Lithuania

Flag_of_Lithuania.svg

By Kelly Woytkewicz

Introduction

The country of Lithuania is one of three Baltic States in Europe and has evolved to be democratic and free since its establishment in the early 1400s, as testified by publishing organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Freedom House. According to RWB’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index, in fact, Lithuania was ranked 31st out of 180 countries (“2015”), meaning it is a free country as compared to many others. This country’s freedom is due to its freedom of speech, freedom of press, and general democratic status.

Yet this freedom has not always been evident in Lithuania. While this country did declare itself an independent republic in 1918, it was forcefully incorporated into the Soviet regime in 1940 and was invaded by Germany and again by the Soviets in the early 1950s (Grabham 23, Rodgers 34). The Soviet regime was strict in its control of speech and press, punishing many citizens’ disobedience with torture and death. However, the situation improved when Lithuania declared itself independent from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1990.

Historical Background

To give a brief description of the history of this country, one must look as far back as the early 13th century, when an assortment of dukes established the dukedom of Lithuania (Rodgers 25). Over the years, this dukedom faced many conflicts with surrounding countries, primarily Russia, leading to Lithuania’s unification with Poland in 1569 (Rodgers 30). Conflict with Germany arose, as well, when Germany invaded the country in the midst of the Great War in 1914; yet Lithuania soon declared their independence as the Republic of Lithuania in 1918 (Rodgers 33).

Twelve years after this declaration, Lithuania was incorporated into the USSR, invaded by Germany from 1941-1944 during World War II, and overtaken again by the Soviets in the early 1950s (Rodgers 34). This forceful incorporation by the USSR was never recognized by the United States (O’Connor 117), and the Soviets’ control grew from difficult to deadly. Over a period of fifty years, a horrifying number of tragedies occurred from 1940 to 1990, consisting of “hundreds of thousands deported, tens of thousands killed, 200,000 Jews murdered, and so on” (Petersen 302). These tragedies led to an increase in tension in the country and in the citizens’ overwhelming desire for freedom from the Soviet regime.

This desire gave way to action in the late 1980s when the Soviets declared new policies concerning Lithuanian citizens’ free speech, including the policy of glasnost. In Russian, “glasnost means ‘openness’” and “allowed Lithuanians…to speak out against their government without fear of being punished” (Rodgers 35), which led to “a rebirth of Baltic national life” (O’Connor 146). This policy had the “unintended effect of inducing challenges to Soviet policies,” which morphed into national protests in the Baltic States (O’Connor 148). These protests gave way to Lithuania’s declaration of independence on March 11, 1990, marking this country as the first Soviet republic to declare independence (Chari 71). This rebellion served as a signal to the other Baltic States (Petersen 36):

By May 1990 all three Baltic republics had formally declared their intention to achieve independence from the USSR, but with one important difference between them: whereas at this stage Estonia and Latvia [the two other Baltic States] still approached independence as a matter to be negotiated with Moscow, Lithuania treated its independence as an accomplished, irrevocable fact. (O’Connor 158)

These claims of independence soon led to violence from the USSR, culminating in an attack on Lithuania in hopes of quelling the citizens’ unrest. This attack backfired on the USSR, however, when 14 Lithuanians were killed and hundreds injured during the Soviets’ seizure of the “Press Palace”—i.e., several television and radio stations in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (Rodgers 36). This attack occurred on Jan. 13, 1991 and became known as “Bloody Sunday,” resulting in further conflict with the Soviets and strengthening the citizens’ resolve to become independent once more.

In a turn of events, Lithuania was recognized as a nation by the Soviets and admitted to the United Nations in September 1991, and the country’s first democratic elections were held in October of the following year (Grabham 23). By 1993, the last of the Russians had withdrawn from Lithuania, and the newly democratic parliament had elected “to create a new constitution that would reflect the experiences of democratic counties such as the United States, France, and postwar Germany” (O’Connor 170-171). In addition, Lithuania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) by 2004, and the country began working to become freer. Things were finally looking up for this long-suffering nation.

Today, Lithuania is “a parliamentary representative democracy” (Chari 72). The government consists of an executive branch, which includes a president as head of state, prime minister, ministers, and a parliament known as the Seimas, which is made of 141 members, each elected for a four-year term (Chari 72). All holders of public office are encouraged to “make decisions solely in terms of the public interest, securing the impartiality of decisions being taken and preventing the emergence and spread of corruption” (Chari 75). This points to the fact that Lithuania is striving to ensure freedom and quality of life for every citizen.

