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Frontier Media: Between the Quill and the Rifle

von Vytautas Bruveris, 03.02.2016

In Lithuania, the army has become one of the main players on the public and the political stages. How did it gain these positions? An analysis by lithuanian journalist Vytautas Bruveris.

Russia's dictatorship, which is based on corruption and requires constant fuel from war, is going and will continue to go down. The possibility of its going to war with the West remains extremely unlikely, but the danger of consequences from some sort of disintegrative and destructive events is very real. Especially so for bordering states.

However, in assessing the danger and in preparing for it, it is critically important not to exaggerate. And in Lithuania the largest negative, and even dangerous, exaggeration: an excessive increase in the influence of the army and the military.

In Lithuania, the army has become one of the main players on the public and the political stages. How did it gain these positions? First of all, this happened not so much thanks to Russia's war against Ukraine, as because of the ideologeme "information war", which the army uses as its main weapon. And the assault began before Maidan and the war in Ukraine, which, of course, were the final catalysts of the process.

Most important allies: journalists

The first line of attack came from the army's department of strategic communications. The leaders of this group: elite ex-soldiers, special forces. Their most important allies: a group of journalists representing most major online news portals and TV channels of the country. Alongside them: a group of ''independent'' experts or academics, who were in fact closely linked with the military.

All of them are now considered one of the main instances of truth in the mainstream media. The goal of these journalists actions: to relay all of what the military writes and says publicly, anonymously, or even in its ''secret'' documents and analysis, to the public without any criticism, and without the slightest journalistic censorship.

The content of all of this information being relayed, clearly demonstrates why I call the main term an ideologeme. It is being proclaimed as fact, that Lithuania is already in a state of war with Russia. Russia has already attacked Lithuania – it is waging a ''full-scale'' and even a ''total'' ''information war'' against Lithuania. And this is the first and the preparatory phase for an armed invasion. The main shortcoming of these basic statements is that they are, to put it mildly, insufficiently grounded in reality.

Anti-Kremlin narrative

First of all, Russia is not waging a real information war in Lithuania, or against Lithuania. In contrast, for example, to major Western countries, where a large-scale, constant attack, executed by all possible means on the public space, and aimed at that space, can really be observed – although even that attack is not very effective.

Yes, the work of organized internet trolls is visible, but its effect is marginal, just like the effect of the few openly pro-Russian and anti-Western movements. There are some internet resources, created especially for pro-Kremlin propaganda in neighbouring countries, but these also do not have much more than a hypothetical effect. Lithuanian media and public space is completely dominated by a pro-Lithuanian, pro-Ukrainian, pro-Western, pro-American, and anti-Kremlin narrative.

Yes, according to various polls, approximately one quarter or one third of voters adhere to clearly pro-Russian and pro-Kremlin views, and are not loyal to the independent Lithuanian government. But this is, first of all, due to the mistakes, omissions and failures to act of the state and of its politicians.

The same thing can be said of the local Russian and Polish minorities. Russia can easily hold them in its zone of influence – which is what it does. Russia has long used its influence on Lithuanian business circles and on parts of the political elite, but, in recent years, it is losing its influence – evidently along with resources and vested interest. However, disciples of the ''information war'' still insist that it is omnipresent, and even unidentifiable.''

Russian pop-stars as a "proof"

According to them, the omnipresent Kremlin is conducting ''psychological operations'' and secretly planting its ''mines'' into criticisms of those in power (meaning of the government), into nostalgia for Soviet times, and into all Russian, and all bad processes! Russia's major government television channels, which can be viewed in Lithuania, but which, with their super-aggressive propaganda, are intended for a domestic audience, have been declared the most visible ''proof'' of Russia's so-called ''soft power.'' More ''proof:'' Russian pop-stars, who often perform concerts in Lithuania.

Despite all of these obvious exaggerations, this information product from the army is well-received by society. There is a great demand for presentations from strategic communications specialists from the army and their colleagues, not only from all government organizations, but from schools, community organizations, and even from private business. Society's support for the army and for paramilitary organizations has seen a significant increase. 

Topics linked to the Russian dictatorship in general are getting many ''clicks'' online – and this is, by the way, not the last reason for the media's loyalty. In this manner, a large part of society has found a channel to express patriotism, as they understand it. Secondly, war – it is such a romantic thing! Especially so when you have been living in a provincial corner for a long time, and suddenly find yourself at the forefront of the battle between civilization and barbarism. Thirdly, the clandestine and omnipresent ''Russian propaganda'' is not only fabulous fodder for ever-popular conspiracy thinking, but also presents a way to make sense of the surrounding world.  Politicians would not be politicians is they had not immediately sensed the force of this wave and had not found a way to ride it – even some of the traditionally ''pragmatic pro-Russian'' left-wing and populist parties. 

Campaigns against "hostile elements"

As a result, the army and its top brass are now among the most important political powers in the country, stronger than, for example, the minister of defence himself, whom they occasionally almost openly criticize. The former head of the army's special forces has become the head of the department of state security.

The military is even trying to influence cultural and educational policies – they persuade leading historians to ''approve'' the most ''truthful'' and recognized version of Lithuanian history from a ''patriotic'' perspective, and to openly speak about the necessity for state propaganda. The military is also using the media and social networks to mount campaigns against ''hostile elements,'' or simply against academics or policy experts who do not agree with them.

It even reaches absurd extremes – not only are official instructions from the ministry of defence on what to do in case of war, with even a version for children, being distributed to the population, but so are explanations on how to publicly torture collaborators in war time. A retired major, now one of the leaders of the largest paramilitary organization, the Riflemen's Union, which is supported by the government, shared advise on how to ''neutralize collaborators'' in war time on a popular website as part of the project of preparing society for war. Among the recommendations: threaten their children and families, beat them up, throw them out of a moving car naked in public, tie them to pillars of shame, and finally, kill them. But in that case, there was a wave of criticism and the leaders of the Union issued a public apology.

Will this tendency continue?

It would be logical to expect that the journalistic community would react to these trends with, at the very least, discussions about the influence of military on media and about the professional immunity of journalists, as well as about all of the possible levels of military threat from Russia. As it is, such discussions are occasionally held, but they are highly infrequent and fragmented, and almost never make it into mainstream media. Moreover, doing so is considered to be poor form and can even be perceived with suspicion as an attempt to aid and abet the enemy.

Will this tendency continue to gain momentum? I think that, at the very least, there will be no signs of its losing traction – it has been flourishing for quite a while now, regardless of any external factors.

Translation: Dinah Zeldin, n-ost

In der Reihe Stereoscope diskutieren Journalisten aus unterschiedlichen Medienwelten. Die Reihe wird finanziert von der Robert Bosch Stiftung sowie aus Geldern des Auswärtigen Amts.

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