Right to Freedom of Expression, Association and Religion

I. Incitement to Hatred and Hate Crimes

In 2013, following the expansion of the list of hate crimes in the Criminal Code in 2010,[1] the Supreme Court of Lithuania (SCL) had to examine the very first hate crime case involving a serious dismissal of USSR aggression against Lithuania.[2] The leader of a left-wing political party was unable to escape prosecution for statements made during a live radio broadcast, where he claimed that the defenders of independence in 1991 were shot not by Russian troops, but by "they own".  In the opinion of SCL, interpreting the events of 13 January 1991 in a way that portrays people being killed or otherwise harmed not by Soviet aggression, but by the others defenders of independence, should not in accordance with the Criminal Code be seen as expressing an opinion, but rather as denying and seriously dismissing USSR aggression together with serious and very serious crimes. Notably, unlike in many other countries in Europe, such conduct is considered to be a form of hate crime.

With military conflicts flaring up in neighbouring countries in 2013-2014, criminal self-expression in Lithuania continued to acquire new forms. The conflict in eastern Ukraine that started in 2013 between the country's new regime, on the one side, and the eastern regions refusing to recognize the new regime and the separatists backed by Russia, on the other side, led to manifestations of hate speech in Lithuania, with Russian media channels also joining in at the tail-end of 2013 with a distortive interpretation of 13 January 1991 events. Although repeat broadcasts of these shows were temporarily suspended in Lithuania[3] and Latvia[4] for inciting strife and presenting biased information, in those European countries further removed from the Baltics where these broadcasters were registered or held appropriate licences, sanctions for these acts were limited to warnings.[5] 

With Russia constantly spreading biased information about the events in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea,[6] while at the same time denying the occupation of the Baltic States, it became evident that there was a lack of a real sanctions mechanism. In September 2014, in order to strengthen the protection of Lithuania's information space, the President initiated the amendment of the Law on Provision of Information to the Public,[7] proposing to fine broadcasters for up to 3% of their annual income for showing war propaganda or information that incites hatred and to expand the duties and responsibilities of the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania.[8] 

These days, Lithuania law enforcement authorities and courts are not always able to draw the line between permissible self-expression, criticism or humour on the one side and hate speech, insults and stigmatization on the other. Authorities may react inappropriately to artistic expression – for example, a pre-trial investigation for the desecration of national symbols was initiated against artists who had interpreted the Lithuanian anthem in their own way to highlight the issues of women's right and equality;[9] an exhibition refused to display a work of art portraying a woman, not a man, riding the horse on the national coat of arms.[10] 

On the other hand, speech that obviously incites hatred or even violence goes unpunished.  For example, in 2014 the Trakai Regional Court, having heard the criminal case on the public incitement to violence against and physical assault of a group of people or individuals belonging to it on the basis of sexual orientation, failed to find the offence there. The Court was inclined to justify the comment left by the defendant, "Come on, will these perverts march through just like that – trash. arching their asses. nonsense. The faggots are triumphant, they need to be destroyed, as soon as possible..." as her being excited, with her excitement being provoked by the Baltic Pride 2013. The court ignored the fact that the march took place four days after the said comment was posted, and that the defendant's statements were false. Her acquittal stated that "not all negative statements about a group of people or individuals belonging to it on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, religion, beliefs or opinions is a criminal offence under Article 170 of the Criminal Code."[11] 

No less surprising was the decision taken by the district court of Klaipėda, which failed to see any potential incitement to hatred in the following comments posted under a picture of two young men kissing on a Facebook profile:  "Satan please allow me to bash their heads against the wall!", "burn them, I'd kill them on sight", "...Hitler should've considered burning more than just the Jews", "invalids eeew burn them", "Degenerates !!!!!!! to the gas chambers with the both of them", "kill...", "I'm gonna throw up, these people need to be castrated or burned, get treatment you asses...", "throw them onto the pyre" and others. In its ruling, the court blamed the victim of the hatred himself – an 18 year old youth – for engaging in provocative behaviour. According to the court, "in this instance a person making a picture of two men kissing available in public should and must have known that his eccentric behaviour will most certainly not contribute to the mutual understanding between persons harbouring different views in society, as well as to the promotion of tolerance. The owner of the profile, by using his freedom to express his beliefs and to promote tolerance, should have considered that this freedom cannot be divorced from a duty to respect the views and traditions of others." Moreover, the fact that the person concerned announced his relationship in public by publishing a photo allowed the court to "discern an intention to aggravate or shock people harbouring differing views, to incite negative comments."[12] 

These examples illustrate the lack of competence on the part of the Lithuanian courts in defending human rights and combating the criminal manifestations of hatred. Decisions such as these serve to discredit Lithuania as a democratic state that respects human rights and are at odds with both national and international legislation that prohibits the incitement to hatred and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Photo was taken from victim‘s Facebook account.