The freedom of citizens is ensured by the constitution of Lithuania, which outlines the rights for citizens, such as freedom of speech and press. For example, the rights for freedom of speech are listed in Article 25:

The human being shall have the right to have his own convictions and freely express them…. The human being must not be hindered from seeking, receiving and imparting information and ideas…. Freedom to express convictions, to receive and impart information may not be limited otherwise than by law, if this is necessary to protect the health, honour and dignity, private life, and morals of a human being, or to defend the constitutional order. (“Lithuania’s Constitution” 6)

Furthermore, the rights for freedom of the press are listed in Article 44, as outlined below:

Censorship of mass information shall be prohibited…. The State, political parties, political and public organization, and other institutions or persons may not monopolise the mass media. (“Lithuania’s Constitution” 10)

These two articles relay the importance of human rights and freedom in Lithuania.

As far as general information concerning this country, Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic States in both size and population (Rodgers 11), composed of roughly 25,000 miles and 3 million citizens, and is known for its friendly and laid-back attitude (Burton 141). Furthermore, Lithuania encourages democratic functions, likely due to the nation’s experience with and dislike for communist methods. The country is listed by RWB and Freedom House as being free in both speech and press, standing as one of few European countries in this regard. In the 2016 Freedom House World Report, in fact, Lithuania received a higher score than the United States, with Lithuania receiving a score of 91 and the United States receiving a 90 (“Freedom in the World”). This score provides evidence that Lithuania is progressing toward a more democratic country.

Free Speech

As evident from the constitutional articles above, Lithuania appears to support free speech. This support has not always been strong, however, as seen in several historical incidents in which citizens’ freedom of speech was diminished by either the Soviets or the Lithuanian government.

One incident concerning free speech was a mass public protest in January 2009. This protest was inspired by the country’s post-Soviet embrace of “a neo-liberal path of rapid economic transition to the free market, with minimal regard to considerations of social justice” (Woolfson 488). This new path led to a stark increase in prices and the discontent of many citizens who felt their voices were not heard, resulting in a demonstration on Jan. 16, 2009. The demonstration called for social and economic changes, and homemade banners stating “’Freedom for word and press!!!’” exemplified citizens’ discontent (Woolfson 497). Words led to action when protestors began throwing snowballs at police officers, leading to the appearance of “riot police in full body armour” and officers’ use of tear gas (Woolfson 498). This protest resulted in multiple casualties, injuries, and arrests, though it pointed to something greater: the desire of citizens to fight for their rights (Woolfson 500). Yet some considered the demonstration to point to something more negative: an indication of “how far the state was prepared to go to intimidate or silence dissent” and the “imperceptible line between legitimate social dissent and perceived subversion” in Lithuania (Woolfson 499). Overall, then, this demonstration points to the messiness this country has faced in transitioning from Soviet control.

Another incident of free speech was the self-immolation of a 19-year-old named Romas Kalanta in 1972, resulting in mass demonstrations by young people. Kalanta set himself on fire in the center of a large city named Kaunas on May 14, 1972, leaving a note which said, “[O]nly the system is responsible for my death” (Swain 163). This inspired many young people to walk the streets of Lithuania in protest of the Soviet regime, and Kalanta quickly became a signal “to speak about [the] nation’s oppression” (Swain 167). His death was soon referred to as “the ‘torch of freedom’,” gaining public support for rebellion against the USSR (Swain 170). Former Lithuanian President Adamkus and many others believe that Kalanta’s example was the spark that “awakened a longing for the nation’s liberty,” thus proving that speech can set the stage for revolution (Swain 171). Had it not been for Kalanta’s fatal expression of rights and speech, Lithuania may not be independent today.

Finally, a third incident concerning free speech was the passing of a law pertaining to political advertising in 2008. This law was entitled as the “Law on Funding of Political Parties and Political Campaigns, and Control of Funding,” and it restricted the kinds of political advertising aired by audio or visual means. Many Lithuanians argued against this law by claiming that it was an imposed limitation “on the freedom of speech” (Matonytė 15) due to the law’s mandate that “public information shall be prohibited from disseminating political advertising: 1) free of charge; 2) by audio and visual works… over the radio, on television; [and] 3) on the front page of a periodical” (“Law”). This mandate led some to believe that Lithuania would become a controlled democracy with “restrictions on freedom of expression” (Matonytė 15); and though the law did pass, the opposition to it points to citizens’ concern for their free speech rights.

