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Dainius Radzevičius
© DELFI / Domantas Pipas

The Seimas National Security and Defence Committee (NSGK) chairman Vytautas Bakas may embroil Lithuania in an international scandal through his mentions of removing licenses for news media outlets specified in an intelligence report.

This was discussed on Delfi TV Gyvai on Monday together with Lithuanian Journalists Union (LŽS) chairman Dainius Radzevičius.

"Secondly, I believe it is urgently necessary to make decisions on whether the media can be employed as it was because it is licensed activity. It must serve the public interest, it is a business, but it is also a licensed activity. For example if you obtain a gun license and discharge it in town, it will be revoked. These were shots at the country, thus those, who are shooting via the news media, they should simply be withdrawn," V. Bakas said on the LRT Television talk show Savaitė when talking of the State Security Department (VSD) report on efforts to take over the country.

"I believe we should first talk about accountability for the people, who really may have performed the crimes. That is what such matters should usually begin – after any report or scandal, there should at least be a pre-trial investigation, which should end with the trial's decision or ruling, after which we could decide, whether bad actions were truly made. This is because the report and statement is just public relations, but not yet a decision," D. Radzevičius commented on V. Bakas' mentions of withdrawing licenses.

The intelligence report mentions journalist Tomas Dapkus, who is suspected by the VSD to have performed blackmail for MG Baltic. In T. Dapkus' case D. Radzevičius urges to employ legal speak: any report, even that of the VSD, is simply an opinion based on certain observations. This, he explains, is no court verdict or ruling.

D. Radzevičius applauds T. Dapkus' decision to temporarily go on holiday and cease hosting the show Savaitės Panorama – when suspicions are cast, it is necessary to withdraw from activities where there is any likelihood of conflicting interests. According to the head of the LŽS, if T. Dapkus, as the report states, caused a threat and harmed the state, suspicions should be cast against him and [legal] processes should begin. "I would most want to avoid this becoming simply political statements, which make for directives in, for example, specifically stripping the television license," D. Radzevičius cautions.

MG Baltic owns the company Laisvas ir Nepriklausomas Kanalas [Free and Independent Channel, LNK], which owns the largest television group in the country – the most popular channel LNK, BTV, the women-oriented TV1, the information and publicist channel Info TV and leisure channel Liuks!.

Persecuting for criticism is prohibited

According to the LŽS chairman, statements on stripping licenses should not appear in the public sphere at all. "Public statements by politicians about the possibility to withdraw a license from a news media outlet who knows how and not by the law, in essence to close it down, will particularly harm Lithuania's international reputation. This is because in a country under the rule of law this can only be done based on a court ruling and not based on politicians' statements," D. Radzevičius emphasised.

Licenses for radio and television are issued and withdrawn by the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK), certain restrictions are outlined for breaches, however these decisions can only be sanctioned and revised by the courts. "Under the rule of law I would not want for the political majority's decisions to allow or strip the capacity to operate. Based on the law this is not up to politicians," D. Radzevičius stressed.

He quotes the public information law, based on which it is prohibited to persecute journalists and news media for criticising the government even if it is not done wholly ethically or fairly. "If a news media group, which criticised the government for some sort of reasons, suddenly becomes persecuted and has its license stripped, then we will at the very least have yet another international scandal, where Lithuania's reputation will greatly fall in not only press freedom indexes, but also in overall indexes of democracy," D. Radzevičius said.

In the traditional World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders organisation released in 2017, Lithuania took 36th place.

According to him, if a single press outlets has issues, there is no reason to interpret that there are issues with all media in Lithuania. D. Radzevičius notes that in this case most media outlets are talking about the VSD report and nuances, guaranteed publicity for the topic.

D. Radzevičius questions how politicians and law enforcement have reacted to the report so far. "I am more worried about the politicians and law enforcement's reaction, their self-regulation when facts were known ahead of time. For example, why a number of parties still have the same politicians and ministry officials, who are mentioned in the reports, why they cooperate, why they were still in their posts. I would say that an unfair standard is being applied today when there is lynching through the method of where if something looks bad, you should beat everyone," he said.

Remarks on V. Bakas' past

According to the LŽS chairman, a single blemish in the news media should not be a pretext for politicians to sidestep legal principles. Furthermore he reminds that politicians themselves have suspect links to news media – tens of politicians own directly or by proxy news media outlets. These links are apparently far more dangerous to national security.

D. Radzevičius reminds that politician Kęstutis Pūkas retains control of a news media outlet while being a Kaunas city councilman he hosted shows, came to the Seimas, however did not face any response. Committee head B. Bakas himself was a co-founder of the portal ekspertai.eu.

The aforementioned portal is brought up in the VSD and Second Investigation Department 2016 national security threat report. It wrote that Russia was seeking to influence public views through the media and this information was usually distributed through the websites ekspertai.lt, ldiena.lt, sauksmas.lt, revoliucija.org, slfrontas.lt, sarmatas.lt, versijos.lt and laisvaslaikrastis.lt.

"Links and interests can be easily established today – why during criticism of state institutions, incumbent government and politicians did the path for other politicians to enter government appear?" D. Radzevičius said.

As such, he says, links between politicians and certain news media outlets raise no fewer questions than business links to news media.

To add, several months ago V. Bakas himself proposed the idea to support investigative journalism with state funding. A million euro was proposed for this. Is there no threat that under such encouragement news media will favour politicians?

"As such, funding, which would be dedicated to quality journalism should be distributed by independent institutions, as currently the Press, Radio and Television Support Fund is. I would want for the government to be consistent. If we are talking of politicians and businesses having too much influence on the news media, it would be good that not some advertising projects would be backed by state funds and instead investment would be made through independent institutions," the chairman of LŽS said.