Unpleasant steps are being taken regarding Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) by the Seimas, LRT Director General Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė says. According to her, there have been various attempts to limit the freedom of press during this parliamentary session; thus, there is need to remain cautious. Ruslanas Iržikevičius interviews the LRT director general for Visegrad Insight.
According to M. Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, the Seimas investigative commission's existence has brought Lithuanian press freedom ratings down in the international context and the proposed amendments will have an even more deleterious effect.
(Ruslanas Iržikevičius) – Could you describe what is happening between the Seimas and LRT?
(Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė) – The Seimas or more accurately the majority coalition, which has been in power for about two years, established an ad hoc investigative commission at the start of this year in order to investigate the activities of the national broadcaster, LRT. The investigation was conducted for nine months and now it has presented its conclusions, which will be voted on by the Seimas. Just to note though, I have been working here for only half a year and the commission is investigating the activities of my predecessor over a number of years and, as they say, whether funding was used effectively, transparently and so on.
Most of the conclusions would be hard to dispute because what we found here upon arriving was certainly not the pinnacle of transparency and efficiency. However, what concerns us is that the same conclusions, which are presented as undeniable by the majority, refusing proposals from other MPs to split them into several parts, there are proposals in them that suggest changes in LRT's management model and these proposals create a threat to LRT being increasingly politicised.
LRT is led by a council, which is currently comprised of 12 members. It is the top management organ for the broadcaster and together with the director general manages LRT. What the majority is proposing, among other things, is to establish a board which would be responsible for financial and managerial matters. What is important is that the board members may be approved by the council; however, the candidates would be chosen by a government commission, which would be formed out of ministry and cabinet officials, making these individuals directly delegated by politicians. In our opinion, this is a threat to independence.
What they also propose is to dismantle the current council member appointment regulations, which are fairly effective and advanced. Currently, a third of the council is newly appointed every four years and their terms do not match those of the president and the Seimas. What the majority is proposing is that these terms should begin to match.
Also, further regulation of LRT is suggested from another two institutions – the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission and from the ethics inspector.
These matters have left us concerned, and we have appealed to international organisations: the European Broadcaster Union (EBU); the Lithuanian Journalists Union has appealed to the OSCE; we have also contacted UNESCO and other journalistic organisations. We have received support from both the EBU as well as the Latvian Journalists Union and the Latvian and Estonian public broadcaster directors, board chairs and so on.
The Seimas will now vote on the conclusions and likely will approve them. Then they will be taken to various committees and discussions will begin on amendments. The majority's intent is, regardless of whether the conclusions are approved or not, to forge ahead with legislative amendments. Despite having a fragile majority, they can bulldoze through the amendments without having any major debates or discussions. We want a broader discussion and believe that the national broadcaster is an important means of public information, an important institute of democracy with the purpose of ensuring a variety of opinions is being heard.
Hence, we believe that we need broad discussions, which would involve public representatives, international experts, LRT itself, jurists, news media representatives and such. The proposals must be reviewed with care because the current arrangements operate adequately.
Thus, the main argument is solely that there was a lack of transparency regarding finances and the need to appoint individuals who would solely oversee and manage finances?
Yes, they point out that the national broadcaster has a budget of 40 million euro and a council lacking relevant competences – alongside the administrative commission – cannot manage it. But, for example, in terms of the non-overlapping council member terms, the changes they are proposing, these proposals are not drawn from the conclusions. Why any further regulations would be needed or put in place has also not explained.
When we pose specific questions and start backing them up against a wall, they tell us that these are just proposals, not legislation. However, seeing how they are willing to force through their proposals and how fast it is all proceeding, we are concerned because there simply is a lack of time to adequately discuss everything. We see that there is no desire for further discussions.
In terms of the board, there are various models in the European Union context. The prime minister stated last week that, in the end, the national broadcaster is not a business institution, not a profit-seeking organisation, no matter that it is being funded through taxpayers' money and expressed doubts regarding the need for a board.
Are we seeing signs of Lithuania moving in the direction of Poland and Hungary?
I believe these steps are unpleasant. They have coincided with the Centre of Registers story, where there was an attempt to bar journalists getting access to registers data, which is crucial to analytical journalism. This also coincided with the scandal where the cabinet discussed these matters, but later was unwilling to share the recording with journalists. When journalists requested the recording, it was destroyed. These signs are unpleasant, there have been several attempts during this parliamentary session to limit the freedom of press.
