Urmas Reinsalu: It was a year of media radicalization

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

President Lennart Meri once said that the press was acting like a political party. I did not understand the criticism at the time. I believe I do now. Meri was suggesting that the media was trying to enforce its agenda in the public domain, [Minister of Foreign Affairs] Urmas Reinsalu writes.

Everyone is busy discussing what is happening over at Postimees these days. I read that one reason a number of the paper's journalists recently quit was that someone higher up had suggested journalists were not impartial that was interpreted as a loss of confidence.

That is hardly anything worth quitting over as the political attitude of Postimees and other major newspapers toward the government has not been biased – that is not the correct word for it – but openly confrontational. No sense in being ashamed of it as every child who picks up a newspaper can see it!

Having said that, allow me to emphasize – to avoid accusations of a minister meddling in media freedom – that I have the utmost respect for freedom of speech and that journalists can go right ahead. I'm more sensitive than some journalists when it comes to freedom of speech. I do not support the criminalization of hate speech and also regard limiting anonymity in comment sections an unnecessary restriction.

Therefore, the media is free to express whichever attitudes it pleases; what I find misleading as the reader is this appeal of impartiality. I'm not talking about the media's duty to exercise public supervision over the government and its members and criticize them – the government has given plenty of reason for the latter, and this is entirely okay.

I'm talking about the preconception regarding this government as such. It permeates both news stories and opinions. The media wields great power, and it's fair to say media houses were taken aback when this government was formed. Once the initial shock subsided, a series of opposition tactics were deployed.

Why is it being done? The answer is very simple: because the government and its agenda are not to the press' liking. To paraphrase Vilja Kiisler: the press has this attitude because it can afford to have it in that it controls the media.

President Lennart Meri once said that the press was acting like a political party. I did not understand the criticism at the time. I believe I do now. Meri was suggesting that the media was trying to enforce its agenda in the public domain.

I'm reminded of 2015 when secretaries general of all political parties, except the Reform Party, wrote a letter to then owner of Postimees, Schibsted, saying that the newspaper was pro-Reform. Mart Kadastik fiercely denied such claims.

I read a sentence from Kadastik yesterday that stuck with me: "Journalism is made journalism by having an objective goal reached in subjective ways."

Such dialectic! But the idea is clear: If your goal is to rock the government's boat, it's objective, while it can be done by any means necessary because that in turn is subjective! For me, this attitude reached its zenith in major media houses' interviews with the prime minister where questions largely boiled down to: I do not like this government, why are you moving forward with it?

They were interesting interviews from the point of view of media criticism. I had fun reading them. Of course, I'm told there are different journalistic attitudes in the media, but frankly, these are but a few exceptions to confirm the rule.

The grand consensus in the media today is being opposed to this government, and swimming upstream requires a journalist to have civic courage. I have even felt journalists try to write or speak between the words, using allegory as in Soviet times.

Postimees ordered a survey toward the year's end that demonstrated most people were happy with their year on a personal level, while only half were satisfied with the state. The paper's editorial painted this as a problem. On the contrary, it is the result, in addition to political polarization, of media radicalization.

As pointed out by Tiit Hennoste: "Conflict is a variant of newsworthiness and it has come to rule the day." Hennoste proceeds to use the image of opposing sides throwing rats in each other's trenches.

What about sober analysis and pluralism of opinion? Instead, we are seeing the rise of a polarizing discourse, as we have already seen in many other countries. This discourse has charged domestic policy debate, and the past year saw major media houses become involved.

As a media-critical observation then, it was a year of media radicalization. I have an idea of where it will lead, following the example of some countries, but more on that in the future. For now, I would like to wish the Estonian media a good end to the year!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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