A more recent incident pertaining to free speech in Lithuania concerns an ongoing conflict with Russian television stations in the country. Several of these stations have been banned and suspended, specifically the stations NTV Mir and RTR Planeta. These were found “to have violated Lithuanian broadcasting regulations…[in that] MTV Mir aired a pro-Soviet documentary judged to be misleading and derogatory, and RTR Planeta incited public discord in its coverage of the situation in Crimea” (“Lithuania: Freedom in the World”). This is therefore a matter of free speech, as these conflicts stemmed from statements made on the air concerning the country and as Lithuania “prohibits some categories of speech, including incitement to hatred and denial of Soviet or Nazi crimes” (“Lithuania: Freedom of the Press”). This prohibition of speech has led some to note that in Lithuania “[f]reedom of speech is generally respected, but voicing negative opinions on certain groups may lead to accusations of ‘promoting hatred’ (which is a crime)” (Žemaitis). This is an ongoing issue, as these categories of illegal speech are unclear and the conflict with Russians television stations has not yet ended.

Free Press

While under Soviet rule, Lithuania had a press with few freedoms due to close monitoring by the USSR, but once independence was achieved in 1991, the country embraced a strong independent press. Lithuania today “has a free press, which in little over a decade since the collapse of communism has passed from state to private hands” (Burton 141), though not without a few hiccups along the way.

One restriction on free press occurred in 2006, when a large number of articles were seized by the government due to their revealing of government secrets. On Sept. 7, 2006, agents seized approximately “15,000 copies of the 8 September issue of the Lithuanian weekly Laisvas Laikrastis… for ‘revealing state secrets’” (“Entire”). In addition, agents searched the office and the home of the editor, who was arrested and held overnight (“Entire”). This was condemned by Reporters Without Borders as an act of censorship, as it was “contrary to the practices of a democratic country and European Union member” (“Entire”). The seizure of these articles points again to the difficulty faced by Lithuania in learning how to function as a democratic nation after being under communist control for so long.

Another incident concerning freedom of the press was the censorship of written material in the 20th century at the hands of the Soviets. When Lithuania was held within the Soviet regime from 1940 to 1990, the USSR maintained strict control, launching “cultural genocide” in the destruction of written material and in the shutting down or nationalization of many bookstores (Zavadskytė-Zakarauskienė 287). All remaining literature was “used as a weapon of ideological dictatorship,” and bookstores became “passive trade houses that distributed literature under Soviet censorship” (Zavadskytė-Zakarauskienė 287). This stark restriction of free press resulted in the loss of many written pieces in the country, a loss still felt in Lithuania today.

And finally, a third and monumental incident occurred in January 1991, leading to the total independence of Lithuania from the USSR. As relayed above, the Soviets seized the “Press Palace” on Jan. 13, 1991, after Lithuania had declared independence from the USSR. This Palace consisted of several television and radio stations in Vilnius (Rodgers 36), and it was defended by many citizens who were either injured or killed during the attack. One of the Palace’s defenders stated the following:

The intention is not to win, because we all know that this is impossible; the intention is to die, but by doing so to make sure that Moscow can’t tell any lies as they did in 1940. To make sure that the whole world knows that Lithuania was prepared to fight for her freedom. (Tracevskis)

This statement shows that the Soviets attacked in aims to quell unrest by prohibiting free speech and press and that the defenders resisted so that Moscow could not lie anymore (Tracevskis). Further proof for the Soviets’ reason to attack is evident in that they seized additional printing supplies and stations in Vilnius only 11 days later. As stated by former President Vytautas Landsbergis, this seizure was ‘”an attempt to hamper the press in Lithuania’” that would likely “’increase the tension,’” and it certainly did (“Soviets”). This attack on the press is, in fact, largely what led to a strengthening of resolve among the people of Lithuania to gain total independence from the USSR.

