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Lithuania rebuffs OSCE criticism over media freedom

Lithuania on Thursday rebuffed international criticism over its move to restrict a Russian television channel that blamed the Baltic state for a deadly Soviet-era crackdown.

The 57-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) asked media regulators in Vilnius to “review the proposed measure as it undermines media pluralism”.

“Any restriction and suppression of controversial and differing views on historical events, even if based on law, could eventually affect freedom of the media,” said a statement by the OSCE’s media representative Dunja Mijatovic.

Lithuania’s media watchdog on Wednesday asked a court to order a three month partial suspension of the First Baltic Channel, a Russian-language TV station based in Latvia.

The move came after it broadcast a film blaming Lithuanian leaders for provoking an assault by Soviet forces on January 13, 1991 which killed 14 civilians.

The deaths came amid a tug of war between Moscow and Vilnius as Lithuania declared independence in March 1990 after nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Moscow only recognised Lithuania’s independence later in 1991.

Lithuania’s foreign ministry on Thursday termed the OSCE’s criticism “disappointing”.

“Media freedom has nothing to do with deliberate efforts to trivialise the memory of people who died for Lithuanian freedom or denying the nation’s history,” ministry spokeswoman Rasa Jakilaitiene told AFP.

She also insisted Lithuania, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, “has always encouraged media freedom and freedom of expression”.

At least 14 civilians died and hundreds were injured in the January 13 attack by Soviet troops on the Vilnius television tower — the state-controlled media had swung behind Sajudis, the freedom movement founded in 1988.

Soviet forces then called off an attack on parliament, however, when tens of thousands of civilians built barricades and formed a human shield around it.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Juozas Olekas has described the broadcast as a “nasty lie used as part of information war”, and linked it with the recent trade restrictions imposed by Moscow.

Relations between Vilnius and Moscow have long been rocky, notably since Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

In the latest bout of controversy, Moscow imposed new customs checks on the Baltic state’s goods and halted all dairy imports as Lithuania prepares to host a November EU summit with ex-Soviet states long within Russia’s orbit.