Law enforcement authorities also lack knowledge in this area. As demonstrated by a HRMI study in 2013, victims of hate crimes do not always receive assistance from law enforcement officials; officials' attitude towards victims is often insensitive and ignores their vulnerability. Officials still lack knowledge on the nature and motivations of hate crimes, with too much reliance placed on the opinion of outside experts when making decisions.[13]

Hate speech in Lithuania is still mostly directed against individuals or groups on the basis of sexual orientation, race, nationality, language or origin.[14]  When examining hate crimes, the Lithuanian courts wrongfully rely on the "opinion" argument and acquit defendants; require an explicit, specific intent to inflame people, to incite hatred or discrimination; and in their reasoning rely exclusively on the opinions of outside experts. As stated by the Supreme Court of Lithuania, the duty to determine whether saying or writing a particular text constitutes a crime rests with the court examining the case, not with specialists or other persons.[15] Furthermore, hate crimes are still not being properly recorded and analyzed in Lithuania.[16] 

Findings and Recommendations 

  • Lithuanian case law on the incitement to hatred is at odds with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the restriction of the freedom of expression. It is necessary to raise the competences of pre-trial investigation officers and judges in the field of combating hate crime, with practice-oriented human rights training.

[1] Law Amending and Supplementing Article 95 of and Including Article1702 in and Supplementing the Annex to the Criminal Code, 15 June 2015, No. XI-901, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/oldsearch.preps2?a=375951&b=

[2] 22 January 2013 ruling of the Supreme Court of Lithuania in criminal proceedings No. 2K-7-102/2013

[3] "Court once again allowed halting the transmission of "NTV Mir Lithuania" Russian shows", vz.lt, 21 March 2014, http://vz.lt/?PublicationId=3d83fbfe-71df-4aec-9a1e-b3366a0f6016

[4] “Latvian regulatory authority temporarily bans the Russian TV channel Rossiya RTR", epra.org, 10 April 2014, http://www.epra.org/news_items/latvian-regulator-issues-temporary-ban-to-russian-tv-channel-rossiya-rtr

[5] OFCOM broadcast bulletin No. 266, 10 November 2014, p. 43-44, http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/enforcement/broadcast-bulletins/obb266/obb266.pdf

[6] "Russian TV broadcasts could be suspended for up to a year", lrytas.lt, 5 January 2015, http://www.lrytas.lt/lietuvos-diena/aktualijos/rusijos-televiziju-transliacijos-galetu-buti-stabdomos-iki-metu.htm

[7] Draft Law Amending and Supplementing Articles 2, 19, 31, 34, 341, 48 of and including Article 511 in the Law on Provision of Information to the Public, 1 September2014, No. XIIP-2106, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/dokpaieska.showdoc_l?p_id=480398&p_tr2=2

[8] Seimas, "Parliament will consider the draft amendments to the Law on Provision of Information to the Public", 16 December 2014, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter/w5_show?p_r=4445&p_d=153678&p_k=1

[9] Goda Raibytė, “Will the artists that have reinterpreted the anthem become criminals?", lrt.lt, 10 October 2013, http://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/lietuvoje/2/26961/ar_himna_interpretavusios_menininkes_taps_kriminalinemis_nusikaltelemis_

[10] Dalia Gudavičiūtė, “Mounted woman with a sword in hand on the Vytis sowed unprecedented fear", lrytas.lt, 16 May 2014,  http://kultura.lrytas.lt/daile/raita-moteris-su-kardu-ant-vycio-pasejo-neregeta-baime.htm?p=1

[11] 27 August 2014 sentence of the Trakai County District Court in criminal proceedings No. 1-293-463/2014

[12] 18 February 2015 ruling of the Klaipėda Regional Court in proceedings No. 1S-72-41/2015

[13] Human Rights Monitoring Institute, “Protection of Hate Crime Victims' Rights: the case of Lithuania", 2013, https://www.hrmi.lt/uploaded/Apzvalgos/Hate%20Crimes%20Victims%20Rights%20Study%20EN%202013.pdf

[14] The Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics, "The Vilnius Regional Court ordered the Vilnius District Prosecutors' Office to renew the pre-trial investigation concerning the public comment inciting strife posted on A. Ramanauskas's Facebook profile", 29 August 2014, http://www.lrs.lt/intl/zeit.show?theme=693&lang=1&doc=5601

[15] 22 January 2013 ruling of the Supreme Court of Lithuania in criminal proceedings No. 2K-7-102/2013

[16] "Lithuania will pay attention to hate crimes during its presidency of the EU", delfi.lt, 27 January 2013, http://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/per-lietuvos-pirmininkavima-es-demesys-neapykantos-nusikaltimams.d?id=60525709