A more recent concern pertaining to the media of Lithuania is an issue of quality. This has been voiced by those who grieve that while “the situation in Lithuania is closer to that in the United States [today],” it is only true for “freedom, not quality, of the press” (Drunga 62). This lack of quality may be attributed to the “homogenization of journalism” and to the “rise of sensationalist and more entertainment-oriented reporting as well as the blurring of boundaries between news and advertising,” resulting in a decline of content diversity and quality (Balčytiene 44). This may likewise be attributed to the problem of ownership, as “ownership remains concentrated, with a small number of firms…owning the majority of the market” (“Lithuania: Freedom of the Press”), which results in the homogenization of media in sources and styles. With that said, the lack of ownership transparency is an issue, “as disclosure is not strictly mandated or enforced” (“Lithuania: Freedom of the Press”) and leads to suffering in the press (“Lithuania: Freedom in the World”).

Critical Comparison

Though several instances of the repression of free speech and press have been listed above, Lithuania is one of few European countries to be considered democratic and free. In fact, of the 15 former Soviet Republics, “only three countries – the Baltic States – received an overall score of ‘free’” (Miks). Furthermore, of these three Baltic States, Lithuania received the second highest score in the 2016 Freedom House World Report, with Latvia receiving an 86, Lithuania receiving a 91, and Estonia receiving a 96 (“Freedom in the World”). Lithuania is therefore advanced in its democratic status among the former Soviet republics and is freer than many other European countries.

As far as Lithuania’s comparison to the United States, Lithuania appears to be growing more like America in its freedom of speech and press, if not even more free, as Lithuania scored one point higher than the United States in the 2016 World Report (“Freedom in the World”). This growth of freedom is especially true of the press, as Lithuania’s freedom of press has steadily increased since 2003, while the United States’ status of free press has fluctuated since then—though, granted, has still grown (“Freedom of the Press”).

Yet even with this seemingly close status of freedom in Lithuania and the United States, the question is this: is America truly the freest country in the world as some would say? Based on research and analysis, the answer may be “yes,” but only for now, as Lithuania is mimicking the free nature of the United States more and more successfully. For now, however, it seems that the United States is freer than Lithuania based on recent situations. For example, consider Lithuania’s stance against the promotion of hate speech as compared to America’s Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States from 1971. In this comparison, Lithuania is often respectful of citizens’ free speech rights but has deemed hate speech to be illegal (Žemaitis). This prohibition has been revealed in the banning and suspension of Russian television stations, for the stations’ promotion of “misleading and derogatory” material (“Lithuania: Freedom in the World”). On the other hand, America has displayed a different response to the promotion of unpopular statements, as seen when formerly confidential facts on the Vietnam War were found in the New York Times (NYT). The Supreme Court voted to allow the NYT to publish this material, which shows that America believes in the value of the spread of information, even that which sheds unflattering light on the government itself, and which marks America as a freer country than Lithuania in most free speech cases.

The United States is generally freer than Lithuania in free press, as well, as evident in Lithuania’s seizure of papers in 2006 as compared once more to America’s Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States. In this example, Lithuanian agents seized 15,000 copies of a paper which revealed government secrets concerning officials, even arresting the editor of the paper (“Entire”). In comparison, the United States faced a similar predicament in the Supreme Court’s approval of the dissemination of former government secrets in New York Times Co. v. United States. These two situations were similar, yet each played out differently, as Lithuania’s approach resulted in the total seizure of information and the arrest of those responsible for its distribution. On the other hand, America’s Supreme Court voted to allow for this kind of distribution, again showing that the United States generally approves of the spread of information, even that which could incite civil knowledge and frustration concerning government functions.

Conclusion

In sum, it seems that America has greater rights in free speech and press than Lithuania, yet Lithuania is growing gradually freer. It may take many years more for Lithuania to become more greatly democratic and free, but the country’s citizens are willing to fight for their rights, as they have proven in the past. They have displayed their resilience from as far back as 1947, when one citizen of the United Democratic Resistance Movement of Lithuania wrote:

We are fighting because we want to show the world that there are ideals that inspire us and enable a dwarf to become a giant, that give so much power and strength that the powerful tyrant no longer knows how to suppress it…. We are fighting because we think and believe that one day the hour will come. (Petersen 287)

The hour did indeed arrive for Lithuania in their hour of independence in 1990, and the hour of the country’s becoming more democratic may soon arrive. The progression toward this hour will not be easy for the people of Lithuania, but as made clear from their actions, they are still fighting, still believing, and likely to one day become a giant in the field of freedom on the European frontier.

 

Works Cited

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This essay was last updated on April 30, 2016.

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