But can we say it is the same as Poland's attacks on the media? Such a conclusion would currently be too audacious. I wish to note that each majority makes some effort to limit the freedom of press. The current government is no exception. The national broadcaster has faced pressure from other political powers before.
That being said, the Seimas investigation is unique in Europe. There has never been a case before where the activities of a national broadcaster would be investigated by a parliamentary commission. This is a worrying signal because instead of trusting the task to professionals such as the National Audit Office and other institutions, the Seimas chose to investigate the activities itself.
They stated that they would not interfere with and review content, which one must admit is true. However, the speed and what data they requested, how much data they required, this paralysed the work of the administration. Now that the commission's conclusions are out, large amounts of data are requested by other institutions, which are running their own investigations or have received directions from the Seimas to investigate. Institutions such as the Prosecutor General's Office, the FNTT (Financial Crime Investigation Service). This paralyses our work. We are doing nothing but reviewing various documents, seeking out contracts, etc.
Do you think it is important for the Lithuanian people, for the broad audience to have freedom of speech in Lithuania?
Of course, it is important. It is however difficult to explain to people, the broad audience, our non-overlapping terms of office or why management should be appointed by a nongovernmental commission, why according to good practice politicians should maintain distance because the media criticizes them and, in a way, controls them. It is incredibly important.
We are a young democracy, thus the news media, however flawed as it may be at times, making mistakes on occasion, it is one of the greatest guarantees of democracy. Only publicity can provide the public with the right to information and to see that politicians are officials, that they perhaps make certain missteps, that there are cases of corruption. To what extent people comprehend it and value it; whether they would take to the streets for it, that's unfortunately a big question.
So perhaps there is a lack of understanding of its importance?
Sometimes I am left with despair, but on the other hand, when you listen to our listeners calling in to our radio programmes, what they say, how they express support, it starts to look like people do understand.
I am very happy with the journalistic community. While the community in Lithuania may not be overly united, but in such cases of restrictions, it usually comes together and calls on the president to veto such legislation, which I hope will happen in our case. The president, by the way, has already spoken categorically against any attempts to politicise LRT.
The president cannot veto the conclusions because it is only a political opinion. However, we must remain wary and careful because political opinions can rapidly turn into legislative amendments.
The proposals are not all bad, take the proposal to establish an ombudsman institution. We do not oppose this because the national broadcaster must be more transparent, must disclose information and effectively use funding. We have been doing this without even waiting for the conclusions; we arrived and immediately set out to work on these matters.
What could the international community, at the EU level, do to help? Perhaps, advise the Lithuanian government?
Aid could come very specifically in terms of legislation and best practices. Which models work and which do not. Overall, regarding the international community's reaction – the investigative commission as such, its existence itself has already brought down the Lithuanian press freedom index in the international context. I believe the current amendments, proposals, they will bring down the rating even more, I am certain.
Seeing this, the majority would appear to have reacted and is now bringing out new proposals. For example, when they saw us raising the question of politicisation, they started a barrage of various proposals, for example reducing the number of LRT Council members appointed by the Seimas and president from 8 to 4. I fear that by shifting questions of the council's composition and terms in office, a Pandora's Box will be opened, where there will be proposals of questionable organisations, unclear options, which will not necessarily be optimal.
The international community can certainly contribute with its expertise, consult, participate in discussions, actively react to events here and seek to prevent it being bulldozed through.
Looking at the future. What date could the bulldozer's final push come?
In terms of amendments, they planned to pass them by December. It is currently late October; thus, they have a month to go. In my opinion, this is very little time. We will organise various discussions ourselves, what management is needed and how things should proceed.
So, something should emerge by mid-November?
We will see when the amendments will be made. It is worth mentioning that a group of MPs have called upon the Constitutional Court to review the investigation's constitutionality. In this regard, the EBU recommends that it would be best to wait for this ruling or at least not implement any long-term measures based on solely the parliamentary commission's conclusions.
However, Ramūnas Karbauskis, the majority leader, has clearly indicated in a committee meeting that he does not intend to await the ruling and that MPs are free to initiate amendments and not wait for the Constitutional Court's ruling.
Ruslanas Iržikevičius – Founder, Editor-in-Chief of the Lithuania Tribune (en.delfi.lt) news portal.