Erik Gamzejev: No justification for municipal media
Municipal media doesn't solve a single public problem, while it helps those in power stay there with the help of public funds and constitutes unfair competition for private newspapers, Erik Gamzejev finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
The Riigikogu, government and ministries do not have their own newspapers, nor do their websites host flashing banners advertising pizza or a night club.
And yet, we are not worried that Estonians have been left without information. Important information can be found on said websites where it is publicly available. Topics of universal interest are covered by the public broadcaster and private media channels in both Estonian and Russian.
A part of local governments also have no problem keeping their residents informed. Others, however, deem it necessary to publish their own newspapers that land in people's mailboxes once a week or less frequently in some places.
Seemingly free of charge. In truth, there is no such thing as free municipal press as it is paid for by local taxpayers at the expense of other local services.
Some municipal papers also sell advertising, claiming they want to keep costs down. This basically constitutes unfair competition for private media. Head of the weekly Narva municipal paper Andrus Tamm makes no secret of the fact they are competing with private papers by fighting for advertising clients both in print and online.
The same claim was made by former Jõhvi Municipality mayor Martin Repinski when he had the local paper published more frequently for the duration of his Riigikogu campaign. He regarded it has normal competition. I'm not sure goat farmer Repinski would deem fair competition a situation where shops carried free goat cheese and milk made using public funds.
The situation on the media market is that municipal papers, the lion's share of the budgets of which comes from local funds, can afford to sell advertising more cheaply compared to private papers that need to pay for everything with money from subscribers and advertising.
It is especially curious how while the private media contributes tax revenue to the local budget, the local government then uses that same money to compete with the former. The Competition Board has been content to look on for years because the legislator has made possible this unfair play.
There is no serious justification for municipal media, nor does it solve any public problems. In a situation where over 90 percent of people use the internet, local government information can be brought to people this way. Efforts could be made for that information to be better organized and more user-friendly. That decisions and minutes would be uploaded sooner and bureaucratic orders and regulations complemented by legible summaries and clarification.
That would be the most important thing in terms of keeping the public informed, instead of galleries and videos of city and municipality mayors' "heroics" or them railing against the opposition in between images and descriptions of the municipality as the land of milk and honey, courtesy of its spectacular leaders.
Municipal media tends to only have two major goals. First, to ensure those in power stay there based on the use of public funds and, secondly, to weaken the local free press performing its duty of critically covering how financial and political power is wielded.
One shining example of how talk of the need to keep residents informed is nonsense is how Jõhvi decided to stop publishing its municipal paper for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. That is to say during a time when a municipal newspaper would have actually made sense by keeping people up to speed in terms of risks and emergency situation requirements. Instead, that task was performed by private papers. I'm sure residents will be diagnosed with a growing hunger for public information again on the eve of local elections that can only be cured with the help of a municipal paper.
Media professor Indrek Ibrus recently wrote in Postimees that local municipality papers are a threat to local independent press as they usually do not follow the journalistic code of ethics, can rely on the local government's wallet but often seize a part of the advertising market.
This problem does not just concern country papers. If the rulers of Tallinn refrained from publishing municipal city district newspapers that also sell advertising, I'm sure major dailies would have more advertising revenue and could offer more content. In the end, the entire Estonian press would be stronger.
Private newspapers should not need state subsidies. But in a situation where the legislator has not managed to end the sale of advertising in municipal papers published using public funds and disseminated for free and where the Estonian advertising market is also wide open to global internet giants that do not have to pay taxes here, benefits are in order to help balance the situation. After all, agricultural support is also a measure to defend producers from market distortion.
The necessity of county papers is also felt by local politicians who find themselves in the opposition and suddenly cannot understand why they were such zealous proponents of municipal media back when they had the power.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski