JCDecaux Lietuva, the largest billboard advertising provider in Lithuania, declined three orders to hang posters featuring Jonas Noreika-Vėtra, a controversial World War Two figure. Vilnius authorities recently removed a memorial plaque for Noreika, who participated in the anti-Soviet resistance but is also implicated in the Holocaust, sparking protests.
One of the orders was placed by a nationalist organisation ProPatria and was later reallocated to one of its members, Dovilas Petkus, who is running for a seat in the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas, this month and has claimed the company is censoring his election campaign.
Read more: Protest in Vilnius against mayor's memory policies draws several hundred demonstrators
The head of JCDecaux Lietuva, Žaneta Fomova, said the company came under “pressure to process the order as quickly as possible [...] and, following unfounded accusations of discrimination, handed all further communication over to its lawyers”.
She said the decision not to proceed with the order was made after consultating lawyers for fear of raising tensions in the society.
The memorial plaque to Noreika, a pre-war Lithuanian military officer and an anti-Soviet resistance fighter also known as Generolas Vėtra (General Storm), was taken down in late July following the initiative of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius.
He said he made the decision because Noreika, the head of Šiauliai County during the Nazi occupation, signed documents establishing a Jewish ghetto and expropriating Jewish property.
The move was welcomed by the Lithuanian Jewish Community and parts of the society, but also led to protests by Noreika supporters who point to the fact that he fought both against the Soviets and the Nazis, and was later imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
“I’m defending my electoral rights,” said the Seimas candidate Petkus, who wanted to use Noreika's image on his campaign posters.
According to email correspondence forwarded by Petkus, the first order was placed by ProPatria, a non-governmental organisation. However, the head of JCDecaux Lietuva, Fomova, said the order was later re-allocated from the organization to a private individual.
After repeated calls to clarify the nature of the advertisement, the company was told that the posters were not ads, “only an expression of personal opinion,” according to Fomova.
Several days later, the company received an identical mockup with Jonas Noreika portrait, this time as a political advertisement, she said.
Petkus told LRT.lt that the company was censoring Noreika, as all his previous political advertisements were approved by the same company.
Petkus is currently running for Seimas in the Žirmūnai constituency in Vilnius. According to a PR expert Arijus Katauskas, he aims to capitalise on the public controversy by advocating for the restoration of the memorial plaque to Noreika.
“In this way, he attracts attention both to himself, and his PR campaign [...] It’s clear that it’s an attempt to use a [controversial] topic in the society,” said Katauskas.
In April, another political hopeful Stanislovas Tomas, who unsuccessfully ran for the European Parliament, smashed Noreika plaque with a hammer. It was then repaired and restored by the Vilnius authorities, before being removed in early August.