The Lithuanian Parliament has started the new year by making fresh attempts to restrict the freedom of the media and the public to express their views.
Proposed changes threaten freedom to challenge views and criticise authorities
Amendments to the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public, which were tabled on 2 January by the parliamentary Committee on Culture, threaten the freedom to debate history and criticise the authorities in Lithuania. They also give the state broad powers to prohibit the media from disseminating information. The basis for these changes is vague, with information “used against the interests of national security” being targeted.
The draft amendments aim to block the publication of information in public media if it “attempts to distort the historical memory of the Republic of Lithuania, promotes distrust in and dissatisfaction with the country and its institutions, democratic system and/or military, aims to widen national and cultural divisions, weaken national identity and civic engagement, undermine the citizens’ determination to defend their country, or otherwise influences democracy, elections or the party system in a way that runs counter to the interests of national security.”
Amendments incompatible with freedom of expression standards
According to the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, the proposed amendments are incompatible with the freedom of expression standards laid out in the Constitution and also go against the European Convention on Human Rights. The amended law would allow the authorities to unjustifiably limit freedom of expression and public debate on historical, political, cultural, and other important public issues. It would also restrict the right to criticise the public authorities and could block the public’s access to information on political issues, as well as other issues of public interest.
According to the HRMI “Criticism of state authorities is invariably linked to expressing dissatisfaction with the way they are acting or with specific acts. In some cases, it is linked to expressing distrust in these authorities for issues such as incompetence, conflict of interest, etc. Adopting the proposed general ban would create a situation where any criticism that assesses state authorities in a negative light could be accused of fostering ‘distrust in and dissatisfaction with’ Lithuania or its institutions.”
The Constitution explicitly provides for the right to be critical of state authorities and prohibits censure for such criticism. The importance of this right was also highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights, which pointed out that in democratic countries, government action or inaction should be scrutinised by the media and checked by public opinion. Furthermore, not only does the media have the right to disseminate such information on political issues; the public also has a right to receive it.
In its submission to the parliamentary committees, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute recommended scrapping these amendments altogether.