This past February 20th, the people of Lithuania awoke to the shocking announcement that the country’s anticorruption body, the Special Investigation Service (STT), and the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened an investigation into alleged bribery, trading in influence, and abuse of power in the Lithuanian judiciary. The scope of the investigation is breathtaking. So far 26 people have been arrested, including a Supreme Court Judge, eight other judges, an assistant to a Supreme Court Judge, and multiple lawyers. The scale of the allegations dominated media coverage in Lithuania and was picked up by news outlets around the world (see, for example, here, here and here). But this was not the only reason that news of this investigation may have come as a shock to many Lithuanians. Before this story broke, it looked like the ongoing efforts to increase Lithuanian citizens’ trust in their courts had finally started to bear fruit. In 2017, for the first time since polling on the issue began in 1996, more Lithuanians trusted than distrusted their judiciary. This increase in trust was due to several factors. It likely helped that the President, Dalia Grybauskaite, made judicial transparency, openness, and efficiency top priorities during her tenure. The judiciary has also worked to reform itself and together these reforms brought a lot of changes, for example by reforming the judicial selection process, introducing rotation of court leadership, increasing openness, introducing an automated system for assigning cases to judges, and a number of other procedural changes. The Council of Judges—a judicial self-governance body—has also promulgated a Courts Anticorruption Program, pursuant to which individual courts (including the Supreme Court) adopt their own concrete anticorruption plans. On top of this, the National Courts Administration (NCA) (the external administrative institution that serves the judiciary and judicial self-government bodies) has worked on increasing communication about the work of the courts by trying to reach out to the explain how the judiciary works, and also encouraging judges to issue explanations about their decisions.
What many now fear, with good reason, is that that the new corruption case will cause the public confidence in the judiciary to collapse. This worry is exacerbated by political dynamics: with elections coming up, many politicians jumped on the bandwagon of attacking corruption in the courts and declaring the need for more reforms—though often without offering any specifics, and sometimes seemingly having no clear understanding of how exactly the judiciary works.
The unfolding drama over judicial corruption in Lithuania highlights the importance of communication between government institutions and the general public—both by the institution under investigation (in this case the judiciary), and by the institutions doing the investigating (in this case the STT and the Prosecutor General). It may seem odd to focus on public relations strategy when the underlying substantive allegations are so serious. But while no one could sensibly claim that better communication is a replacement for, or more important than, substantive action, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the importance of public communication in a case like this.
Consider each of the dimensions of public communication noted previously—by the courts and by the investigators: Continue reading