Two leading lawyers agree on the ethics of action taking by evening paper Õhtuleht in photographing the children of Minister of Education Mailis Reps (Center). The photos appeared in an online piece Tuesday evening, used as evidence that the minister had been using her official car for non-official tasks. The pair disagree on whether Reps did anything wrong, however.
Attorney-at-Law Oliver Nääs says while he sees no issue with the use of surveillance in investigative pieces, the photos of Reps' children was perhaps a bridge too far.
Nääs, who had earlier represented Center's founder Edgar Savisaar in a long-running corruption case, said: "The individual (i.e. Reps – ed.) was not being tracked, but rather the ministerial car was being followed. As for ethics, i.e. whether it was necessary to portray children in this way, it would have been possible to have done it without featuring the children."
Sworn advocate Carri Ginter said he thought Õhtuleht had behaved unethically.
Ginter said: "What I don't think is ethical is when a journalist pursues a car, takes pictures of minors and publishes them in the newspaper (the faces of Reps' and other children appearing in the photos were blurred-out – ed.). Journalistic ethics still very clearly requires that children be brought into proceedings only when this is unavoidable."
Reps' initial reaction on her social media account Tuesday evening was the same, that her children – she has six of them and divorced from their father early in 2019 – should not be brought into focus in that way.
The photos also appeared in the next paper edition of Õhtuleht.
Since then, Reps has issued statements of contrition about what she calls an overuse of the ministry vehicle in making the school run in particular, though denied having misled anyone or having pressured her driver, or other staff, to conduct such duties.
She has faced calls to resign, including from former Center, now SDE, MP Raimond Kaljulaid, though Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) has stuck by her.
Nääs: Legality of use of public resources depends on type, duration etc.
Oliver Nääs said, more broadly, that using public funds, including for labor in non-public business, as this was, is not in line with the law and in some cases can be punishable as a misdemeanor offense.
Nääs said: "This is a general principle, though. There are also some marginal exceptions, which concern small matters, for instance if a minister used the ministry mailroom to mail private letters. But if we talk about the systematic use of public funds for private benefit, then this is verboten."
Raising the issue now might be timely, he added, giving the opportunity to review the use of public funds and how they can be reconciled with public life as in Reps' case.
Reps said that there had been a recent uptick in use of the car for non-official purposes due to the pressures of a recent coalition crisis, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and work surrounding the legislative process of the 2021 state budget.
In the past, Reps said having to shuttle back-and-forth between Tallinn and Brussels, in the second half of 2017 when Estonia held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, had been a challenge from a child-minding perspective.
Ginter: Ministry car had been taxed specially for extra-curricular use
Carri Ginter told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Wednesday evening that it was, however, hard to pin the blame of Reps for anything in particular.
Ginter said: "I can't imagine being in a top position while having so many children and being able to perform the role without the logistical backup for the children. This would be very difficult."
Since the use of the car had been specially taxed to account for private trips, there was no issue from this side, he added.
Õhtuleht published a follow-up story to its original piece, saying that Reps also employed two other, well-remunerated individuals on ministry payroll to deal with family matters.
ERR's ethics ombudsman Tarmu Tammerk said Wednesday that photographing the children in question had been both unethical and unnecessary, adding that obscuring their faces had not been sufficient.
Õhtuleht editor-in-chief Martin Šmutov said that the photo series had been required, as that without it, the paper may have been laid open to a charge of "fake news".
He also said that the decision had involved an editorial board-level meeting, and that the criticism had been expected, adding that the public interest issue regarding the use of the car was the main justification for running the piece.
Editor: Andrew Whyte