A new collaboration between the media, civil society and military communications experts seeks to combat the problem of disinformation in the media.
As part of efforts to combat the problem of disinformation, Lithuanian news outlets have now formed a joint platform Demaskuok.lt or debunk.eu in English. The platform has been created in the context of rising concerns about the extent and impact of Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns through media in the Baltic states. The initiative brings together Lithuania's Military Strategic Communications (STRATCOM), the seven largest media outlets in the country as well as Lithuanian civil society actors. The platform functions through algorithms flagging potential disinformation, volunteers reading and rating the potential threat and sending flagged information to journalists along with their comments.
Deutsche Welle reports that there has been some concerns about the initiative’s work. In an article published at the end of September 2018, DW said:
“The platform has "debunked" controversial topics, such as Lithuania's complicity in the Holocaust, which were ultimately labelled as disinformation and dismissed as false. Such incidents could force journalists to censor themselves and stop questioning confirmed historic narratives or controversial events to avoid the disinformation tag.”
In a separate development, in November 2018, Lithuania's public broadcaster refused to air a music video of a well-known Lithuanian pop-rock band Skamp. The video portrayed couples, including same-sex couples, showing affection. In Lithuania, a law (adopted in 2010) prohibits "any public information which encourages a concept of marriage and family other than the one stipulated in the Constitution of Lithuania". A spokesperson for the national LGBTI rights organisation LGL said it was a “shame” the Skamp’s video was banned. They said:
“The refusal to broadcast Skamp’s music video is… an institutional dread over a possible violation of the law.”
"The government proposes introducing a new model based on “tenure”, through which the teachers would be forced to record every little task by the minute in order to earn their wages." #Lithuaniahttps://t.co/yKPgrzlr6K— Rohith Jyothish (@rohithjyo) December 30, 2018
On 9th December 2018, 6,000 people marched through Lithuania's capital Vilnius to show solidarity with more than a thousand teachers currently striking for higher wages. The teachers’ strike lasted for weeks during late 2018. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis blamed the strikes on the Kremlin and on the opposition. On 11th December the parliament approved a 2019 budget that does not meet demands of the teachers. Inga Aksamitauskaite, Project Coordinator at NGO Information and Support Center, told the CIVICUS Monitor that there was no police aggression reported against the striking teachers or the protesters. In fact, the freedom of peaceful assembly is adequately ensured in Lithuania, both in theory and in practice. Many feel, however, that the current government is not responding to the demands of protestors and is not engaging in a conversation with people demonstrating their dissatisfaction on the streets.
Lithuanian civil society continue to enjoy good support from the government. On 5th December 2018, International Volunteers Day, the Lithuanian parliament housed a forum on volunteering during which the speaker publicly praised the indispensable role of non-profit organisations in Lithuanian society. In our last report on Lithuania, the CIVICUS Monitor had reported about a proposed new funding initiative for civil society. The NGO Information and Support Center (Nevyriausybinių organizacijų informacijos ir paramos centras) recently told the CIVICUS Monitor that, as of late 2018, the initiative was still under discussion. Under Lithuanian law, people can direct 2% of their income tax to non-profit organisations. However, in 2018, only 38% of taxpayers did so. The NGO Information and Support Center believes that funds from those that do not expressly declare 2% of their taxes for a specific NGO should be used to fund national level NGO networks. This would ensure that less visible causes, as well as research and advocacy, receive adequate funding.
The freedom to form associations is constitutionally protected, as is the right to form trade unions.
The Lithuanian Constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to freely form societies, political parties, and associations, “provided that the aims and activities thereof do not contradict the Constitution and laws”. The laws governing NGOs are enabling, although the Communist Party and other organisations associated with the former Soviet Union remain banned. In practice, civil society organisations are not unduly difficult to register in Lithuania and their administrative burden is adequate. The state does not attempt to undermine the advocacy of independent civil society or reduce the space for their advocacy. NGOs supporting unpopular minority groups are not targeted either overtly, or covertly. The right to form and join trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining is generally respected. Lithuania has been commended for providing special tax privileges to associations. Lithuanian law also explicitly protects the right of individuals and organisations to have a say in the making of laws. Despite these incentives, Lithuanian civil society still reports low levels of civic activism, and that many people choose not to engage civically because of fears of ‘losing a job, being publically harassed, slandered…or even receiving death threats.’ Although transgender persons are not legally recognised, Lithuania’s parliament is reviewing all legislation restricting the rights of LGBTI persons. Despite the potential improvement in laws protecting the LGBTI community, groups continue to report hate speech in the media against them.
Peaceful assembly is protected in Lithuania however organisers of gatherings of more than 10 persons must notify the police in advance.
Article 36 of the Lithuanian constitution states that “citizens may not be prohibited or hindered from assembling unarmed in peaceful meetings.” The law regulating assemblies is in line with the international standards. The organisers of protests of more than 10 people ought to notify the authorities in advance. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly can be limited when the security of the state or the rights of other persons are at stake. There are two somewhat nonstandard limitations put on the freedom of assembly: the protesters are prohibited from violating the “morals with their appearance or things they possess or demonstrate” and the are not to demonstrate soviet/communist/nazi symbols. Public opinion is divided on equal rights for LGBTI people, and this manifested itself in 2013 when a gay pride march was disrupted by counter-demonstrators. In the past, Lithuanian parliamentarians also tried to overturn a permit for the gay pride march, Baltic Pride, in the capital. Other recent protests concerned opposition to government plans to accept over 1,000 refugees in Lithuania, low milk prices and the proposed reduction of social benefits for employees. Although these protests were all well-policed, research in 2012 suggested a trend in Lithuania towards an increasingly authoritarian approach to the policing of ‘political’ protests, particularly those held in the wake of austerity measures. On the whole, mass protests are relatively infrequent in Lithuania.
Lithuania’s press is free, with a mix of publicly and privately-owned outlets in operation. Political parties may not directly own media companies however there is a lack of transparency concerning media ownership.
Lithuania’s press is reasonably free, with a mix of publicly and privately-owned outlets in operation. Political parties may not directly own media companies however there is a lack of transparency concerning media ownership. The authorities monitor broadcasts of Russian programmes into the country after increased tensions over the annexation of Crimea. Some Russian media in the country have been fined for misconduct including inciting public discord and hatred. In 2014, two Russian programmes were suspended from being rebroadcast by the regulatory authority because they were alleged to have contained ‘Russian propaganda.’ LGBTI groups have had their free-expression rights restricted due to a 2010 law, which says minors must not be exposed to information that advocates for LGBTI relations. This law has been used on occasion to censor information from LGBTI groups through the media. LGBTI groups have also raised concerns that, in 2014, the parliament attempted to remove criminal liability on homophobic hate speech. Other restrictions on free expression in Lithuania relate to security. In 2013, the secret service obtained an order allowing it to search a newspaper and seize its computers after it revealed a secret report. The order was later annulled following a public outcry. The constitutional definition of freedom of expression does not include slander; disinformation; or “hate speech”. Certain instances of hate speech are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. Defamation remains a criminal offence in Lithuania. The Lithuanian Criminal Code allows for up to two years in prison in certain cases of libel and defamation. Such a law may exert a significant chilling effect on the media whether or not it is actively applied. The law on advertising provides that advertising may be prohibited if it violates the principles of public morality or denigrates religious symbols.