The Baltic Course  

Lithuanian journalists at war

by Tatyana Komorskaya, Vilnius, special report for the BC

For several months already Lithuania has been shattered by a political scandal. The polarity of opinions around it in the public was so different and profound that, as MPs threatened, "the mass riots could easily begin". There is one important thing that everyone agrees about, i.e. the press and television played major role in this political scandal. It's just the question of whether the coverage went on intentionally, with certain consequential considerations. In any case, the journalists did the right thing, after all.

Editor's note: Lithuanian High Court judgment and the parliament vote have led to President's dismissal as from the 6th of April. He has been in the office a little bit more than a year, i.e. since January 2003 and in fact from the very beginning he was confronted with the press and media. The latter helped to form the "public opinion" around the scandal that has overturned the President, in the last extent. The importance of mass media is not to be exaggerated, but had he less enemies in these circles, it would have been another outcome for the former President. With this notion in mind, we think that a special report from Vilnius can show how the former President's relationship with the press actually went on with what consequences.

 Photo: EPA/A.F.I.

The scandal as a snow ball has grabbed it its orbit a big heap of mutual offences, hundreds of assignments sent to prosecutor's office (from both sides), all possible exposures and threats to the state security as security officials usually warn the public as well as threats to the state security agency itself. Frankly speaking, all that was far beyond any recognition for citizens quite inexperienced in those recent political exercises and trying to understand who was blackmailing whom and who was secretly recording phone conversations. 

The art of making enemies

President Rolandas Paksas was really very good at it, and particularly good to have acquired them among journalists. A professional pilot and a "high flying" person himself, he turned into a bulldozer when facing journalists. The journalists' brotherhood not used to that kind of attitude had come to their own verdict. Political scientist Lauras Belinis said: "Both mass media as a social institution and individual journalists with their own attitude and opinion about the case willingly or unwillingly retransmitted 'the message' to readers or TV audience."

"He is not prone to any discussions at all, nor to listen to others' points of view", says another expert in social communications. And adds to it: "Just look at his favourite phrase when breaking off any interview or discussion: 'I said what I wanted to say, that's all'. In fact, by saying that, Rolandas Paksas cuts off any communications, not giving answers to important questions. In this way one can never form benevolent attitude in communication. Rather vice versa, one can raise only anger and revenge. Critical mass of such tiny revenges can easily form the overall negative attitude. On the way to effective co-operation with the mass media and the press, obviously stands President's regional stubbornness – he was born in Zhemaitsky region quite famous for its stubborn characters – as well as a mistaken belief that it is possible to make others think his way".

In Lithuania lately appeared the whole array of professionally trained experts in public relations with their own "the rules of the game" understanding. We do not see very many of them in the President's press-office now. The team of his assistants, in particular from his press office, during the carousel of developing political scandal, also suffered heavy losses. Some very experienced people already abandoned the President. But how are people from presidential circles able to defend the boss from naturally inquisitive journalists, moreover, if he wants them to "keep quiet", when caught by journalists on the street by the sleeve, or improvising in front of the TV cameras? And how long one can explain, what President actually meant by saying this or that… It seems that Lithuanian example has shown that there are some politicians for whom public relation's service is of no use at all.

In the middle of February the presidency's press-service was "quantitatively intensified", which per se is an impressive fact. However this only aggravated the situation. The experts have noted lack of professionalism in the new team: nobody previously worked in this sphere. And therefore for special meetings and briefings they were foreign people.

All this is of a great surprise, remembering how successfully the President's election campaign went on, according to political experts, that was best in the last years. Big sums have been spent for PR activities. Together with special ads' clips and advertisements, the newspapers were mottled by ordered articles. The forthcoming president expressed his opinion about all themes, arousing resonance in society. And everywhere it was seen "where the wind was blowing from". It means that the Lithuanian President knows how to persuade people. It might be so, that until now he had not regarded it as important to persuade journalists about the events at stake.

Without arranging good relations with the press, Rolandas Paksas almost every day toured Lithuania, meeting directly various groups of people every evening. And it should be mentioned that he was very persuasive in those meetings. It is not surprising at all, knowing that especially the direct communication led him to the president` s chair.

Photo: P. Lileikis, Lr

"White lie" in salvation

However, one does not have to exaggerate the role of the press and journalists. In the countries like ours, where yet only a very thin layer of democracy is covering a monolith of many years' press obedience as "the party's trumpet" beneath the ruling power, journalists are still approached as serving "the rulers".  How, all of a sudden, can it be different now?

According to L.Belini, the mass media (apart from the task to provide information) "represent particular interests of economical and political groups, which wanted to gain maximum profit from their activity; and the latter can certainly 'buy' media sources and make them operate in their favour".

In fact, after the presidential elections the big television channels and several newspapers sympathising to Valdas Adamkus did not accept that R.Paksas has become the President. Thus, at midnight, while various TV channels were announcing the election results, the leading TV stations, presumably feeling shocked, instead of first congratulations were still attacking the candidate, posing catchy questions, uncovering facts…

At the scandal's outset, i.e. after the announcement of State Security chairman Mecis Laurinkus from the parliament tribune about the President`s vulnerability and the necessity to clear out whether he needs protection, the mass media grasped the issue seriously, demonstrating fantastic abilities and wits, and at the same time, aggressiveness and prosecutor's-type temperament. It would have been good, but not in such hyperbolic forms and magnitude.

"Today Rolandas Paksas is driving around Lithuania and again splitting population", thus the news service has been reporting on TV-3 channel today, yesterday, and a month ago… On LNK channel it was even worse: "The President's cunning", "President successfully skipped", "He continues to incite"… Everybody's getting in contact with the President (by the way, legally elected and voted into the office) immediately was questioned by journalists. Presidential office has been literally under siege. Who was sitting in this cafe, and with whom, who went into whose office, all that during several months have made the front news in press and media.

