: i.e. compromising a cornerstone of our democracy — freedom of speech? Are Russian-language TV programmes that powerful in Lithuania? Shouldn’t it be left up to the viewers what to watch and what not to?

I’d like to observe that today there are a few constitutional provisions concerning the instigation of enmity and propaganda in Lithuania. Sure, as with every la and new amendments, there is always the possibility that those in charge of applying the letter of the law will go too far.
But Lithuania definitely has some really strong constitutional safeguards to prevent this from happening. And secondly, there are really exceptional cases where restraints can be applied.

With so many international free speech watchdogs out there, any move to infringe constitutional rights — and freedom of speech — would immediately backfire, with many repercussions heard all over; that this has not happened despite the amendments that have been put in place signals that the international community, as well as all the democratic world deem the legislative measures timely, appropriate and necessary in dealing with the Russian information warfare and propaganda instigating enmity and war-mongering.

But, on the other hand, as you said, I have to agree that the letter of the law can be misused and abused.
The courts will be responsible for ensuring the new legislation is applied properly.

I’m pretty sure that, both from professional interest and the necessity to see how the information warfare against Lithuania is developing, you watch many Russian TV programmes. Are they always misinformative? And does their journalism lack quality and professionalism? Where can the line between propaganda and quality Russian journalism be drawn?

Indeed, drawing a line when speaking about that is very important. If we were to speak about all Russian-language journalism - there’s quite a lot of it in the world.  We definitely have to make a pretty clear distinction between Russian media and Russian-language media, as they actually pertain to quite different things.
The former usually refers to the Kremlin-supported Russian media that serves the Russian authorities’ agenda; these are the ones that, especially now, are stoking animosity and war. Sure, some alternative opinions surface in that type of Russian media, but that is controlled and the content is strictly limited.

The blog written by the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is a good example of what I’m talking about. The Kremlin-supported media can be neither qualitative nor professional or corresponding to Western media standards. But speaking on the whole, no media controlled by authorities can be good. That is the bottom line. So from that standpoint, media outlets that manage to run without support from the Kremlin stand, definitely, a much better chance of producing quality journalism, though they often are in a much more precarious situation.

On the flipside, do you see any propaganda on Lithuanian TV? I mean when things are shown whiter than they really are?

Indeed, the polarisation of the media is something we all have to admit is happening, and it has been very palpable for the last couple of years not only in the Lithuanian media, but elsewhere too. It started taking place for economic reasons, but now it’s mainly caused by the geopolitical situation. Editorial boards have worked out quite clear policies on international issues, and the policies stipulate appropriate editorials and commentaries first of all.

Against this backdrop, we may now have less of a variety of opinions on the radio waves, the TV screens or the newspaper pages; but it is necessary to resist the powerful and obtrusive propaganda coming from the East.
In particular, a lot of media polarisation can be seen now when talking about Ukraine. A large majority of the commentaries in the Lithuanian media are pro-Ukraine, but I would not dare to call them disinformation.

I have recently happened to observe situations when media has been involved in geopolitical standoffs; this has happened not only in Russia. As a rule, the key principles of journalism — searching for sustained information and reflecting different views — are often compromised. But when different parties start to square up and deem the other party’s information a priori untrue and misinforming, it’s very hard for a journalist to follow the principles of good journalism.

Don’t you think that as a result of economic vulnerability, which, in Lithuania, is above all a problem for print media, especially dailies, some may offer a helping hand in exchange for certain favours? Do you suspect this is happening with regard to the media in Lithuania?

I really don’t see that kind of danger to the national media occurring in the large picture. Notably, the origin and structure of Lithuanian media’s capital is quite different from the situation in some of its near neighbours. In fact, we have a nice mix of capital, which comes both from Scandinavia and from international media corporations, and we have got a nice share of domestic capital in some of the outlets out there. That allows us expect variety in the content, and it is tangible, as a matter of fact, as the owners of TV and radio stations, e-platforms and print media often have different interests.

In Lithuania we have a really large number of media outlets, some of which are struggling, but we still don’t see much investment in the media. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we do not see our news outlets sending their correspondents abroad for work. As a result, there’s pretty only much domestic news on the air and in print.

As the municipal council election is nearing, have you noticed any dishonest journalism out there? I mean spreading electoral information without saying that this is what it is and things like that.

Some politicians, especially those who are experienced, tend to seek access to media outlets to disseminate their views about the law on political campaigning, though I believe that only single media outlets work that way. Still, this is certainly happening and will continue to do so until a mechanism for media self-regulation kicks in. As a matter of fact, I believe this is more important than any of those legislative measures. I’d also feel that, as our society becomes more mature, demand will increase, not only for quality content, but also for transparent, law-abiding media. So, definitely, to illustrate this: young people have some pimples on their bodies, but when they are out of pubescence, the pimples will be gone.

Some people say that the profession of a journalist in the mass of media contributors needs to be protected legislatively, to the extent where persons wanting to work in the media would need to pass exams and have certificates issued. What is your take on this idea?

On the contrary, I believe that the challenges resulting from the involvement of citizen journalists and the participation of the public in creating media content has made journalists and media groups work in a significantly more professional manner. This means that traditional journalists have to make an extra effort when gathering and checking information and ensuring balance, which has to lead to good quality in the end.
Otherwise, if it can be produced by citizen journalists, who often work for free, everyone will lose interest in more expensive journalists’ work. Opening the borders to other content contributors is a very welcome thing, as monopolisation and working in a closed circle have a negative effect on both democracy and freedom of speech.