An unprecedent operation has been launched against Aivar Mäe the result of which is the destruction of the reputation of a respected person, Paul Keres, attorney to the national opera theater's director, says in an interview to ERR.
How would you describe the situation that has formed around your client Aivar Mäe?
I do not believe this situation has formed around him but rather around the Estonian media. What you are witnessing is an utterly unprecedented character assassination aimed against a particular person. It is a very carefully considered, professionally and cunningly executed operation. The result – the destruction of the reputation of a person who is respected in society and among his colleagues.
Are you referring to a single publication or the Estonian press in general?
Responsible for this mess is a single publication. What they (Eesti Ekspress and Delfi – ed.) are practicing is not journalism but a campaign to destroy Aivar Mäe. Things taking place in that media house hold no elements of journalism.
What exactly falls out of line with journalism? If a journalist is approached by a source with certain claims, it is their obligation to ask for a comment from the accused party, which is what was done. Aivar Mäe gave an interview that gave him the chance to comment on the allegations. What part of this is not journalistic?
Of concern in this particular case are the following things. People are pressed for negative comments, they are coerced into making such comments by way of loaded questions or it is suggested they should make certain statements. Positive opinions about Aivar Mäe are disregarded; they are either buried or not published at all.
Some persons have been told that such positive coverage is not what the publication is looking for. We know people who have encountered this kind of treatment by the press and have the facts.
How are people coerced into making statements? What do you mean?
If you simply came up to me, asked me a question and printed my answer – that would be fine. But if the answer is deemed unsatisfactory and a cross-examination follows – how can you say that, you were there, you were harassed – that is no longer normal.
The other thing is conscious manipulation of facts. Look at how Delfi handled the first letter in support of Mäe. They tried to make it look like the initiative failed because it only got 33 signatures in a situation where the theater employs 680 people. What they failed to mention was that only the opera troupe was approached. In reality, they got 33 out of 35 people to sign. The publication also misrepresented facts as the theater employs 460 people 350 of whom have expressed support for Mäe with their signature.
In addition to these shows of support, we also have specific allegations based on which the police have launched an investigation into possible sexual harassment. Has Aivar Mäe been questioned?
There are two accusations. Aivar Mäe has not been to give statements to the police yet.
The police are expecting information from everyone who might know about possible harassment. Should people who come forward expect a defamation suit from you?
No lawyer with a shred of respect for professional ethics and honor threatens a witness called to give statements. If a person feels they have fallen victim to a misdemeanor, they have the right to turn to the police, which is precisely what they should do. Launching such a media slander campaign is not. Whereas making a false complaint or giving false statements has consequences.
Do you plan to sue Ekspress Media?
It is one possibility.
Will the two people who have accused Mäe of harassment be sued?
We do not know who they are. No one can have anything against people who give statements in good faith, while orchestrating a slander campaign against a person in the Estonian media is extremely low. We know the persons behind that campaign. We also know who has been advising them.
It must be said once more that the operation has been carried out professionally, cunningly and successfully, but it is illegal.
What is the aim of the operation? Is it the removal of Aivar Mäe from office, total destruction of his reputation? If you know who is behind it, you probably know its purpose.
I couldn't tell you a rational purpose today.
Do these initiators work at the national opera? Or are they outsiders?
I will not comment on that.
You dare not say who they are?
I will not say. The only thing I will say is that we have had very little time to collect information and evidence compared to the authors of this piece. We are still collecting evidence, getting to the bottom of circumstances, even though we have the rough chronology.
Aivar Mäe initially refuted all allegations, before sending out a press release that included an apology. Should that have been the end of it?
The story should never have been published.
What should the press have done? They were approached by a person, whereas it doesn't matter whether they did so purposefully or because they felt harassed. Aivar Mäe was asked for a comment that was published.
In cases such as these, where the journalist is approached by a single source claiming horrible things have been done to them, where not a single fact is made known to Aivar Mäe about the allegations – in terms of where, when and in whose presence these terrible things allegedly happened – in a situation like this, a person cannot defend themselves against anonymous accusations.