At the outset of the scandal, TV channels have shown as the president's electorate some toothless old hobos squeezing out some meaningless phrases. As if journalists have forgotten that Paksas won the elections practically in all Lithuania's regions. The selection of stories was strongly "from the one side" type. Inappropriate pleasure was felt in the broadcaster's voices: "Four thousand people are gathered around presidential office demanding the President's resignation". "Several thousand people have gathered around the parliament, demanding his dismissal", the same childish pleasure was heard in the broadcaster's reviews. (According to experts` calculation, the real figures were, respectively, two-and-a-half and five thousand people). In fact, this slander period is already over, and the TV news presentation's tone has become normal. But apparent lie and false information is still being presented as truth.

A person from Kaunas during one of the President's visits to the city asked a question and was quite satisfied with the answer. How surprised he was reading in the magazine Veidas that while in Kaunas the President did not answer his particular question. The naive person tried to turn to the editorial board, then to the authorities… But all in vain, of course. And there are several hundreds of similar examples. Country's first lady, Mrs. Laima Paksiene, accompanying the President during one of the official tours, was shocked by the "negative accuracy" of presidential answers' quotations of in next day's newspapers. i.e. everything was turned upside down.

According to experts, people's opinion about the scandal was greatly influenced by the press only during the first two weeks. During this time the society has been clearly divided, i.e. for and against the President. During the weeks before the President's dismissal the press have been denouncing the President mostly by inertia, or just doing its work up to the end.

Mass media forget their duty

During long time the TV news presented reports from the so-called "battle field". First "civilised" stories appeared only in February, and in a very limited amount. In newspapers and magazines the coverage was a bit different. And still, remaining for few months without journalists mobilised to the battle actions society lost much in information delivery. If all journalists had been at work in their papers they would presumably have informed citizens about dreadful things happening in the country. All the findings during the scandal time about mass tapped phone calls, the bewildered population shrunk and shut up. But journalists, despite obvious expectations, reacted slowly, if ever, mainly interested in what president and his assistants have said over the phone, talking to various people. On these tapped conversations, multiply cited and retranslated, the main accusation ground was formed. 

Mass media did not only "swallow", but also congratulated young and vigorous mayor of Vilnius A.Zuokas, one of the most active initiators of President's impeachment, who put near the President's Office waste bins for disposal of the newspaper Let's Protect Democracy (quite a mediocre paper) published by the presidential election campaign sponsor Jury Borisov, where the latter tried to protect himself. Practically all TV-channels "juggled" the ideas about the amount of toilet paper which could be made of this newspaper… Journalists, obsessed by hunting excitement, did not even think about the democratic stance of the event.

Everybody's to the battle field…

Mass media has been divided into two parts over the scandal. The majority assessed presidential activity very critically. Rolandas Paksas was supported by TV-IV channel, newspaper Respublika (for its own reasons) and some of the group's publications, e.g. Vakaro zinios as the defender doubled their number of copies in print. Even on the New Year's Eve none of the leading TV channels would present on TV the President's congratulation speech. The scandal has provoked the war between two country's biggest newspapers: Respublika and Lietuvos rytas, aggravating already longstanding battle for power in the media between them.

Respublika was the first to poke Lietuvos rytas where it hurts, bringing out into light already quite dusty theme of its privatisation of the "Ice Palace" and tax evasions of about one and a half thousand litas. Along the way Respublika also blamed Lietuvos rytas, the owner of a basketball team with the same name, for pressuring sponsors of the Zalgiris team. The fact was confirmed by the latter's legendary player Arvidas Sabonis. Prosecutor General A. Klimavicus, following Sabonis' statement, announced that few years ago he himself had felt Lietuvos rytas' pressure: "In every other paper's issue the prosecutor's office was 'made victim' as well as me personally and K.Betengis (deputy prosecutor). I presume that pressure was also exerted on the President (former President Valdas Adamkus). He was worried as the elections approached". 

By the way, indubitably the best newspaper in the country by the coverage of different themes, Lietuvos rytas already for a long time applies simple, aggressive and effective development tactics, i.e. for a long time in each issue to describe the life and "deeds" of a chosen object. On the paper's account are various "dismissed" ministers, deputy ministers and a deputy prosecutor. The newspaper used this technique tried on the state officials also concerning President Paksas' scandal.

Lietuvos rytas in reply "threw out" into the scene the announcement of capital city's mayor A. Zuokas about "the tax for quiet life", which Respublika has been allegedly collecting from famous and rich entrepreneurs. The mayor confirmed that he was "forced" to recommend companies to co-operate closely with this newspaper, as it ensured the "necessary protection". The accusation which is hard to prove as the verge between an honest editorial board's proposal to co-operate and the invitation "with a tint of racket" is very thin, as soon as it comes from one of the dominating newspapers in the country.

"Politics has turned into the puppet theatre in which the press pulls the strings", the words are attributed to famous Klemanso regarding the then France's president, having been in the office for only few months. Today it seems that it was said about our case. It has to be admitted that our media-concerns already for many years do not detest using their "trumpets" for quite selfish aims. It has become difficult to distinguish whether it's a real exposure or a case of selfish interests and who actually stands for the truth.

Moreover, there wouldn't be any winners in this battle over the President's impeachment. Rating of mass media, standing high in national confidence for the last ten years, has moved presently to the 4th -7th place. Instead the popular trust to banks and army has increased immensely. Sociologists give the following explanation – both have not been involved in any political scandals.