Mike Collier in Riga -
If Russia really was thinking of mounting a propaganda and disinformation campaign against Lithuania in general and President Dalia Grybauskaite in particular ahead of this month's Vilnius EU summit, they needn't bother - Lithuania's law enforcement forces have done their job for them already.
On October 31, at a meeting of the three presidents of the Baltic states at Birini castle in Latvia which bne attended, Grybauskaite herself flagged up the claim that summit host Lithuania and some Eastern European states hoping to sign EU free trade and association pacts were already the victims of what she called an "information and propaganda attack" by Moscow.
"We are talking about cyber security, informational security, which we [Baltic States] are under attack periodically in one or another country. Today it is Lithuania under these attacks and provocations," Grybauskaite said. "It is unprecendented pressures which Eastern Partnership countries are today fighting with. I mean economic wars, trade wars, information and propaganda attacks on Eastern Partnership members and also on Lithuania. These pressures are unprecedented in the 21st century."
Minutes later her office put out a separate statement saying that she had been informed that "information provocations" will continue against Lithuania, herself and the six Eastern Partnership countries, which include Ukraine and Moldova, owing to the current Lithuanian EU presidency and a row about energy independence with Russia's Gazprom.
Both statements confirmed a story by the Baltic News Service (BNS) the same day that said Grybauskaite would be the target of a disinformation campaign. BNS quoted anonymous intelligence agency sources - a journalistic norm - as well as named officials.
To the peroxide president, such a whispering campaign is nothing new. Her presidential election campaign was characterised by seedy insinuations about her sexual preferences and the nature of her relationship with the Soviet authorities during her education at the elite Leningrad University.
But events since have taken a puzzling and worrying twist.
In the week since the story broke, Lithuania's Special Investigation Service (SIS) has raided BNS offices and the home of an editor, and called no fewer than six different journalists in to answer questions about the their unnamed sources. Computers and data storage devices were also confiscated.
News of the raids only emerged on November 8 when BNS took the brave step of condemning them in a public statement. "BNS condemns the pressure exerted by law enforcement institutions, which violates the rights of journalists to keep their information sources secret... Such scale of unprecedented procedural measures of violence interrupted BNS operations and are, furthermore, disproportionate and unacceptable. Persecution of the media is characteristic of undemocratic countries," BNS said, maintaining that it would not reveal its sources.
One of those questioned - who spoke to bne under condition of anonymity - said the questioning had been polite enough, but centred on a demand to know the names of sources.
But even with the reputational hole into which Lithuania was sinking getting bigger by the minute, the SIS and public prosecutor kept on digging.
On November 8, the prosecutor said that even reporting a pre-trial investigation was taking place could be a crime so that BNS' disclosure of the raids - plus, presumably what you are reading now - was illegal.
If so, they will have to take an awful lot of people to court, possibly including Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, as BNS managed to ask him about the matter in Riga during a meeting with his Latvian and Estonian counterparts.
Asked if the press crackdown wasn't sending a rather nasty message to Europe at a time when Lithuania has the presidency of the European Council, he replied: "This question is not very easy for me because I haven't been in Lithuania since Tuesday. I have been in Paris and then Poland and now Latvia. But I have had some information from my office and we will meet this evening and have all the information from the justice institutions. I called them an hour ago and asked them to prepare documents for me," in what sounds like a classic case of 'When the cat's away the mice will play.'
The issue is clearly troubling the PM. In a later interview published November 10, he said: "When I was in Lavia, in Riga, the first thing that we spoke in the news conference was not energy, Rail Baltica, other important things, but why Lithuania, holding the EU presidency, acts in such a brutal manner, make searches at BNS and other journalists' homes."
It is not the first time Lithuania's security services have played fast and loose with the much-vaunted EU values. In 2009, it emerged that they colluded with the CIA to build a secret prison near Vilnius to be used for the rendition and detention of terror suspects from around the globe. Whether any suspects were actually held there was never definitively confirmed by a parliamentary investigation.
The greatest irony is that the whole BNS affair smacks precisely of the sort of muzzling and harassment of journalists that the EU likes to complain about with regard to Russia. It will be interesting to see if any of the visitors raise the issue in Vilnius later this month or if dissent will not be allowed by the authoriities...
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