Post-Soviet Media Law & Policy Newsletter

Issue 48-49 Supplement     Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law     September 15, 1998 


Dear Reader:

    It has already been more than two years since the publication of the first issue of Mass Media Law and Practice bulletin, covering Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Since then, we had another three coming out of the printing press.  We are still proud to be associated with the network created by Media Law & Policy Centre of Moscow and grateful to the Baltic Media Centre of Bornholm for support, which enables us to produce this bilingual quarterly.

    This issue contains two articles.  The first one is an overview of the recent developments on the Baltic mass media landscape.  It highlights the major tendencies in media restructurization process.  This process could be done because Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian media have already gone through the initial stage of restructurization.  One could try to analyze the picture that has emerged.  We hope that this overview will introduce readers to the context of political and economical developments, which had determined or, in some cases, were determined by the legislation on mass media in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

    The second article is a comparative analysis of the media law system that regulates newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations in the Baltic.  It is prepared by Marius Lukosiunas and Aldas Kazlauskas and is organised upon a framework of twenty-two categories, which are organised along the lines presented in the book Press Law and Practice (London: Article 19, International Centre Against Censorship 1993).  These categories include constitutional provisions that are relevant to the mass media regulation, statutory framework of media legislation, regulation of ownership, registration requirements, regulation of import and export of publications, mechanisms of media self-regulation, libel, privacy, media right to reply, access to court documents, parliamentary sessions and public information, prior restraints, hate speech and blasphemy regulation, restrictions of advertising, protection of sources, and media and elections.

    In addition, we hope that this article will provide some basic comparative materials on the legal situation in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and would enable readers to compare the legal situation between the Baltic and other Western countries.  It should also be mentioned that this overview is the draft of a chapter of a book that will be published, hopefully this year, by Glasnost Foundation from Moscow.

    We believe that the period of transition towards democracy in the Baltic is more or less over.  Legal system on basic democratic procedures is already in place.  That is why it is a right time to summarise what the Baltic societies have achieved.  That is also why we feel free to concentrate, in comparative analysis, on those issues that could be described as the core issues of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
 Last but not least, in the coming years, one could predict that the structure of the press, as well as the legal system regulating mass media, would continue to change because all three countries have to harmonise their laws with the legislation of European Union.  This process has already started, but we will leave this topic for the next issue of Baltic edition of Mass Media Law and Practice bulletin.

The Editor


Is the Transition Over?

    Since 1996, the legal landscape of mass media regulation in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia has gone through incredible change.  There are two main reasons.  First, all three countries had adopted new laws on press and broadcasting activities in the early nineties.  These new laws regulate the relations of society, government, and mass media according to the practices accepted in democratic countries.  However, because it takes some time to accommodate the legitimate interest of all parties, the accommodation process is still not over yet.  Second, the press and broadcasting sector are undergoing commercialisation and privatisation in full speed.  Estonia was the first and quickest in this respect, but Latvia and Lithuania caught up pretty fast.  On the one hand, commercialisation and privatisation helps the press and broadcasting sector to get rid of their economical problems; on the other hand, it brings in new phenomena, which the local public did not get used to in the beginning.  Examples of these phenomena include yellow journalism, deteriorating ethical standards, and impact of big money on reporting.

    To help understand this change, let’s look deeper into the processes that happened during the last three years in each of the respective countries.

    Broadcasting was the fastest developing branch of the media industry in all three countries.  By the time the Soviets retreated from the Baltic, all three countries were left with at least two TV transmission networks covering more than ninety per cent of the territory.  Although these networks were available, governments did not have money to operate them, so they decided to sell them to local companies.

    Local companies acquired licenses for broadcasting and made an attempt to run the television business, but they did not have big financial success.  One could ask why, and we could give two reasons.  For those who relied on market forces, advertising market was too weak to keep them afloat.  For the others who relied on government support, it did not work the way it worked in Russia or some other countries in the former Soviet Union, mainly because each time Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had general elections, the opposition won the polls and politically affiliated mass media business lost their privileges.

