Proposed media regulations threaten media freedom ahead of elections

Association 

Positive news: major agreement reached between CSOs and political parties on fostering active citizenship

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Lithuanian civil society enjoys space to operate. As a further positive step, on 1st March 2019, anagreement was reached between civil society organisations and major political parties "to make constant efforts to strengthen the citizenship and participation of Lithuanian residents in public life in Lithuania". The plans commit political parties to implement 10 key goals aimed at transparent, accountable and democratic governance inclusive of civil society, with focus on the local municipal level. The commitments include: transparent and fair organisation of elections, with inclusion of civil society in the execution and implementation of election campaigns; introducing participatory budget programs enabling citizens participation in budget formation and implementation, increasing the involvement of civil society in public service provision and involving the population in local decision-making processes, as well as making information on public services including municipal budget publicly accessible.

This agreement comes prior to the municipal elections in Lithuania that were held on 3rd March 2019 and is a result of an open debate held by the National NGO Coalition and leaders of the main political parties on 29th January 2019. The initiative was taken by the National NGO Coalition who proposed the idea for all parties to sign the agreement–memorandum to cooperate on strengthening active civic participation and citizenship in the country. With two further planned elections in May 2019 - the presidential elections on 12th May and the elections for members of the European Parliament on 26th May, the signs are positive for the participation of independent civil society in election monitoring. 

Expression

Legislative efforts to counter misinformation threaten freedom of expression

To counter threat of foreign propaganda and fake news, the Lithuanian parliament has recently taken a number of legislative steps. However, civil society claims that some of these measures may threaten freedom of expression and impede open discourse and media independence. 

On 2nd January 2019, the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania (RTC) and the parliamentary Committee on Culture tabled controversial amendments to the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public, empowering the Radio and Television Commission to restrict audio-visual media content that constitutes a threat to national interests.

The proposed amendments contain ambiguous language which fall short of Lithuania’s Constitutional obligations and international best practice standards. In particular, the Lithuanian Union of Journalists raised concerns that the amendments threaten media freedom and freedom of expression. The bill called for bans on media information if it: “…attempts to distort the historical memory of the Republic of Lithuania, promotes distrust in and dissatisfaction with the country and its institutions, democratic system and/or military, aims to widen national and cultural divisions, weaken national identity and civic engagement, undermine the citizens' determination to defend their country, or otherwise influences democracy, elections or the party system in a way that runs counter to the interests of national security.”

In response, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, a non-governmental organisation, said that the "basis for these changes is vague" and could "threaten the freedom to debate history and criticise the authorities in Lithuania" and provide "…the state broad powers to prohibit the media from disseminating information."

The Human Rights Monitoring Institute said:

"The amended law would allow the authorities to unjustifiably limit freedom of expression and public debate on historical, political, cultural, and other important public issues. It would also restrict the right to criticise the public authorities and could block the public's access to information on political issues, as well as other issues of public interest."

Additionally, following a vote on 11th January 2019, the Parliament moved forward the amendments to the Law on the Public Broadcaster, introduced earlier by the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LFGU), part of the ruling coalition. As a next step, the draft will be submitted to parliamentary committees and the Government for further deliberations. The draft seeks to establish a new board to manage the Lithuania’s public broadcaster, Lithuania Radio and Television (LRT).

The LRT management expressed fears that the changes pose a threat to the public broadcaster’s independence.

The Public Media Alliance, a global association of public service broadcasters from around the world, echoed LRT's concerns and in a public letter called on the Lithuanian authorities to ensure that any changes will respect the independence and autonomy of the LRT and following consultation with the LRT. 

These efforts come in the context of increased counter-disinformation campaign undertaken by Lithuania. Previously CIVICUS Monitor reported on the new platform Demaskuok.lt (debunk.eu in English), that brings together Lithuania's Military Strategic Communications (STRATCOM), the largest media outlets in the country and civil society actors to counter against the Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns through media. 

"The idea of involving institutions such as the military in combating disinformation — as Sgt Ceponis [Lithuanian military's Strategic Communications Department] is doing in Lithuania — causes deep anxiety in parts of the EU" - observed Financial Times

Such civil-military cooperation for policing alleged fake news raise concerns among some EU states that "government involvement in anti-disinformation might compromise media independence and freedom". 

Organisation for security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recommends elections monitoring mission for upcoming presidential elections: freedom of expression restrictions among main concerns 

In its Needs Assessment Mission Report for Lithuania Presidential Election,12th May 2019, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted that the recently proposed amendments to both the Law on Public Information and the Law on the Public Broadcaster, were "introduced to parliament without broad consultation and have raised some concern among electoral stakeholders as to the impact on freedom of expression and media independence."

Further, based on the needs assessment, OSCE/ODIHR has recommended an Election Assessment Mission to monitor the 12th May 2019 presidential elections in Lithuania, highlighting among that the following civic space issues that may pose a threat to freedom of expression during the elections: the proposed media regulations; defamation remains subject to criminal penalties; although noting that "the media environment is pluralistic and diverse", concerns have been raised that "ownership of broadcast media remains concentrated". Previously, following Election Assessment Mission in Lithuania for the 9th October 2016 parliamentary elections, the OSCE/ODIHR recommended the following to the government of Lithuania in order to guarantee and protect freedom of expression:

  • To remove provisions that foresee criminal liability for defamation; and
  • To review rules governing media conduct during campaign to clearly distinguish paid political advertising from other forms of campaign coverage.