The Estonian Association of Media Enterprises (EML) has submitted a complaint to the European Commission over what it calls unfair competition from public broadcaster ERR, primarily with regard to its online news.
The EML, which represents online, TV, radio and print media concerns, says that funding ERR's online news via the state budget harms fair competition, adding that private-sector online portals are sufficient news media and noting that ERR has no legal basis to provide online news.
"ERR has never published any newspapers, due to the media landscape functioning very well in this area with the private sector's contribution. It is the same with news portals, where competition is also very strong. News portals are the successors of newspapers, in essence," EML chief Merle Viirmaa-Treifeldt said via a statement Monday.
The two major media groups in Estonia are Postimees Grupp, which publishes the daily newspaper of the same name, along with its regional variants, and Ekspress Meedia, which publishes daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) and weeklies Eesti Ekspress and Maaleht. Both groups also operate TV channels and radio stations, provide news online and publish magazines and other print products. Another major daily newspaper/portal is Õhtuleht.
Viirmaa-Treifeldt's statement continued by pointing out that the trend for development in the Estonian media had for the past few years been towards digital subscriptions, competition which ERR's subscription-free service served to distort.
"The media market over the past years has been rapidly developing towards a business model in which revenues from digital subscriptions account for an increasing proportion of total revenue, motivating members of the association to preserve and create new rightfully remunerated journalist positions. ERR strongly expanding its online media with the support of state financing aggravates unfair competition with private media as the private sector will never be able to compete with the state at such a level," the statement continues.
"Maintaining a media industry based on free and fair competition is necessary for preserving the variety and independence of the media landscape. Media enterprises which are financially sound cannot be manipulated by politicians or business communities. In a situation where democratic values are under pressure in various European states, it is important to acknowledge that it is private media that ensures that the information available to the public should not only come from public bodies and interest groups."
At the same time, the EML said that it valued ERR's content.
"We value the content of the ERR very highly. If ERR directed resources which strengthen unnecessary competition and are not intended for the performance of public tasks, to strengthen the content for the performance of its statutory tasks, all Estonians would benefit," said Viirmaa-Treifeldt.
Erik Roose, ERR board chair, said that ERR performs well all tasks legally assigned to it, noting that the complaint demonstrated this.
"As a public media organization, we always work in the interests of the audience and with maximum efficiency, i.e. using taxpayer money as economically and efficiently as possible. This step would hardly have been taken if our work had not borne fruit."
Roose added the complaint about online media competition seemed strange to him given that online private media firms can and do require subscriptions, and carry advertising, neither of which ERR does. Competition between private sector and ERR's radio stations might be a more pertinent are to look at, he added, though this had not happened.
Lawyer Piret Blankin of Derling Primus, representing the EML, said that Estonia: "...is still one of the few countries in Europe which has not started to make its broadcasting tasks and broadcasting funding arrangements more precise. Most other countries have done so themselves, or as a result of the European Commission's guidelines."
The private sector firms have received state aid resulting from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including wage support, though Postimees said it rejected any aid from the state early on in the crisis.
Erik Roose added that he was looking forward to further discussion on the complaint, noting that Estonia's mantle as an international digital leader was relevant here, in his view.
"And, of course, we also consider the independence of the media landscape important at ERR, but what would our owner, i.e. the taxpayer, think if ERR ceased all its online activities tomorrow? Vague references to other European countries, where the free distribution of digital information is allegedly restricted, are simply not worthy of the private media in a country with digital ambitions like Estonia."
Editor: Andrew Whyte