A Mixed Year for Freedom in Lithuania

Looking back at 2018, domestic violence against women was in focus, limits the media freedom were pushed, and the state moved to increase interference with our private lives. Public resistance helped to avaoid most negative consequences.

Government aims to limit free media and freedom of expression

Draft amendments to the Law on Consumer Protection made their way through the Lithuanian Parliament last year. These amendments sought to prohibit the sale of goods that “potentially violate the interests of the Republic of Lithuania”, allegedly distort historical facts and degrade the country’s history. The bans would have likely also been applied to books and other publications.

In its observations, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute (HRMI) noted that this ban sought to set a single “official” interpretation of Lithuanian history, which goes against European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case law. The ECHR emphasized the need for open discussion on historical issues. Parliament took note of these observations and dropped the amendments.

Later on, the Ministry of the Interior tabled amendments to the Law on VIP Protection, which sought to protect the authority of the country's leadership. The amendments would allow members of the VIP Protection Department to eliminate risk factors that could impact the authority of the Lithuania’s political leaders.

HRMI pointed out that the amendments were contrary to both the country’s Constitution and international treaties, with general prohibitions on the dissemination of information being incompatible with international standards on restrictions on freedom of expression. The ECHR also stated that restrictions on freedom of expression must be worded precisely and interpreted narrowly.

Independent journalism was also hit hard, with the Lithuanian Center of Registers discontinuing its practice of providing data to journalists for public information purposes. Public outrage focused on the government’s decision not approve a draft law that would have allowed journalists to receive information from the Center. The audio recording of this meeting was destroyed.

This decision inspired vigorous public debate, and as such it was claimed that the audio recording was a document of public interest. Several hundred people rallied for media freedom in front of Government offices and access to the Register was eventually restored.

Personal freedoms also targeted

A new proposal to ban abortions in Lithuania was submitted to Parliament during its spring session. Under this amendment, women would have had to carry pregnancies to term even if the fetus had a serious deficiency.

This amendment would have led to doctors being liable for establishing a threat to the health, or possible sexual abuse, of women seeking abortions. It would mean doctors would require some kind of proof for these facts and take much more time, which would discourage them from performing terminations. This would disproportionately affect low income women, as wealthier women would have the chance to travel abroad for abortions.

The way the police treat suspects of drug-related offences was another example of how personal freedoms are narrowing in Lithuania. Disproportionate police action during nightclub raids have led to claims that personal freedom and privacy were being violated in these cases.

Domestic violence against women in the spotlight

Changing public attitudes towards domestic violence was a hot topic in Lithuania in 2018. An HRMI study revealed that female victims of violence were least likely to recognize economic and sexual violence, which is mostly tied to traditional gender roles. The study also revealed that many women have had negative experiences with specialists who should have been helping them and many have also experienced victim blaming.

One in two people in Lithuania still think that female victims of violence knew what kind of relationship they were getting into, with the same number thinking that women themselves provoked the violence. Support Them, a social ad run at the end of the year, sought to draw the public's attention to the fact that violence against women was not an individual problem but rather a social one, which requires understanding not only from police, specialists and healthcare professionals, but from society as a whole. In a positive development the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, submitted the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women for ratification by Parliament this year.

Finally, we can take heart that none of these prohibitive initiatives gained any real legal traction. Public protests throughout the year showed that people are far from helpless in tackling attempts to limit human rights. Feeling responsible for ourselves and others will help us meet other challenges to human rights in the future.