Postimees to pay former journalists' court-ordered libel damages
Postimees Grupp will pay the compensation and costs incurred by two of its former journalists in a libel case, Merili Nikkolo, executive publisher of the daily newspaper of the same name, confirmed Friday, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.
Journalists Risto Berendson and Joosep Värk were ordered by Harju County Court last October to pay compensation of €500 apiece to businessman Margo Tomingas, following a 2017 article which appeared in the daily and which was found to have libeled Tomingas.
Berendson and Värk had written that Tomingas had paid the bail for a defendant, Tanel Aavik, charged with brothel-keeping. Berendson told ERR he had tried to reach Tomingas for comment while the article was being written, but received none.
The pair were also ordered to pay costs, together with the paper itself, which had also been required to pay compensation of €3,000 to Tomingas.
Total costs in that case exceeded €3,000. However, Postimees appealed the decision at the Tallinn Circuit Court, and when the latter upheld the original decision, further costs of €700 were apportioned to Berendson and Värk, even though they had not appealed the decision or testified themselves.
Postimees was also ordered to publish a retraction in both print and online versions of the publication, and to remove related stories from its archive.
The paper could have appealed at the next tier in the Estonian court system, the Supreme Court, but did not.
As reported on ERR News, following the circuit court decision, Berendson said Thursday that it was not clear who was responsible for paying the compensation to Tomingas as well as the costs.
However, Nikkolo said that the paper would cover the cost.
"We have made a firm decision from the outset to stand up for our journalists," Nikkolo said.
"At present, Joseph Värk and Risto Berendson are not among the ranks of Postimees editors, but we have never used that as an argument for not paying the compensation," she went on.
"It's true that, alas, we were not at the peak of our form with the story in question, but a media company is responsible for its content, and so does Postimees," Nikkolo added.
Nikkolo: Judgment doesn't set a precedent
At the same time, Nikkolo was keen to say that the case as a whole did not form a precedent, even as journalists have been held financially responsible for their writing in the past.
"Each case is different, and courts must determine the basis of a journalist 's personal responsibility on a case-by -case basis," Nikkolo said.
"The question is who, under the law, can be considered the publisher of information released to the public, and how much control does the editorial authority have over published content."
"For example, in Leedo vs Delfi (an online news portal-ed.) the Supreme Court found in 2009 that, in addition to the media company managing the Internet portal, commenters can be considered as authors of inappropriate comments, precisely because the editorial staff did not interfere with the content of the comments," Nikkolo went on, referencing another case.
"The decisive factor is the extent of control over the content to be published, which the plaintiff must prove and, in this case, the court found the journalists liable," she added.
"In fact, whether particular journalists could be considered 'disclosers', in accordance with the Supreme Court's previous decision, was argued over in this case," Nikkolo said.
A Supreme Court ruling in February 2018 upheld a decision forcing business daily Äripäev to retract statements made in a 2014 editorial, about the business dealings of Reform Party MP Eerik-Niiles Kross.
Since the case concerned an opinion piece, the result blurred the lines between such articles 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.
"The court did not pave the way for a new practice," Nikkolo continued explained.
"We did not appeal the decision at the Supreme Court as, in our opinion, this was not a precedent-setting case, but simply one where the court apportioned responsibility jointly between the publisher and the journalists," she added.
Nikkolo added that she sees it as vital that journalists should not shy away from complex and controversial issues, in the light of the county court and circuit court judgments.
"Journalists need to be able to do their job with confidence, so our people won't have to worry about the company leaving them isolated in a difficult situation. We do everything at Postimees together," he added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte