January 5, 2016

Investigative journalism in Lithuania: some highlights

History of Lithuania’s investigative journalism has not yet been written. Some would say that there is not enough material for that, while others might claim that investigative journalism in Lithuania has died in its infancy, together with a violent murder of a journalist Vitas Lingys in 1993.

Džina Donauskaitė

Vitas Lingys was a courageous young investigator at a then-popular and respectful newspaper Respublika (‘The Republic’). He was digging into activities of a criminal gang called Vilniaus brigada (‘Vilnius brigade’), which, in the wake of young democratic country, with its weak law enforcement authorities, was blackmailing politicians, businessmen, and ordinary people. He paid for his fearless stance against undemocratic criminal forces with his life.

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Vitas Lingys was a young courageous investigator who sacrified his life for better future of the country and journalism.

 

The murder case of Vitas Lingys carries symbolism on many levels. First, he has become the best known Lithuanian investigative journalist to date. He was 33, when he had been killed. Some say – died at ‘the age of Christ’ and thus made a symbolic sacrifice for better future of journalism and its country.

Second, the mastermind behind the assassination, the leader of the Vilnius brigade, Borisas Dekanidzė, had become the last person to be executed by modern Lithuanian state. As Lithuania was strengthening human rights, all death sentences that followed were eventually changed into sentencing to life in prison. Thus, a then-lawful killing of the perpetrator, had become the closure for soviet-like understanding of what is a just democratic society.

Third, the Respublika newspaper, which was the flagship of autonomous journalism in the wake of Lithuania’s independence and had a growing readership, had eventually given its intellectual liberty to different political groups and personalities. The striking thing was that despite the introduction of freedom of speech after the declaration of independence from the USSR, Lithuania’s mass media eventually had started to trade off its freedom of speech rather voluntarily to different political and market groups.

The striking thing was that despite the introduction of freedom of speech after the declaration of independence from the USSR, Lithuania’s mass media eventually had started to trade off its freedom of speech rather voluntarily to different political and market groups.

A phenomenon of paid news that was not at all common to older democratic countries or, so called, traditional democracies, had become obvious even from the front pages of Lithuania’s newspapers. Corruption research had shown that media management has been using its power of publicity to blackmail businessmen and politicians into paying them off for various things, including silence. In the emerging Lithuania’s free market, which was even wilder than in the, so called ‘The Wild West’, not only did the politicians and business people pressurise the media, but also the media houses were misusing their powers for economic reasons.

As a result of the flawed political economy of the media, the audience’s trust in journalism, which was at its peak during the independence fights and right after, had started to shrink dramatically.

The phrase ‘There is no investigative journalism in Lithuania’ has become a cliché. It is used until today by intellectuals, politicians, businesses, media researchers and the journalists themselves. It is not entirely true, though, as there have been many investigative stories published in the media in the past couple of decades. Although, the impact was not obvious at all.

As a result of the flawed political economy of the media, the audience’s trust in journalism, which was at its peak during the independence fights and right after, had started to shrink dramatically.

For example, a niche non-commercial political weekly ‘Atgimimas’ (‘The Revival’) has revealed a corrupt privatisation of VST (The western power grid company) and an equally non transparent establishment of a new company (Leo LT or Lithuanian Electricity Organisation). The VST had been privatised by the ‘NDX Energija’ whose owner company, the ‘VP Market’, was also the owner of a biggest Lithuanian chain of shopping centres ‘Maxima’.

The privatisation took place in 2003 and was implemented through complicated public procurement procedure, in which the private company ‘NDX Energija’ was the only competitor. Before the purchase the market value of state’s owned VST was falsely reduced. The ‘NDX Energija’s’ purchase was funded by a bank loan which was repaid fully short after the privatisation, when the new owner reduced VST’s authorised shares capital.

After that it had been revealed that the VST company had been privatised using same company’s funds, while ‘NDX Energija’ did not pay a cent for the purchase. Moreover, after the privatisation the price of electricity had been increased by 3 cents, so the inhabitants and companies of the Western Lithuania were paying more for electricity than the people and the businesses in Eastern Lithuania. The corrupt deal, however, was made within the regulations of the energy sector at that time and under the rule of social democratic government.

In this case journalists were revealing new facts, analysing documents and other information. The scheme was complicated, and the PR campaign took place to compromise certain journalists and public figures, so the facts investigated did not stop the public and politicians from both sides –  in-position and opposition – to invite the company into a new deal of the energy sector.