That is why police proceedings are the appropriate way to determine whether Aivar Mäe was even in the country or in that room at the time. Perhaps the person no longer worked for the national opera at the time. There are a lot of circumstances that could overturn this entire case. However, a person cannot defend themselves against anonymous allegations, especially if they are being disseminated by an influential media house.
Aivar Mäe has been offered various forums where he could defend himself by the press. Including by ERR. The scandal broke on June 21, while Aivar Mäe is still not answering ERR's calls.
What would you ask him were he to answer his phone?
I would ask whether these allegations are slander. I would not take sides, I would simply ask him to comment, just as I am asking you. If he comes and says it is absolutely slander, listeners will understand he is really defending himself. Right now, he's just hiding somewhere.
I understand him because the media is attacking Aivar Mäe. It is not objective coverage, especially considering that persons who have spoken favorably of Mäe, their comments are not published.
Both ERR and Postimees have covered campaigns that collected hundreds of signatures in support. How can you say support for Aivar Mäe is being overlooked?
I am talking about specific people who were called and asked for comments, while those comments were either not published or published in distorted form. One comment was published after the person threatened to sue. Comments need to be published in full, not after they've been redacted by Eesti Ekspress. It is terrible what's happening.
Terrible indeed, yet you yourself continue to use the term Estonian media. Excuse me, but I'm not calling you from Delfi or Eesti Ekspress.
I'm not accusing you of anything. Talking about the media, I'm referring to that particular publication. I have no criticism for ERR. What I'm saying is that when dealing with such an emotionally loaded topic as sexual harassment, where the female side is automatically seen as the victim, it is said that women should rather be believed. These women go to the media, their names are not published, the circumstances of alleged harassment are not published, while it is said that the head of a major institution has committed countless acts of sexual harassment. No one can meaningfully defend against something like that. Executing a person like that is not right and what is happening to Aivar Mäe today is unprecedented in Estonia.
How much money should Ekspress Meedia set aside for a possible damages claim?
That will be up to the court to decide; we would likely not go for a fixed financial claim. It would be impossible to determine. You cannot express a person's suffering in money. The court will take into account the general welfare level, the company's financial position and other criteria that will make up the sum. We are probably talking about tens of thousands of euros.
Slanderers have been handed financial punishments before.
Yes, that is usually what happens. But these are not financial punishments, they are benefits in kind that are difficult to express in terms of money. If someone deeply insults you, it is unnatural to attach a price tag to that.
What will you be demanding from Eesti Ekspress and the people who accused Aivar Mäe without cause?
I am not seeking a punishment. Civil courts do not hand our punishments. We are demanding the public retraction of inaccurate information in the same manner and extent it was first presented. And compensation of non-material damage after that. However, our first task is addressing misdemeanor proceedings as the process is already underway.
The police are working as fast as they can. It is clear they are still awaiting statements and have launched proceedings based on public information. I do not know when the investigation will reach the point where Aivar Mäe is questioned.
The police investigation has already revealed a funny incident, if only these things were amusing. The police called a person and told them that five people have given statements according to which the recipient of the call was harassed by Aivar Mäe. The person then told the authorities that Aivar Mäe has never harassed them and that they get along brilliantly. It took the person half an hour to convince the police that Aivar Mäe never harassed them. That is what we're dealing with.
Are we talking about alleged psychological or physical harassment? What exactly are the police investigating?
The elements constituting the offense concern both. The main element in sexual harassment is making a person feel degraded through sexual behavior.
You said it was a purposeful and well-organized campaign. Will you ever reveal who were the people behind it, their motives and how the operation was staged?
Let us hope so.
Are you prepared to disclose those names in court?
Where we differ from the other side is that we make and defend our claims in court. We will definitely not be the first to publish these circumstances. I hope we will have enough evidence.
When will you be filing against Eesti Ekspress?
I do not know that as a lot of work still needs to be done.
Editor: Marcus Turovski