    So in the end, local businesses sold off TV stations to big guys from western media companies, which came in just in time when the advertising market was expanding rapidly.  These companies were mostly Scandinavian, such as Kinnevik and Orkla.  Politicians from moderate left to traditional right did not oppose to those sales because, in all three countries, it was considered to be a sign of integration into the western community and went in hand with the privatisation of other parts of the telecommunications sector, which was also privatised by the Scandinavians with the latest purchase of Lithuania’s Telecom by Swedish-Finnish consortium—a deal worth USD 500 million.

    At the same time, all three countries were rapidly privatising their nationwide TV stations, trying to build up a modern legal base for a smooth transition of their former state TV and Radio companies from post-soviet propaganda machines into the modern European-style public services.  This process is still far from over, and one could regard public TV and radio companies as the last resort for political games and politically partisan journalism.

    For similar reasons, commercial radio sector was also developing fast.  In all three countries, all kinds of formats are on the air.  Because of the lower costs to build and run the radio stations, they are still more or less owned by local companies.  Nonetheless, as the advertising market grows, foreign capital is coming in, and one already could witness some acquisitions of radio businesses by western companies.

    While the broadcasting landscape changed the fastest, the landscape of magazines has probably changed the most.  If one would compare the list of those titles available today and those available ten years ago, one could probably find just one or two matching titles, which are usually women magazines.  All others are new, reflecting new lifestyles and newly emerging social groups.  Magazines are also very much under the influence of advertisers, who consider the magazines as a primary tool to reach specialised audiences and buy advertising space accordingly.

    In the early years of independence, newspapers were separated from the state and went private.  Foreign, again predominately Scandinavian, investment entered the newspaper sector quite fast.  Estonia was the first with Eesti Ekspress, Latvia followed with its biggest daily Diena, and Lithuania was hesitant for a while but now followed the path with the second largest daily from Kaunas, Kauno Diena, to be acquired by Norwegian Orkla.

    On the structural level, one could observe the decrease of total newspaper circulation, but increase of the circulation and market share of the market leaders, big nationals, such as Eesti Ekspress and Poostimes in Estonia, Diena in Latvia, and Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania.  The two biggest in Estonia even started a price war to compete for their audience.  The fierce competition resulted in a decline in pluralism and increase in yellow-style journalism methods.  The new owners would encourage the trend more should it bring in more profit and less spending.

    Decrease of pluralism and emergence of yellow-style profit-oriented journalism on the national level of the press started to become a concern for the society and became the frequent issue in the field of media criticism.  The trend was taken on board by some politicians, who started to exploit it as a media bashing opportunity.  The response of the journalism community was to come forward with self-regulation systems, basically saying to the politicians and society: We see the point of the criticism, but please let us fix the problems ourselves by the help of the Codes of ethics, Commission of ethics, press ombudsmans, etc.  The full-scale system of self-regulation was introduced in Lithuania in 1996.  One could also track some of the elements of self-regulation in the practices of regulating relations between society, government, and media in Latvia and Estonia.

    On the contrary, the local newspapers (probably with a certain exemption in Latvia) tend to become stronger and stronger both financially and in getting larger audience and better market penetration.  The emergence of the local press as a serious player both on the advertising and political markets gives media analysts, who did not consider recent developments on the front of print press as a threat to pluralism and democracy, an additional argument.

    In conclusion, one could say that all media experts agree that, during the last ten years, a new mass media structure has emerged in the Baltic.  All three countries share both similarities (development in the TV sector, privatisation and commercialisation of print press, arrival of Scandinavian capital) and differences (weaker local press in Latvia, more dependence of public broadcasters on the authorities in Lithuania and Latvia, and weaker self-regulation system in Estonia and Latvia).  All three countries had entered the period when they do not just create new legal norms, but try to do it in a way not contradictory to European Union mass media regulation.  So one may probably say that the first phase of the transition—which included the disruption of soviet media system and emergence of the new structure of the media which is capable of integrating Western journalistic practices and is ready to be integrated into the structures of Western media businesses—is over, and the next stage—which is to find its place and voice in united Europe—has just started.

Marius Lukosiunas
Director, Institute of Journalism
Vilnius University