Prime minister: Justice minister did not attack free press

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center).
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In response to the Estonian Association of Media Enterprises' letter regarding statements made by Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) toward Õhtuleht journalists covering the Mailis Reps scandal, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said that he stands for free press in Estonia and that Aeg did not mean it as an attack.

"As you know, I will always condemn attacking the free press as it is a prerequisite of our democracy. I have done so in words and in actions, in public and behind closed doors, standing for a balanced and independent media. I have done so in all of my public roles, earlier, lately and certainly in the future," Ratas wrote on social media Monday.

The prime minister noted that he also stood for the free press when discussing a complaint made by the Estonian Association of Media Enterprises (EML) to the European Commission toward public broadcaster ERR earlier this year.

"In which you accused ERR in creating unhealthy competition by doing their normal journalistic activities. I also stood for press freedom when allegations of bias and self-censorship in ERR came up last spring. Or when I, as prime minister, was recently accused by one of the organizations of your union of damaging allied relationships because Estonia did not join a joint statement signed by France, Latvia and Lithuania, which would have brought an obligation to regulate our currently free press," Ratas wrote.

He assessed that justice minister Raivo Aeg did not attack Estonian free press in any way and has not done so earlier.

"Minister Aeg indeed mentioned at a government press conference last week that he had asked prosecution to 'take a stance' on questions stemming from journalistic investigative surveillance. At the same press conference, he clearly emphasized the special status of journalists in questions of this regard and rightly acknowledged the greater attention toward public figures. As Raivo Aeg said, rule of law must be governed in a rule of law. I believe we can all agree on that," the prime minister penned.

Ratas said that coverage surrounding public figures - their close ones and their childre - is among the main questions of journalistic ethics, in picture and word. He added that cases such as the Mailis Reps one will come up at times and they need to be analyzed.

"As has been done many times in Estonian public space, our judiciary system and the European Court of Human Rights. The diversity in these topics is also shown by the latter taking a different position than the one taken by local courts. This all ensures the flourishing and development of a free press," the prime minister wrote.

On Monday, the Estonian Association of Media Enterprises criticized the wish of Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) to investigate the activities of journalists in investigating the use of ministry cars by Mailis Reps, who stepped down as Minister of Education and Research. Aeg noted that he turned to a prosecutor's office to find out if Õhtuleht journalists could have used functions of covert surveillance in following Reps' ministry car.

The association asked for Ratas to take a position on the issues raised by Aeg.

Aeg: Minister misconduct does not give right to publish photos of their children

"I was one of the first to publicly condemn that education minister Reps used her official car for private rides. I do not consider her actions right, I acknowledge journalists in investigating the use of state property and support them wholly," Aeg wrote on Facebook on Monday evening.

"But a minister behaving incorrectly does not give anyone the right to secretly photograph their children and publish these photos without the parents' permission and hurt the children in that way. The children are not guilty of anything, but connecting the photos of misusing an official car with them can bring them great suffering," the justice minister wrote.

He added that many, including ERR's ehtics advisor Tarmu Tammerk, found that daily Õhtuleht pulled the children of Mailis Reps into the scandal unethically.

Aeg concluded: "I am still convinced that everyone must follow legislation and everyone is equal to the Constitution. Investigating the use of state property does not give journalists the right to damage children."

The Mailis Reps ministry car misuse scandal

Reps resigned following mounting pressure after an article appeared on the website of evening paper Õhtuleht Tuesday evening, which provided photographic evidence that the minister had been using the official ministry car for non-official purposes.

These were principally ferrying some of her six children to and from school and kindergarten, which Reps said she had been doing recently in particular, due to workload issues.

Õhtuleht itself faced a backlash over publishing the photos of the children, albeit with their faces obscured, but this was not sufficient to bury the scandal.

The Õhtuleht piece, along with a subsequent article and also one in business daily Äripäev, reported that the practice of using the official car for the school run had been a long-standing one, and that while it was specially taxed for the purpose, this tax in itself was effectively borne by the taxpayer.

Reps apologized for the over-use of the car and promised to get the work-life balance taped going forward, and also denied having pressured ministry staff to work in a child-minding capacity.

While Jüri Ratas (Center) publicly backed her, Reps submitted her resignation Friday evening, calling it a major loss to both the government and the education field.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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