On 8 December, Lithuanian MPs unanimously voted to amend the country’s Civil Code to limit the right to criticize public figures. With such decision, Lithuanian parliament significantly curtailed freedom of speech and media freedom in the country.
However, following concerns raised by the journalists, lawyers and NGOs, on 19 December the Lithuanian President vetoed the law, and the amendments were subsequently withdrawn.
Eliminating media safeguards
At present, the Civil Code provides more leeway when publishing information about public figures and their work, compared to what is permissible with regard to private individuals.
If it turns out that the published information is false, but the person who published it can prove that he was acting in good faith and didn’t know that it was not true, that person is off the hook and is not liable for financial compensation.
These safeguards first and foremost concern journalists, allowing them to freely carry out their work and to inform the public on the affairs of public figures.
Defending the dignity of politicians
On 8 December, the legislature saw fit to change the rules. The amendment dispensed with the aforementioned safeguards when publishing false information harms a person’s honor and dignity.
Purportedly, the amendment was adopted because of a need to establish civil remedies against insults when the latter were decriminalized.
However, by adopting this amendment, MPs actually did away with the extra protection given to journalists, since, in essence, spreading false information can harm the reputation of a public figure and thus “abase his honor and dignity” in each and every case.
“These changes pose a serious threat to the work of the media, as they lay the groundwork for holding journalists liable under civil law for criticizing the actions of public figures by claiming that [the criticism] does not meet the facts and is degrading to that public figure’s honor and dignity,” said Karolis Liutkevičius of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute.
According to the legal expert, these regulations can deter the media from carrying out its direct duties – namely, informing the public on pertinent issues. Media freedom also covers the right to hyperbole or even provocation, debate and harsh criticism, all to ensure that the press is able to function as the guardian of the public interest.
Threshold for criticizing normally wide
“Criticism and evaluative statements cannot be tantamount to insults, while the right to criticize the work of the authorities and public officials is protected by our country’s Constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights,” Liutkevičius said.
According to him, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly made clear that politicians acting in an official capacity are subject to wider limits of acceptable criticism than ordinary citizens.
Politicians inevitably and knowingly open themselves up to oversight regarding their words and actions, whether by the press or the public at large, and must be more tolerant towards criticism.
Remedies already exist
Lithuanian journalists have made more than a few public appeals to President Dalia Grybauskaitė, urging her to exercise her veto.
The Human Rights Monitoring Institute has also provided the president with its opinion on the amendment. In HRMI’s view, remedies for defending one’s honor and dignity against malicious publication of false information are already available to both public figures and private individuals.
As such, instead of better protecting human dignity, the amendments to the Civil Code would just further restrict free speech and media freedom in Lithuania.