Luik: Democracy is intact but being tested ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Hans H. Luik
Hans H. Luik Source: Martin Dremljuga/ERR

Freedom of speech is fine, democracy is also fine, while the latter is being put to the test, media businessman Hans H. Luik tells Andres Kuusk in the Aasta säravaimad tähed end of the year interview.

Looking at the turbulence the political landscape has experienced in 2019, who will prevail – businessman Luik who thinks it is all very exciting as it makes people buy newspapers and read news or citizen Hans who is losing sleep, worrying about Estonia?

Citizen Hans has become a little more tolerant of the government. I've seen 20 governments down the years. They come and go. Some disturb the water more than others.

The Estonian voter has allowed the cripple in the sauna, as the saying goes.

How so?

We let the cripple into the sauna, but he also wants up on the platform.

The Estonian voter did the right thing when they elected to the Riigikogu those who probably represent people living in the periphery and who have not shared in economic success. The problem is that attempting to represent the government using the phrases and theatrics deployed to get there is another matter entirely. Here, the cripple has clambered up onto the platform, which, as I understand the saying, is held to be reprehensible.

It is not a matter of rhetoric. We have seen incidents that would be funny if they weren't happening to us. While we have also seen attempts to politicize officials. Are these the new game rules?

It is very good these limits are being tested. Democracy, Estonian institutions have performed admirably.

We need to take care not to end up in the other extreme. We need to avoid a situation where editorial boards start dictating their editors-in-chief or public servants picking ministers. That would render all manner of leadership hierarchy utterly pointless.

Estonian democracy can weather tests. And our democracy is intact, but it is being tested, as it should be.

The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) has undoubtedly been dominating this agenda and done so quite craftily we must admit. Who has more influence in Estonia, the Helmes or Jüri Ratas?

The Helmes have become an institution people go to when they need a breakthrough. It can be sensible.

I kept an eye on things when Estonian ministers where warned by a high-level U.S. lawyer about the money laundering scandal and the great shame about to wash over Estonia. The investigation in the States is being led by the Department of Justice that has a rather well-known agency called the FBI. Once they get here, we will learn who failed to do their job, who was bought and who was fooled.

The only way to get on that train would be to file a joint claim with the U.S. against Danske Bank for example.

While several ministers tried to make something of it in Ratas' previous government, it was Martin Helme who flew to USA nine months later, when the government already had a decent analysis, and learned that only a pre-trial solution through the U.S. could help Estonia get any kind of compensation. A billion euros as Helme claimed, while I'm not sure that's accurate. He was the one to get it done.

But he messed it up in part, as he is wont to do – wrote on Facebook how he would go to the government in Washington that must help Estonia make money. Why was that necessary? I did not get that part.

I read Eesti Ekspress' list of influential people and found Luik in 50th place or thereabout. Did you make a resentful phone call to [Delfi and Eesti Päevaleht editor-in-chief] Urmo Soonvald?

(Laughs)

An owner's desire to have their values or interests covered in the newspaper or news portal is perfectly understandable. Can Hans H. Luik say, hand on heart, that he is free of that sin?

Ekspress Meedia is a rather folksy organization in that everyone, from the accountant to the editorial board's driver-photographer, speaks their mind when they have an idea.

I also send journalists my ideas, about half of which are immediately dismissed. But it doesn't bother me because I can write for myself – I'm handy with a keyboard. I write myself and attend talk shows when I'm invited.

No one has invited me to appear on any Ekspress Meedia talk shows for a very long time.

Do Estonian newspaper editorial boards share a liberal base consensus as put by former Postimees editor-in-chief [Peeter Helme]?

One thing we have in common is that we have been trained by the former People's Union, currently the core of EKRE, also the Centre Party and Reform Party. We are very anti-thievery.

Theft and corruption are not tolerated. There is very strong consensus here between Äripäev, Postimees, ERR and Ekspress Meedia.

Liberal worldview – I think part of it is not tolerating lies.

Do you admit publications sometimes go overboard?

There have been times when editors, in their social sensitivity, have allowed themselves to be provoked. It is something online media could perhaps afford, but talking about a newspaper where readers need to be given background and analysis – if you want to write, write about what has happened before, what has happened in other countries, instead of allowing yourself to be played for a fool by every single phrase.

I must hand it to the populists for coming to power and managing to stay relevant. However, I would like to see them in a different column.

We should not mind every peep on the radio?

Indeed. There are columns for circus and theater critics – there perhaps. They should not be making the front page, but somehow they are. And I salute them for it.

Estonia marks 30 years from the rebirth of modern and investigative journalism this year. Is freedom of speech threatened?

Freedom of speech is not in any kind of danger. We have very good analytical tools, also in the Defense League's Cyber Unit, for finding threats to freedom of speech, for example, in the form of memes from our eastern neighbor. We have very good criticism and self-criticism. There is competition between publications.

I especially want to commend Postimees in its completely independent coverage of the pharmacy reform issue. People are doing good work, freedom of the press is not threatened in the slightest.

Has the creation and birth of anonymous comments sections unsettled the balance between freedom and responsibility?

The people have the right to use popular language, and I want to say to former president [Toomas Hendrik] Ilves and everyone who claims that a proper person, proper gentleman does not comment anonymously that there's freedom and then there's inevitability. And a lot of people, unlike me for example, have bosses and work inside structures.

Without the possibility of anonymous comments, we will not get signals from places where inevitability takes precedent over freedom and companies that have tough authoritarian leaders. A lot of people who are not free would like to be whistleblowers.

Would the wave of hate we're seeing in Estonia – threatening letters etc. – have come about without anonymous comments sections?

The hate is being facilitated by an international network of computers called the internet. It is not something one can take seriously.

I saw a very good play titled "Anonüümne igatsus" (Anonymous longing) at the Alexela Concert Hall recently. It was about the Delfi comments section. One thing was clear. The people portrayed by author Eero Epner are lonely, have sex less often than they would like to, have not traveled as much as they should and are easily manipulated. That is why we should not take those kinds of waves too seriously.

As put by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, just as NATO is tasked with ensuring peace and stability in real life, we should all help ensure peace online.

We should not see all manner of waves so tragically.

There will not be elections in 2020. Will we get to sail somewhat calmer waters next year?

I doubt that. However, I also believe that we will not find out who is who without political skirmishes. No online discussion, irrespective of whether it's on Delfi or Facebook, ends in one side bowing to the other, acknowledging their rational arguments and changing sides.

Everyone occupies their respective silos. Parties that propose ministerial candidates do not believe them to be capable before they take office either. But I see potential – the government's roster has been greatly improved by the year's end.

The prime minister is problematic. Provided he plans to continue making faces instead of decisions, he has really played us for fools.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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