The Estonian Association of Journalists (EAL) has hit out at a proposal by Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa), to bring the prosecutor's office's weight to bear on evening newspaper Õhtuleht, following an expose by the paper which revealed misuse of a ministerial car.
Aeg sent a mobile text message to Prosecutor General Andres Parmas, the association says, asking Parmas to look into the article, which included photographic evidence of education minister Mailis Reps' official car being used for non-official purposes.
Since the main alleged use of the car involved ferrying some of Reps' six children to and from school and, as a consequence, children appeared in the photos – with their faces obscured – the paper faced a backlash in the media over the article.
Reps has since resigned as education minister, a post she has held for four terms over a total of around seven years.
However, the justice minister's step in taking things to the prosecutor-general is heavy-handed, the EAL says.
"Minister Raivo Aeg sending a text message to Prosecutor General Andres Parmas requesting for journalists' activities to be investigated on the basis of section 137 of the Penal Code – the section on unauthorized surveillance – is unprecedented and inevitably calls to mind the occupation-era 'telephone [tapping] law', albeit at a more technologically advanced level," the association said in its statement.
The association's board says the Õhtuleht journalists were simply doing their job in exposing the misuse of the ministry car – which according to one source had included a trip as far as Croatia, for a vacation – and that Aeg's reaction constitutes a threat to press freedoms.
Section 137 of the Penal Code says unauthorized surveillance by a private individual is punishable by a pecuniary penalty, or up to three years' imprisonment, and by a pecuniary punishment where committed by a "legal person".
"Pursuant to the code of ethics for the Estonian press, the media has the obligation of critically observe the implementation of political and economic power, and holds the right to disseminate materials violating the privacy of an individual if public interest outweighs the right to privacy," the association's statement continued.
President Kersti Kaljulaid formally released Mailis Reps from office Saturday, after the latter resigned Friday evening.
Editor: Andrew Whyte