The scheme was complicated, and the PR campaign took place to compromise certain journalists and public figures, so the facts investigated did not stop the public and politicians from both sides –  in-position and opposition – to invite the company into a new deal of the energy sector.

In 2007, several years later after the privatisation of VST, there was an attempt of the same social democratic party-led government to consolidate the state owned Eastern (RST) and privately owned Western (VST) grid companies and to establish a commonly owned company ‘Leo LT’. The public was convinced by the initiators that the new company is needed to build a new atomic power plant. After difficult debates and calls for the president Valdas Adamkus to veto the decision of the Parliament the company was established. However, after the election which brought the conservative party to the power, the Leo LT was dissolved and the VST was nationalised again.

Not only ‘Atgimimas’, but different media outlets as well were revealing facts on how natural monopolies, especially in the Vilnius municipality, ended up in hands of private companies, close to certain politicians, for example, Vilnius mayor Artūras Zuokas. There were many cases of private and public sector cooperation that resulted in higher prices or even less availability of services to the people and draining out of public budget.

Despite all the facts that were revealed, little change has taken place in the public life, regulations and politics. No wonder why the independent journalists in many cases lose faith in society, which votes for the same corrupt and non-transparent politicians that have been exposed.

On the other hand, sometimes journalists do not follow strict methodology of investigative journalism which leave room for the audience’s doubt about certain exposures. Moreover, paid news in competing media outlets very often counter the investigative exposures. The PR strategies manage as well to make enough public confusion around important reveals. Last, but not the least – the lack of solidarity among journalists downplays attempts to investigate and weakens the potential of the impact.

Sometimes journalists do not follow strict methodology of investigative journalism which leave room for the audience’s doubt about certain exposures. Moreover, paid news in competing media outlets very often counter the investigative exposures. The PR strategies manage as well to make enough public confusion around important reveals. Last, but not the least – the lack of solidarity among journalists downplays attempts to investigate and weakens the potential of the impact.

The professional interest in the methods of investigative journalism has been mostly fueled by several NGO’s concerned with the situation of Lithuania’s journalism. The Transparency International Vilnius branch has started the ‘Journalists’ Breakfast’ initiative whose goal is to bring professional investigative journalists and scholars, columnists and editors from all around the world to share their experience with Lithuanian experts of the field.

In 2013 the Lithuanian Union of Journalists had announced establishment of the first Investigative Journalism Fund in Lithuania. Investigative journalism funds in many countries seek to generate resources whose lack is one of the reasons why important life changing investigations never take place despite so many leads being available to journalists.

However, the first competition for the Lithuanian Investigative Journalism Fund’s resources has ended as a farce. The Lithuanian Union of Journalists had announced a call for investigative projects on the topic of ‘Heating industry in Ukmergė: the impact of political and business interests to society’.

Mantas Dubauskas, a respected investigative journalist, had won the competition, but refused to sign the contract after learning that the fund donation comes from an interested source – the ‘E-Energija’ company which ran a heating business in Ukmergė. It was also revealed to the public that the company had influenced the topic of the competition.

Moreover, some members of the jury who evaluated the submissions were not aware of the main donor of the fund and his influences. In the end, the results of the competition were annulled, and further funding activities were frozen.

Nevertheless, this did not compromise the idea of the fund for Lithuanian investigative journalism entirely. In 2014 the Institute of National Social Integration which ran a successful Media4Change programme, lead by Neringa Jurčiukonytė, had announced a competition for an even bigger fund which had two main donors – ‘Baltos pirštinės’ (‘The White Gloves’, which is an NGO promoting values of political transparency and accountability) and the ‘EEA Grants’ NGO programme in Lithuania.

The competition attracted young and experienced participants from the biggest Lithuanian cities and smaller towns. They came up with their own ideas to investigate illegal business practices (Liucija Zubrutė), violations of human rights and the procurement corruption (Tadas Širvinskas). Some of them, for example, a young journalist Lukrecijus Tubys has been looking closer into Edward Snowden’s disclosures from the point of view of Lithuanian public, trying to understand whether there are reasons to believe that the privacy of Lithuanian public is in danger.

The Investigative Journalism Competition, organised by Media4Change attracted young and experienced participants from the biggest Lithuanian cities and smaller towns. They came up with their own ideas to investigate illegal business practices (Liucija Zubrutė), violations of human rights and the procurement corruption (Tadas Širvinskas). Some of them, for example, a young journalist Lukrecijus Tubys has been looking closer into Edward Snowden’s disclosures from the point of view of Lithuanian public, trying to understand whether there are reasons to believe that the privacy of Lithuanian public is in danger.

