Published on July 20, 2011
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Quite simultaneously, the UK and Lithuania have been plagued by notorious media scandals involving phone hacking practices in British tabloids and accusations of corruption and money extortion in national Lithuanian newspapers.
Earlier this month, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten ran a story on corruption in Lithuanian media, referring to a four-year-old report from the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius published in June by WikiLeaks. The US document exposed unethical and illegal practices in the two major daily Lithuanian newspapers, Respublika and Lietuvos Rytas.
As a result of the ensuing commotion, Lithuanian media watchdogs are now pondering whether the allegations might only be the tip of the iceberg.
Vilius Kavaliauskas, a long-time journalist and former advisor to the Lithuanian Prime Minister, was quoted by in the Aftenposten article as saying: “In Lithuania, one must buy the right not to to be attacked in the media. A daily can replace a minister—any daily any minister. Government officials seem to be powerless against the media.”
Kavaliauskas, who now works as a freelance journalist, believes that the economic downturn has undermined ethical standards in Lithuanian media outlets.
Paying for positive coverage
Algirdas Sysas, a social democrat and a member of the Lithuanian Parliament, is not surprised by the revelations of corruption in the Lithuanian media, and especially in some of the major dailies.
“Frankly, I have heard that some high-ranking politicians have been approached to pay for positive articles about them in some newspapers. I heard the price was set at LTL 20,000-30,000 (EUR 5,700 – 8,500) per page. Most politicians have always strongly suspected these practices in some national newspapers,” Sysas says.
The member of Parliament also revealed a personal experience with a major Lithuanian newspaper he described as a “tabloid”.
“I usually don’t pay attention to ungrounded accusations against me in newspapers. However, some time ago, one newspaper started publishing nasty articles about my supposed inactivity, claiming that I was unfit to hold a seat in Parliament. The articles were accompanied by freaky, photoshopped pictures of me. When I called the newspaper editor, I was suggested to order a series of positive publications about me. In exchange for big money, obviously,” Sysas revealed, adding that he had declined the offer.
The US Embassy report says that Lithuanian media outlets, as in many countries, have clear political preferences, charging some high-ranking politicians more than others for a PR article. The difference in Lithuania is that direct payments are also involved.
The report refers to the case of a Labour Party official, who told a US Embassy staff member that it would cost him LTL 25,000 (EUR 7,000) to request a positive article in the Lietuvos Rytas daily newspaper, but only LTL 5,000 (EUR 1,600) for a Social Democratic Party member. The Labour official was not complaining about having to pay for an article - he accepted it as common practice. He was complaining about the price difference.
The US Embassy report mentioned another example, involving Vale Cepleviciute, a journalist with 13 years of service at the Respublika daily. Cepleviciute said that the paper’s owner and de facto editor, had asked his staff not to criticise the well-known businessman- turned- politician and chairman of the Labour Party, Viktor Uspaskich.
The embassy document dating back from 2007 further revealed that Raimundas Voishka, director of the Pfizer branch office in Vilnius, was contacted by the owner of Respublika, who offered to “kill” the pharmaceutical giant’s competitors in Lithuania. The price for the favour was set at one LTL 1 million (slightly over EUR 300,000), and the director was given two weeks’ time to respond. When Respublika approached him again, he rejected the offer.
The newspaper then started running articles accusing Pfizer of overcharging for its products and taking advantage of needy hospital patients and sick people.
Later, Respublika published an article claiming that Voishka had beaten up a child - he had, in fact, had an altercation with a neighbour boy - and sent the article to Pfizers headquarters in New York.
The Prosecutor’s office and internal investigations by Pfizer however cleared the director of any misconduct in the incident.
Following the affair, Vitas Tomkus, the owner and editor-in-chief of Respublika, reacted in the way he has been notorious for – by suing Aftenposten as well as 15 minuciu and Verslo zinios, the Lithuanian publications that had run the Aftenposten article. In early July Respublika also filed a lawsuit against the US Embassy in Vilnius.
Vitas Tomkus, owner and editor-in-chief of Respublika
A Lithuanian court declined however to accept the last claim, explaining that only a US court can bring charges against a US Embassy.
Asked to comment, Respublika owner Tomkus said: “All these accusations against our newspaper are false and originate from the United States Secret Service, who is trying to push out from the market the only national daily newspaper published by a Lithuanian-capital company and bring in instead foreign-capital media owners who strongly back American policies.”
“We are ready to fight against the US Embassy and the Norwegian newspaper that has libeled Respublika by publishing an unsubstantiated article without even seeking our comment first,” Tomkus added.
Unlike Respublika, the second daily mentioned in the US Embassy document, Lietuvos Rytas, has not reacted to the allegations in any way, instigating further speculations about its culpability.
Rimvydas Valatka, deputy editor of Lietuvos Rytas, tried to downplay the accusations. “There is nothing to comment about. We are talking about some petty piece of paper written by an undisclosed person with unclear intentions.”
Rimvydas Valatka, deputy editor of Lietuvos Rytas
When asked about the alleged practice of quoting different prices for different political parties, Valatka said: “Well, the Labour Party man quoted in the Wikileaks document overlooked the fact that our rates vary according to an article’s position in the newspaper and the day of its appearance and are not based on people’s political affiliations.”
He rejects any accusations of corruption and money extortion: “I have been with the newspaper for 25 years, and I swear I have never heard of anything like that.”
“Only newspapers that may have “sinned” in some way raise noise by defending themselves,” Valatka said, clearly pinpointing the chief rival newspaper Respublika.
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