Interior minister Kristian Jaani says that additional powers the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) would get under draft legislative changes would only be intended for health crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, and not a general change. The expression of free speech is fully intact, he adds.
Appearing on ETV current affairs show "Ringvaade" Monday evening, Jaani, a former police chief in the northern prefecture himself, said that: "Free speech is permitted; provided people remain dispersed in groups no larger than 10, the public can express their opinions."
Jaani words followed heated scenes in Tallinn's Vabaduse väljak Sunday, where protests against the proposed draft bill and coronavirus restrictions in general attracted around 100 people. The PPA had to detain several people, due to non-compliance with the current restrictions and/or public disorder issues.
The fact that demonstrations could nonetheless go ahead is illustration that Estonia is not a police state, Jaani went on.
"Demonstrations are never permitted in a police state. Estonia is a very good country to live in – protests are allowed here. Currently, there are just small restrictions in place, due to infectious diseases – i.e. [maximum] ten people, dispersed."
Amendments to the act in question, the Infectious Diseases Prevention and Control Act (known in Estonian by the acronym NETS, from its official Estonian title: Nakkushaiguste ennetamise ja tõrje seadus), would, if they passed Riigikgou assent give the PPA the right to check compliance with restrictions, but only if the Health Board (Terviseamet) summons them to get involved, and only if the PPA agree to take on an incident.
Sunday's protest saw PPA personnel alongside Health Board representatives; the latter issued three precepts relating to violation of the 2+2 rule on Sunday, and fined one individual who refused to comply with the same precept €500.
"There has to be a health emergency; under normal circumstances, these rights would not apply to the police," Jaani said, adding that: "There are a lot of filters in between."
One of the PPA's concerns with the recent Vabaduse väljakn demonstration, which followed close to two weeks' protests on Toompea and in central Tallinn involving similar numbers of people, is the apparent lack of official organizer which, they say, makes the situation more unpredictable.
It also means there are no official stewards for the events, which the PPA then has to take on for itself, Jaani said, while maintaining a visible and approachable public presence.
"The primary task is to talk to people, to explain, again and again," he said.
While protesters were detained Sunday, the police did not use greater force than that.
The search for solutions to the current situation is a dynamic one, he added, with ways of cutting down on bureaucracy always welcome. The Health Board, for instance, should not be unduly expanded, he said.
A non-politico, Kristian Jaani, 44, was plucked from his role as chief of the PPA's northern prefecture upon the formation of the Reform/Center coalition in late January. While he was chosen by Center, ostensibly to clean up the party's image given corruption scandals it was directly involved in led to the collapse of the previous coalition with EKRE and Isamaa, he has so far not joined the party.
Editor: Andrew Whyte