Lithuanian security agents seize all copies of newspaper

New York, September 8, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists deplores Lithuanian security agents’ seizure of all 15,000 copies of the semimonthly Laisvas Laikrastis (Free Newspaper), which was due out today with a story about alleged political corruption. Government agents, who said the story contained classified information, also briefly detained Editor Aurimas Drizius on Thursday.

About 10 plainclothes agents took Drizius to the Department of State Security headquarters for interrogation, the editor told CPJ today. Agents searched the Laisvas Laikrastis newsroom in the capital, Vilnius, and the editor’s home, confiscating the hard drives of all six newsroom computers and Drizius’ home computer.

“They said they were searching for classified documents and told me that the equipment could be kept for months—as long as the investigation continues. This will disrupt our work, no doubt about it,” Drizius told CPJ.

“The security agents who carried out this raid have done great damage to Lithuania’s democratic reputation,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on authorities to return the confiscated issues and equipment, to drop any probe against Aurimas Drizius, and to initiate an investigation into how this abuse of power occurred.”

The seizure was also condemned by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who called it “shattering.”

The newspaper’s lead story described telephone conversations between Lithuanian politicians and a local casino operator, Drizius told CPJ. The phone conversations, purportedly intercepted and recorded by security agents in 2004, allegedly implicated politicians in corruption, Drizius said. Laisvas Laikrastis had obtained transcripts of the phone conversations through sources it would not disclose, Drizius told CPJ. The paper was to run the transcripts along with an article on the subject in the seized edition.

“They told me we were guilty of leaking secrets of an ongoing investigation, but those phone conversations were two years old and so far nobody had ever heard of such an investigation being conducted,” Drizius said.

Drizius was released today on the orders of Lithuania’s prosecutor-general, but the seized newspaper copies and computers were not returned, Drizius told CPJ. During the interrogation, security agents asked Drizius to disclose his sources, but he said he refused.

Ardivas Pocius, director of the Department of State Security, said the confiscated copies contained materials that “were top secret information known only to the department,” the news agency ITAR-TASS reported. The department said it launched an investigation to identify the source of the leaked transcript.

President Adamkus said the Department of State Security’s actions are “counter the main principles of democracy,” the Baltic News Service reported. Adamkus said any news of public interest should be made known. “There is no doubt, the society and I need to know every detail,” he said.

The Lithuanian Journalist Union also condemned the arrest and seizures. “This is a blatant case of censorship,” Dainus Radzevicius, the union’s chairman, told CPJ. “By seizing the paper’s computers and stopping the print run from reaching readers, the Department of State Security is preventing the publication from operating, which is unconstitutional.”