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Estonian Television during Soviet rule: 'We didn't speak the whole truth, but we also didn't tell lies'

In celebration of 60 years of national television broadcasting, ERR News interviewed some of the prominent figures who have led the ETV during its history. Hagi Šein worked at ETV for 30 years and was also its editor-in-chief in the 1990s.

Šein, who is now a lecturer at the Baltic Film and Media School, said that ETV has played a major role in the Estonian society and culture, and has helped to keep the nation together in turbulent times.

It has also been a fertile ground for many thinkers, activists and politicians – many former ETV journalists have become MPs.

Remembering ETV's history under the Soviet rule, Šein played down Moscow's role of mingling in its affairs.

“Films were censored and monitored, but all the rest was managed by local authorities. The ideological pressure from Moscow on television in Estonia was not as tense, compared to many other Soviet-occupied countries,” he said.

“We knew the rules of the game. We were very good at saying things between the lines and people were very good at reading between the lines. Of course, we couldn't talk about all the things – we didn't speak the whole truth, but we also didn't say lies, nobody forced us to tell lies. The nation understood,” he added.

Šein also recalled how Estonians followed Western television at the time, as it was possible to watch Finnish television in parts of Estonia after the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) built a new TV-mast in Espoo. The new mast unintentionally transmitted Finnish TV broadcasts to northern Estonia and as a result, watching Finnish television became a part of everyday television consumption during the last decades of Soviet occupation.

“Finnish television deserves a statue in Estonia,” Šein said, emphasizing the importance of the free world's TV.

Šein is optimistic about the future of television. "It will always remain important and relevant, despite the increasing popularity of other formats, such as YouTube.”

ETV was launched on July 19, 1955, following the Soviet government's decision to establish a television station in 1953.

The national TV channel, part of Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR), has maintained a unique archive which is part of a rich Estonian cultural heritage, and still produces more original programs than any private channel. ETV2 was introduced in 2008, focusing mainly on educational programs and documentaries. ETV+, a Russian-language channel, will start broadcasting this autumn.

Editor: S. Tambur

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