Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu told ERR in an interview that Russia is accusing Estonia of going after Sputnik to erode the EU's Russian sanctions policy.
Sputnik has launched a media campaign aimed at Estonian authorities where it strongly urges Estonia not to attack the free press which it claims to represent. How do you comment?
Sputnik does not constitute journalism as it is understood in the free world in my eyes and in the eyes of many institutions. It is a propaganda institution. Estonian agencies or more precisely the money laundering data bureau is exercising European Union financial sanctions based on Estonian legislation, following the logic that Dmitri Kiselyov, head of Russian media group Rossiya Segodnya, has been among the central propagandists in vindicating Russian aggression in Ukraine. And the Sputnik office in question is a branch of that media organization. That is the reason behind financial sanctions against Sputnik. It is not the first time higher-ups of the Russian Federation are trying to erode the unity of the West.
What measures has Estonia taken in connection with Sputnik's activities?
Because we are talking about financial sanctions against a specific influential person, citizen Kiselyov, who controls the Sputnik news agency, they are primarily measures of the financial kind. Engaging in financial activities with the sanctioned organization is prohibited, meaning that Estonian credit providers will not open accounts for them or facilitate their payments for example.
Have any other measures been taken?
The list of measures following financial sanctions is very long. But what I want to emphasize is that we have not taken measures against the portal's media content. They are financial sanctions aimed at economic activity. I believe it to be justified. We have notified the European Commission's Legal Service. European agencies have said in the Commission that steps taken by Estonia in exercising sanctions policy are warranted.
Sputnik is active in a lot of EU countries, and it seems right now that Estonia has taken the lead in terms of moving on sanctions. Do other countries have different legal frameworks? Lithuania, Latvia and Finland are likely not applying the sanctions?
Member states get to make decisions concerning the practical execution of sanctions based on their legal systems. Estonia is not an exception. Latvia, citing sanctions against Kiselyov, has previously restricted access to online portals Baltnews and Sputnik in the territory of the country. As far as I know, Lithuania has also applied financial sanctions against Rossiya Segodnya. It is nothing unique.
What about Western and Southern Europe?
The European Commission has a working group where member states declare sanctions they have applied. They can also ask for advice in how to do it from a legal standpoint. I believe it is sensible to realize that the consistency of the policy of sanctions is a matter of values for all European states and definitely a matter of security for our region.
Why is Russia spreading the narrative that Estonia is persecuting Russian news portal Sputnik?
Because that is the political picture Russia wants to paint. I believe it is not a matter of besieging Sputnik journalists. Sputnik was not allowed to attend this summer's media freedom conference in London that also sparked a protest by Russia. It is a broader issue, one of Russia attempting to erode Western unity as concerns sanctions policy. It has picked this case the effect of which in the international community is rather modest. Russia has picked it and wants to put pressure on us to surrender ground so that it could show that even the Baltics are not consistent when it comes to sanctions. The incident might be modest but one of significance down the line.
Are some countries more principled and thorough in observing sanctions policy than others?
I believe that if we look at all persons and institutions, there are definitely fluctuations in different European countries.
Sputnik has been active in Estonia for some time and the bank accounts in question have also been used for a while. Why was the step taken now as opposed to sooner?
That is a good question. The EU has separate working groups for interpretation and execution of sanctions policy where there are consultations and where information is exchanged. I'm sure our officials evaluated and analyzed the practice of other countries, especially Latvia and Lithuania. Why were the sanctions implemented now? I'm sure the data bureau's officials have the answer. I would like to emphasize once again that I have no doubt it has been handled properly, applying our sanctions law inside the broader framework of EU sanctions brought on by Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Would you support restricting Russian television networks in Estonian free-to-air television and radio and perhaps blocking the content of online portals?
Estonia has not gone down the path of content blocking, while we formally have the legal basis for it when it comes to war propaganda and other such activities. Latvia and Lithuania have exercised it following various reasons. I have deemed it necessary to analyze different legal aspects first. But no decision has been made there.
Where do you stand?
I believe that when talking about war propaganda and attacks against persons in terms of urging people to commit crimes, the measure can be justified in certain situations, and several countries have deployed it. I believe this is not where we should say that freedom of speech is absolute and that calls to violence should be under total protection from freedom of speech in the mass media – I do not agree with that.
Editor: Marcus Turovski