The second competition had been announced in 2015 and the winner Daiva Repečkaitė dug into the use of European Funds on building new psychiatric hospitals or renovating old ones instead of investing in the new treatment methods, qualifications of the nursing personnel, and ways of community involvement.

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New Media4Change Investigative Journalism Competition focuses on the topic of political corruption.

 

The 2016 ‘s competition is focusing on the upcoming parliamentary elections and the funding of campaigns.

The investigative journalism competition organised by the National Institute for Social Integration within the Media4Change program is important and significant in several ways.

First, as the Media4Change program had from the beginning focused on educating the youth into ethical journalism, the competition is continuing to motivate young journalists by offering them mentors to implement investigative projects.

Second, the fund is a great opportunity for professional journalists to take time off from their media houses and to investigate things without risking to lose their regular income. Third, the National Institute for Social Integration has found a perfect model of how to use international public funds (in this case, the EEA grants) to support journalism.

Many did not succeed. Since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, the media quality has shrunk in many respects. With the huge influx of European structural funds and other financial opportunities into Lithuanian market, the strange relationship between media houses and project managers who were the direct beneficiaries of those funds had formed.

A journalist Inga Janiulytė had revealed that the media avoid certain publicly important topics if there is a possibility to get financial benefit by attracting budgets for publicity of certain projects. As a result, the amount of advertorials has increased, especially in the regional and the local media. Also the journalists of media houses use their time for PR-like activities, such as reporting on the success of the EU- funded projects, rather than staying faithful to the rule to strictly separate journalism and PR, and a not act in both roles at a time.

Since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, the media quality has shrunk in many respects. With the huge influx of European structural funds and other financial opportunities into Lithuanian market, the strange relationship between media houses and project managers who were the direct beneficiaries of those funds had formed.

In the world of Lithuanian media, it is important to mention the role of online dailies. 1/3 of country’s population is reading at least one of the popular news sources on the internet – Delfi.lt, 15min.lt or lrytas.lt.

The past and the current years, some say, are being golden to Lithuanian investigative journalism. In April of 2015 the 15min.lt has established its ‘Spotlight’ – a department of investigative journalism which soon became an official partner of Organised Crime and Corruption Project. In cooperation with an international consortium of investigative journalism 15min.lt continues to dig into the Panama Papers.

Recently Delfi.lt published several investigative stories. One series of stories was written by a journalist Vilma Danauskienė and focused on a social democratic mayor of the health resort Druskininkai Ričardas Malinauskas. The journalist has proven that the mayor used the publicly owned ‘Aqua’ water park to host and entertain judges, public servants, high ranking law enforcement agents, friendly politicians etc.  and all of it was paid with the public money without a reasonable explanation.

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Young journalists in Lithuania are focusing on illegal construction in State’s parks and protected areas.

 

Birutė Davidonytė, a young Delfi.lt journalist, continues to break the stories about commercial construction of houses and personal luxury apartments in strictly protected areas or/and nature reserves around Vilnius that belong to the public domain. The journalist uses drones to prove violation of law and the public interest. As a result of her continuing revelations, the Director of the Regional park of Pavilniai and Verkiai had resigned.

Viktorija Chockevičiūtė, a young student researcher at the Institute of Journalism of Vilnius university analysed methods of contemporary investigative journalism. She observed that there are more methods used among investigative journalists around the world than Lithuanian professionals are using. Therefore, there is a task and a challenge for NGO’s and others, working in the professional education field, to introduce new handy methods to local investigative journalists.

There also is another challenge – certain unfavourable policies and ethical norms that has to be changed because they can be used against investigative journalists at any time, especially if somebody covered in the investigative story decide to take the vengeance.

There also is another challenge – certain unfavourable policies and ethical norms that has to be changed because they can be used against investigative journalists at any time, especially if somebody covered in the investigative story decide to take the vengeance.

The safety and the independence of a journalist are the core premises for fearless and courageous investigative journalism and contemporary societies, the Lithuanian included, can secure them. But there is one more thing: the journalists and the media houses have to be ready and willing to investigate – that’s the only thing which makes the mountains move.

nfThe article was written in the framework of a project Importing Global Investigative Journalism Experience to Lithuania. The project covered author’s travel expenses to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2015 (Lillehammer, Norway) and costs of preparation of this article. The project is implemented with the support of EEA and Norway Grants for the period 2009-2014 (Bilateral Relations Fund).


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