7. NATO Comes to Lithuania, the Role of the MAVM

APPROXIMATELY TWO weeks after the meeting between ARTE and Lithuanian national TV (LRT), there was a second and somewhat similar event in Vilnius: the spring session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which was being staged for the first time in a former Soviet country. In precisely the same way that LRT wants to join the European TV Club, the political establishment in Lithuania (11 ruling parties and evidently the entire mass media) wants this little country to join NATO.

The coalition government in Lithuania - which before the recently held election pledged to transfer ca. 1 billion litas from the defence budget into the impoverished education system - has since reneged on this promise. Now the money is apparently going towards supporting Lithuania's application for membership to NATO.

The role of the Lithuanian mass media during this entire episode was obvious and crude. Prior to the actual event, an LRT programme called 'The Press Club', which is 'moderated' by a pro-establishment journalist, 'debated' the question of NATO. Several older men were allowed to state their objections to the idea of Lithuania entering NATO: these included the economic cost to the country, and made reference to the fact that not more than 51% of Lithuanians currently supported the idea.

The Press Club panel also included pro-NATO Lithuanian parliamentarians and businessmen. A question was asked about the mobile billion litas, which had been suddenly switched from education to NATO. After a long and evasive reply, it was concluded that some of the money was going to be spent on education after all: "...to make sure that Lithuanian military officers are well educated." (!!) Asked how he could justify claiming that the whole country wanted membership in NATO, another respondent said: "Just wait until after all the publicity this week, when people have seen the advantages of joining." (!!) He said nothing about the fact that the only way in which the public will "find out" anything is via the highly manipulative and biased images produced by the MAVM (in this case with a little help from the official cultural sector, which had gratefully allowed the Contemporary Museum of Art to be literally occupied by the NATO conference...).

During the week of the NATO event, the historic Vilnius Old Town was basically closed to vehicle traffic, and littered with police patrols (sound familiar?). A principal national newspaper, Lietuvos rytas, wrote that the police advised that they would take action against any suspicious individuals, and that they were removing small protest posters because the organizers had not applied for a municipal permit. Very few protesters (mostly young men and a few women in their early twenties) subsequently appeared, and their numbers were more than matched by elderly people in Lithuanian national costume, and by young business types, who sang patriotic national songs and yelled out their enthusiasm for NATO (anything to keep Russia out, capitalism in). The police allowed both sides to stand in the square in front of the Old Town Hall, about 50 metres from the site where the conference was being held.

Within a day or two, TV images of the demonstration took on the appearance of a happy fest, with U.S. congressmen pledging to help Lithuania join NATO and striding along the line of well-wishers, pressing flesh, slapping each other on the back, and shouting: "Thank you all!" from pulpits set up in front of the Town Hall. Such was the general air of bonhomie, that one had to pinch oneself to remember that this was all in the name of military re-armament.

The joint role of the media and education system in this tragic farce was perfectly illustrated by the following presentation during one of the LRT evening news broadcasts: in a scene lasting 25 seconds, two young protesters briefly stated that they believed that if Lithuania joined NATO, it could provoke an attack from Russia, and that the country could better protect itself by being neutral. This sound-byte was sandwiched between two interviews which were significantly longer than usual for TV news: a pro-NATO statement lasting nearly 2 minutes by the head of the Lithuanian delegation to NATO, and a rambling overview of NATO's historical role for at least 3.5 minutes by a pro-NATO academic at the Vilnius University - who began by saying that anti-NATO sentiment was a Russian propaganda ploy!

This example reveals that LRT made a specific editorial decision to allocate a total of at least 5 minutes to the pro-NATO position, and 25 seconds to the opposition. The 25 seconds which the two young protesters were 'allowed' caught them in an impromptu situation in the midst of a demonstration; the two pro-NATO advocates had time to express themselves, and appeared with no shouting or action in the background. This is 'objective' journalism?

People have the right to believe in the role of NATO and European re-armament if they so wish and decide. But crucial decisions such as this demand an environment involving a full-scale and informed public debate - painfully not in play here. The public should be provided with a full range of information - for and against NATO - and encouraged to participate in a meaningful and sustained public debate, in order to develop their own information and opinions, which are in turn presented by the mass media. The reverse has happened here: information is comprised of sound-bytes by heavily biased politicians, presented by a superficial (and equally biased) media.

The Lithuanian press espouses its own version of the Monoform: three- or four-line responses from the public, interviewed on trolleybuses, etc. - with the absolute majority expressing pro-NATO sentiments (what happened to the nearly 50% who have another opinion?).

Within a day or so of the opening of the NATO Assembly, some of the Lithuanian TV news broadcasters were introducing their evening report with catchy visual montages accompanying their introductory theme music: NATO delegates waving to the cheering crowd, shaking hands, etc. Instead of serious interviews with either pro- or anti-NATO members of the public, the broadcasters offered endless statements from top NATO officials, pro-NATO Lithuanian officials, and the Lithuanian President, interspersed with filler: NATO delegates proudly watching 4 Lithuanian soldiers scuttling across a field amidst clouds of cosmetic pink smoke (carrying half a bush on their back, and looking for all the world like extras from a film adaptation of MacBeth), and NATO delegates and their wives having a hilarious time firing off laser rifles at an army base. Despite the total absence of the public in this round of media coverage, its apparent support for NATO in Lithuania (according to the TV) had miraculously risen to 65% ...

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© Peter Watkins 2016