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Europe

Lithuanian journalist still feels the sting of KGB power

Freedom of the press is an important right in Europe, but not every government welcomes it. In Lithuania, a journalist who linked a politician to the former Soviet KGB was found guilty of libel and sent to jail.

A montage showing the word Press in crosshairs

One Lithuanian journalist has hit the limits of press freedom

Gintaras Visockas has worked as a journalist for 20 years. He's seen a lot in that time; among other posts, he was a correspondent in the North Caucasus during the first war in Chechnya. Since then, the 43-year-old has covered military topics.

One of the recurring themes in his current publication, an internet newspaper called "Slaptai" ("Secret"), is the closeness of Lithuanian politicians to the old secret police of the Soviet Union, the KGB. Recently, an article Visockas wrote about the former presidential candidate Ceslovas Jezerkas got the journalist into hot water. Jezerkas was previously an officer in the Soviet army, and eventually became a general. Visockas wrote that he participated in martial arts.

A KGB badge

Long defunct, the KGB still wields influence

"I said in my article that in the Soviet Union, all the talented martial artists were controlled by the all-powerful KGB. I never wrote that Jezerkas worked for the KGB. I wrote 'controlled,'" said Visockas. "We can look in any dictionary and see that there is a big difference between these two words. The KGB controlled everything back then, not just martial artists but journalists and chess players, too."

A court in Vilnius saw things differently, though, and allowed Jezerkas to file a libel suit in 2009. The court ruled that "the average reader" would take away the impression that Jezerkas had worked for the KGB if they read Visockas' article. Visockas was sentenced to a 10,000 euro ($14,200) fine. He couldn't pay the money and had to spend 40 days in jail.

'We're not free'

Dainius Radzevicius, the head of the Lithuanian journalists' union, says this decision by the court is indicative of the situation for many journalists in the country.

A newspaper printing press

Many journalists are victims of 'revenge' from politicians

"We're not free," said Radzevicius. "Not free in the financial sense, because we are struggling to get by, but also not free from political pressure. And now, our work can come under attack in the courts. Soon a journalist won't only be held responsible for what he wrote, but also for what an average reader interprets from an article."

For Radzevicius, the decision in Visockas' case shows that courts in Lithuania want to keep KGB entanglements under wraps. Many in the legal profession were on the payroll of the KGB in the Soviet Union.

"It is unprecedented for our judiciary that a journalist is sentenced because he wrote something critical about a politician," Radzevicius said. "There is also no precedent for a presidential candidate of our country seeking revenge against a journalist who wrote something unflattering about him."

A tangible link

At the very least, says Radzevicius, this case actually reached the public in Lithuania. Many people believe it is important to shed light on politicians' past from the Soviet Union. In the legal system, though, the legacy of the Soviet Union is still quite tangible.

"There is the suspicion that many independent journalists fall victim to revenge plots by civil servants and officials because they wrote something negative," said Gintaras Songaila, a member of parliament. "Those are principles carried over from Soviet times. Back then in some cases there were harsh verdicts, but in others, nothing. It depended on who started the process."

Lithuania has been a member of the European Union since 2004, and Brussels pays close attention to press freedom in any new country admitted to the EU. Having a closer look in his country would be worth it, says Gintaras Visockas.

"The way it looks, I'll carry this on my record for the rest of my life," he said. "In no democratic country would a journalist be locked up and treated like a criminal."

Author: Albrecht Breitschuh / mz
Editor: Michael Lawton

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