Opinion: Hunting down propaganda in media fields(1)
Since the beginning of war in Ukraine, the concept of propaganda has become a keyword in the agendas of Lithuanian politicians and the media. The ruling majority of the Seimas and the president (together with the right-wing groups in the opposition) are taking diametrically opposite positions in the political arena regarding to measures to fight propaganda. After the Seimas rejected the president’s amendment to the Law on Public Information, there is no shortage of forecasts about large-scale disasters in our information space.
Judging from the avalanche of publicly-available statements in recent months, two main theses might be discerned: according to the first one, propaganda has enormous effect on the majority of the population; and, second, the most effective tool to fight propaganda is to limit rebroadcasting of Russian TV channels.
Statements by advocates of the large impact of propaganda thesis adhere to the argument of equal impact theory, which says that individuals comprehend media information much in the same manner. In this case, news stories are treated as “magic bullets” dissecting human mind.
Such a concept of the impact of propaganda was popular after World War I. During that time, plentiful research showed that the media is not that all-powerful. It shall not be mystified. However, under certain conditions and to some groups of people, media (propaganda) impact can be strong.
Next to the choir of alarmist talking about the massive impact of propaganda, there a few voices denying its impact. But both the choir, convinced of the magic power of propaganda, and the soloists, who do not take it seriously, usually use arguments backed with no research or detailed theories. Since nobody has made any impact assessment of propaganda on contemporary Lithuanian networking society, it’s much easier to explain everything by a metaphor of a pickle in salted water or by a random bitter story from the past.
The flagship in the fight against propaganda in TV is the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission which has found a legal way to stop rebroadcasting of a few Russian channels in Lithuania. It would like to do more – to suspend also the channels that are not subject to licensing. But such attempts are hindered by the freedom of information across borders commitments prescribed by international treaties. The president of Lithuania tried to strengthen the power of the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission by submitting to the Seimas amendments to the Law on Public Information. However, the department of European Law under the Ministry of Justice issued conclusions indicating the amended law would slightly clash with EU legislation and advised that “it is appropriate to take measures aimed at education of consumers, since commercial and technological development provide consumers with more opportunities to find information through other audiovisual means (e.g., internet television).“
Amendments to the Law on Public Information, proposed by the president, were intended to inspire fighters against propaganda with new strength and were declarative rather than anything else. The proposal that programs in official EU languages represent no less than 90 percent of all retransmitted television programs would mean that channels like “Animal Planet”, broadcasted in Russian, would have to compete for the 10-percent quota with Russian-produced channels, while the Russian propaganda channel RT in English (until 2009 it was called “Russia Today”) would easily fall within the 90-percent category.
On the other hand, situation of non-application of quota for TV theme package programs allow marketing experts to prepare commercially attractive packages incorporating both propaganda programs and any other Russian or other non-native language programs. Thus, was it worth it to waste so much effort on long disputes to prove that such amendments would free Lithuania from the stream of false information? Most probably only for those who like to simulate solutions to problems, actual or imagined.
In the face of periodic initiatives of the president of Lithuania to raise important political media issues, the government remains passive. Why so? Such policy is not formulated in the program of the current government. It has only one sentence in the chapter “National defense and national security”: “We will constantly carry out monitoring of threats to national security with special attention to the latest means of impact on public space and politics – through information technologies, various forms of media ownership and culture.” And we can’t say that it’s not being implemented: monitoring, attention is paid, but no action, since there are no obligations to take any action.
Another important point is that Lithuania has no tradition and sound understanding of media (information) policy, no sense that there is a need for such a policy. Furthermore, even specific obligations in this area are rarely anything more than political declarations. The program of the previous center-right government included a provision under the article “Policy of culture”: “We will take care of cultural and information security of the state and the nation. By neutralizing spread of misleading information and cultural production from non-democratic foreign countries, we will develop security strategy of culture and information area and will embark on its implementation.” Has there been anything done about it? This is a rhetorical question. A constructive model of media (information) policy might be the following: common agreement of all parliamentary groups and other interested parties to be reached for one political cycle, i.e., the 4-year term of the Seimas. And this is not a utopian expectation. Such a model works in Denmark, for example. While what is currently going on in Lithuania’s media (information) policy might be called negligence and amateurishness. Because this area is worth no less attention than foreign, security or defence policies.
Speaking about one element of information policy, fighting propaganda, it is first of all worth answering the question what is the scale of negative impact of propaganda on our society. But the answers can be drawn only by a comprehensive, professional research, and it is unclear whether it would confirm the hypothesis that propaganda has the biggest negative impact on an average cable TV viewer. This is when it will be clear whether there is an issue to fight. And when it is established that there is one, measures for fighting might be chosen: legal-administrative and/or information-educational.
Deimantas Jastramskas is director of the Institute of Journalism of Vilnius University Faculty of Communication.
The comment was broadcasted on Lithuanian Radio and TV program “Kultūros savaitė”.