Lithuanian Government mulls mandatory assets and interest declarations from journalists
The Lithuanian Government readies to toughen the life of journalists with a legislative initiative to introduce asset, income and interest declaration for all journalists.
The proposal was submitted to the Cabinet on Wednesday, following the conclusions of a parliamentary probe into businesses’ unlawful influence on politics. Seimas‘ National Security and Defence Committee commenced it after the revelation that MG Baltic, an influential business group and owner of several major media outlets, has influenced the legislative and prosecutor-appointing process.
Several media people approached by BNN ridiculed the proposals and claimed they reflect the Farmers and Greens-led Government’s increasing resolve to interfere and control media.
«Instead of helping print media, which is affected by the trends most, authorities want to crush it. Our editorial office has been downsized from 25 journalists during our peak years in the early 1990s to a mere four journalists now. Note, their salaries are just a little higher than the minimum wage in the country. What assets can they declare if they live on the brink of poverty?» Gintaras Tomkus, editor-in-chief of Vakaru Ekspresas, a daily published in Klaipeda in western Lithuania, wondered to BNN. Although the local wire news said in the beginning that all journalists will be liable to submit their asset, income and interest declarations with the enactment of the proposal, Skirmantas Malinauskas, advisor to Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, backtracked from the position when speaking to BNS Lithuania and insisted there are plans to make journalists submit asset and income declarations to the State Tax Inspectorate. «What we propose is that media outlets themselves would be allowed to set their own procedures for declaring interests, but the law would stipulate the principle that journalists should submit their declarations to the editor-in-chief or director,» the adviser said.
However, Saulius Skvernelis, was claiming differently.
«We want to protect journalists from accusations and speculative information. Therefore, the need that assets and income were declared not only by media company shareholders, directors of such companies, but also by all journalists, too,» PM accentuated.
He, nevertheless, supports the idea that journalists ought to inform about a possible conflict of interests to their direct supervisors first of all.
«That way we would create a self-regulation mechanism, when the journalist will be obliged to tell the editor-in-chief that, because of conflict of interests, he or she cannot write a certain story and et cetera,» Skvernelis said.
PM also wants media organizations to mark advertisement accordingly if they are related to their owners’ business or businesses.
«We also want media organizations belonging to business groups be known as such to the public. If there is a TV reportage, for example, the broadcaster ought to mark that the coverage is related to some business, be it construction, tobacco or any other (business),» Skvernelis reasoned.
There’s also a proposal for the government to initiate amendments to the Law on Advertising to bar unmarked advertising on social media.
«In all cases of paid advertising, both the natural and the legal person should have the obligation to mark that. Both the contractor and the person spreading information would be held accountable if advertising is not marked,» Malinauskas said.
The Lithuanian government will also deliberate a proposal to ban politicians from holding ownership in media outlets. Such politicians would include party members, non-affiliated MPs, members of the government and municipal councils as well as state officials of political trust.
Media people approached by BNN criticised the initiatives, calling them «redundant», „«unreasonable» and «flawed».
«Our media, especially its print segment, has been so cornered up in terms of the financial situation that the salaries of journalists, if made public, will look ridiculous to all» Gintaras Tomkus, editor-in-chief of Vakaru Ekspresas, a daily published in Klaipeda, Lithuania‘s third-largest city, told BNN.
«I personally know many local publishers and editors-in-chief who thrived, say, 20 years ago and acted as businessmen. Now, with the news trends affecting the print media badly, they have downsized their editorial offices beyond recognition and work as journalists themselves. This is my case, too, by the way. In the peak time of the newspaper, I employed 25 journalists and have just 4 of them left now,» Tomkus accentuated.
«I write articles myself, I take photos myself and even distribute the newspaper myself. This is what I did when we just established the newspaper during the years of Sąjūdis (Lithuania‘s national movement for freedom) in the early 1990s. Thanks to the state, print media is going extinct now». Dainius Radzevičius, chairman of Lithuania‘s Journalists Union, told BNN he was «dismayed» by the proposal to make journalists declare their assets and interests. «If we want more transparency in the state, then such declarations should be mandatory to everybody. I mean to representatives of all professions, i.e. lawyers, teachers, doctors and so on. It does not make sense to single out one category of people,» Radzevičius underscored. «Journalists are neither politics nor public servants». According to him, the state had to bar politicians from owning media outlets «long time ago».
«This is what we are asking for years now,» he said. «Politicians should be conscientious and should not even think of owning a newspaper in order to influence the public opinion and so on. When media and politics merge we have an oligarchy, be it the example of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or the examples in Ukraine and Russia,» he added. However, Vytautas Bruveris, a journalist of daily Lietuvos Rytas, reasoned to BNN that the initiative regarding journalists’ mandatory asset and interest declarations is «good» as it aims to bring more transparency in media operations.
He, nevertheless, emphasised that the initiative was driven not by the will to make media more transparent, but by the ruling party’s striving to control media.
«For the ruling Farmers and Greens, media is one of its biggest foes. The situation of our media is not so far as bad as that in neighbouring Poland or, say, in Hungary and, of course, Russia. However, it is deteriorating,» he said.
According to him, the recent parliamentary probe in the national broadcaster’s activities showed just that.
«The focus was on how some of the TV hosts have become rich and how they exercise their influence. The investigation however bypassed other, more acute issues,» Bruveris noted.
The proposals concerning media will be submitted for the Lithuanian legislators in the autumn session. It starts on 10 September.