Circuit court upholds ruling making journalists responsible in false claims

Risto Berendson, one of the two journalists who penned the story.
Risto Berendson, one of the two journalists who penned the story. Source: ERR

Tallinn Circuit Court has upheld an earlier county court decision which may set a precedent for journalists to be personally liable for the content of their publication, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

Journalists Risto Berendson and Joosep Värk, formerly of daily Postimees, had been ordered in October by Harju County Court to pay compensation to businessman Margo Tomingas, after being found liable for publishing false information about him.

The court found both the authors of the piece, and Postimees, were liable for publishing the incorrect information, though the latter was ordered to pay greater damages, for economic reasons.

The journalists themselves were held responsible for negligence in not verifying the facts put in print in a June 8 2017 article in the daily, concerning the alleged payment of bail on behalf of another individual, Tanel Aavik, accused of being involved in the operation of a brothel.

The court came to the decision after the defendants had not provided explanation or evidence as to how the anonymous source used in the piece had been verified, in addition to disparaging language, which the court found had been chosen deliberately and as a means of increasing readership of the article.

The court said the facts, found to be wrong in themselves, could also have been presented in a less denigrating way.

Damages of €3,000 were awarded to Tomingas last November, payable by Eesti Meedia (now Postimees Grupp), which operates Postimees, plus €500 each from Värg and Berendson. The defendants were ordered to pay a further €3,637 in costs, as well as publishing a retraction in the paper within five days, and online for a minimum of eight hours within a working day, which Postimees duly did (link in Estonian).

The paper also removed the articles concerning the issue from their archives.

While Värg and Berendson themselves did not testify, Eesti Meedia appealed the decision, which was upheld by the circuit court, adding a further €700 in costs due from the two journalists, as well.

Not clear if journalists have to pay costs themselves

Värg and Berendson could have appealed at the Supreme Court, but did not.

Neither of the two journalists are now employed by Postimees, and are not clear whether they have to bear the costs apportioned to them, themselves.

"Given that our former employer is going through tough economic times, maybe we have to pay ourselves - I'd like to find out," Berendson told ERR on Thursday.

"It sends a relatively bad signal out there. This time, journalists have to pay €500, but maybe next time the figure could be €1,000, €2,000 or €5,000. The judge made a bad decision in terms of press freedoms," Berendson added.

Berendson noted that he had contacted Tomingas when writing the article, but received no comment.

"Now they are going to punish the journalists - we have not deliberately made false statements, we have gone through all the due processes," he went on.

Payback for previous article, Berendson claims

Berendson also said he suspected that the original county court judgment was influenced by a negative article he had written about the judge in 2015, (link in Estonian) while the latter was a district prosecutor, criticizing his handling of defendants in the Autorollo corruption case.

"I would expect a very firm impartiality from a judge. If there are critical articles about a person, as a judge I would say I can't take it, especially if I feel like I was being hurt. But it's a backlash," Berendson went on.

Postimees executive publisher Merili Nikkolo told ERR she would comment on the issue on Friday.

Defense counsel for Margo Tomingas,  Diana Minumets, said that a precedent had now been set which should increase journalistic qualities and responsibility.

"Journalists should, in their activities, acknowledge the power at their disposal and, at the very least, try to avoid undue damage to an individual's image," she said.

"At the same time, however, further case law should be kept in mind so imposing personal responsibility on a journalist would not go to the other extreme, interfering with their normal daily work and jeopardizing their independence, as well as the more general role of the press as a watchdog in society," Minumets continued.

"To some extent, taking risks and using journalistic exaggeration is certainly a legitimate and normal practice in exercising press freedoms," she added.

Äripäev case

As reported on ERR News, a previous case which went all the way to the Supreme Court upheld a decision forcing business daily Äripäev to retract statements made in a 2014 editorial regarding the business dealings of Reform Party MP Eerik-Niiles Kross.

That case concerned an opinion piece, and the result blurred the lines between opinion pieces and news stories, meaning a possible situation where anyone writing an opinion piece could have to be able to back up their claims in court.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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