As the Lithuanian parliament considers to overhaul public funding to the media, some insist the new law will allow government censorship.
Under the bill currently debated in the Lithuanian parliament, a new body, the Media Support Fund, would be put in charge of distributing public funds to media projects.
The funds, aimed at promoting cultural and educational content, are currently administered by an independent body, but would, under the new rules, fall under the Ministry of Culture.
This, opponents argue, would effectively allow the government to censor the media by withholding funds.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” says Neringa Tuškevičienė, the editor of a regional online newspaper krastozinios.lt. “That means, if your project application includes plans to praise the ministry [of culture], you’ll get the money. Otherwise, not.”
She and a group of regional media representatives observed this week’s Seimas hearings of the bill which was drafted by Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Farmers and Greens Union and arguably the most influential member of parliament.
He says that the bill addresses criticism by the media, especially cultural press, of the current model in which the public funds are administered by the Press, Radio and TV Support Foundation.
However, the problem is not with the way the money is distributed, but with how little there is, says Gytis Norvilas, editor-in-chief of the literary weekly Literatūra ir Menas. A total of 2.5 million euros per year is not enough, he insists.
Moreover, he adds, the new law would allow commercial projects to compete for the funding, diluting the original focus on cultural and educational content.
“The intention was to support all the media, but that’s not possible, there won’t be enough money for everyone,” Dainius Radzevičius, the president of the Lithuanian Union of Journalists, agrees. “This might result in a failure to achieve the original goals: culture and education.”
Opposition MPs say the new model allows for political manipulation of the media.
“It creates tools for politicians to manipulate the foundation’s decisions,” says conservative MP Mantas Adomėnas. “And since it will be distributing funds to the media, I am afraid – and my colleagues agree – it will be a tool to buy off the media.”
Julius Sabatauskas, of the Social Democrats, puts it even more bluntly: “It’s clearly censorship, restriction of free speech and, in my view, violation of the constitution.”
After criticism from the opposition, the bill has been returned to the parliamentary Committee on Culture for further revisions. The parliament may vote on it in the spring session beginning in March.