Biased Journalism Strains Polish-Lithuanian Relations

May 11, 2012 • Ethics and Quality • by

Article contributed by the European Journalism Centre

What do you do when a long time friend invites you to come over for a chat?

Surely, you perk up and hurry to meet your buddy. But when in mid-April  Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski personally invited Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite to join him in a meeting with the other two leaders of the Baltic States, Andris Berzins of Latvia and Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, Grybauskaite snubbed the courteous offer, arguing that she had already discussed Baltic issues and the agenda of the upcoming NATO summit with him. Did the media play a role in the presidential refusal?

Very likely so, as the relations between Lithuania and Poland, already strained over the amended Lithuanian language law – enforcing the use of Lithuanian in the country’s ethnic minorities’ schools – have soured lately, with media on both sides exchanging jabs and taking threatening lunges.

The question of loyalty

Kurier Wilenski, the newspaper of the Polish community in Lithuania, has gone to extremes, striking nationalistic chords and publishing insulting remarks against Lithuanians. “Lithuania’s ethnical policies are all about the assimilation of the Poles, stripping them off their language, history and cultural heritage,” reads a recent article in the paper, which is traditionally known for its vociferous and belligerent stance against Lithuania.It is estimated that the Polish community in Lithuania represents 6,7 percent of the Lithuanian population. The newspaper’s position even triggered a broader discussion on the “loyalty” that can be expected from a minority publication.

“If you go to Germany or the United Kingdom, you won’t find any local Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian or Bulgarian minorities newspaper instigating readers against their host country,” said Martynas Vilkiunas, a freelance journalist and political analyst. Robert Mickiewicz, the editor of Kurier Wilenski, retorted: “Do our critics expect us to drum according to their tunes or the melody of the state? Isn’t Lithuania a free country with a free press?”

“We are simply reflecting the concerns and burdens of the Polish minority in Lithuania,” he added.

He who pays the piper calls the tune

Back in 2007, the Polish newspaper instigated Lithuanian animosity when it published an article by Krysztof Buchowski entitled “Poles’s views on Lithuanians between the world wars”. The Journalism Ethics Ombudsman ruled in 2008 that Kurier Wilenski had violated the ethics of journalism and breached the law.The immediate financial fallout was severe for the Polish publication: according to the rules, the paper was not eligible in 2008 for funding from the Lithuanian Media, Radio and TV Fund (LMRTF), a state organisation in charge of distributing budget money for educational programmes to newspapers, radio and TV stations.

As it turned out, the ethical violation had far-reaching consequences for Kurier Wilenski, since its quest for funding continued to be declined in the following years, including in 2012. “This is the ultimate price we are paying for the firm stance we take on Polish issues in Lithuania. In others words, it is a state-ordered persecution,” commented Mickiewicz.

For many small newspapers such as Kurier Wilenski, LMRTF funding is a matter of life or death.

Depending on a newspaper’s subscription and circulation figures, funding allocations can range from a mere several thousand litas to substantial five-digit payouts. This year, the LMRTF shared LTL 6,2 million ( EUR 1,8 million) over a hundred media outlets, but no Polish publication or radio in Lithuania received any funding. “Obviously, we are being ignored because of political reasons. Basically, the Fund is saying: beware that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Certainly, we don’t fit in those state-ordered tunes,” said Mickiewicz.

Kurier Wilenski appealed numerous times against unfavourable LMRTF decisions, so far to no avail.

Last year, the Polish newspaper filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights, urging it to overturn the Lithuanian court decision which chose to uphold the adverse ruling of the Lithuanian Journalism Ethics Ombudsman.The Strasbourg Court has not announced its verdict yet.

Who should fund minority media outlets?

The topic of the refusal of funding is awkwardly surfacing on the political stage and LMRTH heads are in defense mode. “The speculations of the editor of Kurier Wilenski that the newspaper isn’t receiving funding because of political reasons are absolutely unfounded. The experts we hire to evaluate the projects submitted for funding say that they notice the same thing every year:  Kurier Wilenski’s projects don’t meet the required standards in terms of preparation, thematic depth and outreach. That is the reason why the newspaper’s projects are turned down,” said LMRTH director Mykolas Karciauskas.

Mickiewicz fired back: “Lithuania’s claims that it takes good care of its ethnic minorities go against the facts. On the contrary, when it comes to supporting ethnic minorities media, Poland has been much more supportive,” he said. He noted that Poland, unlike Lithuania, allocates funding to minorities’ media outlets not through a state fund and its “biased” experts, but directly through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The bottom line is that whoever applies for funding, gets it. Lithuanian language newspaper publishers in Suwalki – harbouring a large Lithuanian community – are well aware of this as they rake up Polish state money every year. Nothing like the LMRTH lottery in Lithuania and the political game surrounding budget money distribution,” the Polish editor stressed.

Petras Maksimavicius, the chairman of the board of Lietuvos namai (Lithuanian Home) that publishes Ausra (Dawn), the biggest publication of the Lithuanian minority in Poland, agreed that the uninterrupted annual financial assistance of the Polish government is “crucial” for his newspaper.

“Besides, we receive funding from the LMRTH too,” the chairman added. Refusing to elaborate on the two states’ differing approach to local minorities’ media organisations, he nevertheless acknowledged “the political factor”: “Ethnic minorities newspapers both in Poland and Lithuania have long gone beyond being keepers of ethnic heritage as they have become very important political tools.”  He also noted that “Kurier Wilenski goes into extremes.”

Dainius Radzevicius, the chairman of the Lithuanian Journalists Union, does not approve the allocation of state money through a government-established fund to minorities’ newspapers. In his opinion, it is hard to avoid raising the suspicion that governments want something back for their money –  loyalty.

“Newspapers have to stand firm on their feet, regardless of their subscription, sale and advertising money. This is the bottom line,” Radzevicius explained.

To alleviate Kurier Wilenski’s heavy financial burdens, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to grant it EUR 30 000 at the end of 2011.Thanks to the money, the newspaper has hiked its periodicity – from three to five times a week – and ramped up the fringe rhetoric.

Original article appears here at the European Journalism Centre.




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