Are Lithuanian media freedoms shrinking?

Continuing the feature of media freedoms in former communist countries, here is a student post on Lithuania and their recent decline.


Since its independence, Lithuania has defined itself as one of the higher-ranked nations in media freedom rights among the former Soviet republics and the European Union.  Lithuania received a score of 33 on Reporters Without Borders’s 2013 World Press Freedom Index. In fact, Lithuania has consistently ranked within the top 35 nations for media freedom since 2003.

This apparent stability is marred, though, when we take into account that the 2013 ranking is far lower than Lithuania’s previous standings. The nation was ranked for the first time in 2003, tying with New Zealand at 17, and in 2009 it held the No. 10 spot.  Furthermore, Freedom House gave Lithuania a “Press Freedom Score” of 24 in 2013 and 2014, while it held a score of 18 from 2003 through 2009, respectively. The Index is not static, though, and Lithuania’s different placements might be expected, but the 23-point jump within four years could show a shift toward more restrictions in media freedoms to cause the decline.

As a whole, Lithuania enjoys a liberal, private media, and has implemented laws limiting government interference to promote free speech. Television consists of public and private channels, and though only 59 percent of the country uses the Internet, Lithuanians account for about 58 percent of all Facebook activity in the Baltics.  At the same time, the following trends do raise concerns about the future of Lithuania’s media freedom:

  • The media is increasingly dominated by foreign channels, with news coming from Scandinavia and the other Baltic countries (see graph below).

    TV3 is a private TV channel owned by Swedish Modern Times Group, LTV is a popular public Lithuanian channel and PBK is a Russian-language network. Source: INA Global
  • Newspaper circulation is receding despite the popularity of reading print media in the Baltic nations.
  • Earlier this year, Lithuania banned Russian state television broadcasts because it felt they justified Russia’s use of military force to annex Crimea from Ukraine. Political analyst Nerijus Maliukevicius argues the Russian broadcasts serve as propaganda to encourage young Russian speakers to fight in Eastern Ukraine. For some 175,000 ethnic Russians in Lithuania, however, banning stations or attempting to cut two-thirds of Russian broadcasting in favor of rebroadcasted programs in EU languages restricts those individuals from media coverage in a language they understand.
  • Lithuania sparked controversy in 2009 when its parliament overwhelmingly supported a bill banning the dissemination of information about homosexuality and bisexuality to minors because it could be harmful. Some argued the ban institutionalizes homophobia, while the EU and Amnesty International both opposed the legislation.

    Lithuanian Gay League protesters in 2013 against censorship of homosexuality to minors. Source: LGL
  • The refusal to broadcast a documentary in 2012 about President Dalia Grybauskaitė on Lithuanian TV3 because it was “not ethical enough” also brought accusations of censorship when it was the only documentary banned from a particular journalist on the station.

Lithuania will not loose its status as a strong free media power based on these events. Its consistently high rankings from media freedom websites show a commitment to an independent press and open information. What these events do show is an occasional shift in standards to satisfy polarizing issues threatening Lithuanian sovereignty, religion and public opinion of elected officials. These actions essentially backtrack on the original freedoms Lithuania fought to establish with its independence and ostracize parts of the country rather than give an equal voice to all its citizens.

References

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