TTJA barring of Russian websites in Estonia raises several legal questions

Laptop computer  (photo isillustrative).
Laptop computer (photo isillustrative). Source: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

The recent decision by the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) to block access to Russian online publications in Estonia has diminished understanding of what is taking place in Russia, and has raised legal questions, while at the same time has curbed the spread of Russian disinformation in Estonia.

Rein Lang, an adviser to Hanno Pevkur (Reform), deputy Riigikogu speaker, and a media expert, told ERR that closing access to the Russian sites was not merely reasonable, but also essential. Lang said the Russian media when taken as a whole constitutes an information weapon, and the Estonian state must defend itself against it accordingly.

He said: "Any society that wishes to exist and to defend itself against the 'Russkiy Mir' not only has the right, but also the obligation, to stand up to those weapons."

"In the given case, the root cause is they are disseminating war propaganda. This means that the resistance is utterly justified and very, very purposeful, and this must be fully supported at all times," Lang continued.

Urmo Soonvald, editor-in-chief at daily Eesti Päevaleht and portal Delfi, said that he understood the decision to close access to the Russian portals, on an emotional level.

He said: "It can always be asked why this is being done right now, since their rhetoric, choice of themes, misleading context and bias and preference for sources has been the same for years. Earlier Russia was conducting via its information war what is now being perpetuated with the monstrous war in Ukraine."

"At the same time, it is through these portals that the Kremlin has perfected its policies, preferences and goals – this is for us, as a border nation, one part of the information puzzle.

Tarmu Tammerk, media expert and ethics ombudsman at public broadcaster ERR, agreed that barring access to key Kremlin-controlled sites will impair the capacity of the Estonian media to understand what is going on in Russia.

Tammerk said: "Blocking Russia's propaganda channels in Estonia should be a much more nuanced process. Blocking Russia's state news agencies in Estonia does not seem to have been a well thought-through and justifiable step."

At the same time, Tammerk said that he comprehends the closure of Russian TV channels at the present time, and considers that a necessary move, since they are aimed at influencing large numbers of people, but information agencies do not make use of the masses in the same way, meaning closing them will not have the desired effect in Estonia.

The regulator might monitor Russian channels, but not rush to shut them down, Tammerk added.

"Before deciding whether to block them, one should assess their impact," Tammerk went on, adding that online portals, while they do also contain propaganda, should not be treated in the same way as TV channels.

Soonvald added that in all cases of site closures, the decision-making process must be reasoned out as clearly as possible.

"It is understandable that it is emotionally very easy to make radical decisions in a wartime situation, but there is a precedent, and also the possibility of various interpretations," Soonvald said. "The TTJA or in other words the Estonian state must outline very clearly why, on what grounds and on which experts' reasoning portals, TV stations etc. are being closed," he added. "The more accurate the explanation is, the clearer the generalization will be and the hope that these decisions remain a one off and based on the personal convictions of officials. My fear is that there are still portals in the world who are unable to govern the brutal war and aggression in Ukraine in a way that the foundations of a free media presuppose."

"What can we do with them? Or was the criterion the language space? It is an exciting case, but I realize that during wartime, some decisions are made in a way that some debates remain half-hearted," he went on.

Russian state news portal TASS' front page as of the afternoon of March 17 2022. Source: ERR

Legal dimension

Legal academic Paloma Krõõt Tupay has been reading the TTJA's precept, and says that the authority has at least now substantiated its decision and set a deadline on it.

Tupay said: "In my opinion there were few references there, but in any case they were justified. Let's put it that if anyone were to take them to court, they have at least compiled a large document to be ruled on."

"The question now arises as to who has been barred and who has not. That there must undoubtedly be certain practices here, certain base criteria on which to judge it, as we have a very, very large number of publications where we can ask whether everything they publish represents the truth," Tupay continued.

For example, the [Estonian alternative portal] Telegram raises a number of issues and questions," Tupay said .

At the same time, the TTJA must be consistent – if it opts to close some portals, legally they have an obligation to close all other sites that meet the same criteria.

"Once they have decided to go down that road, then they have to be ready to set up administrative procedures, and make decisions there," Tupay went on.

"And without a doubt they should follow this with a stated political position on which stances are henceforward prohibited, and which are not, and on what basis, followed by what should be considered as war propaganda," Tupay added.

The same issue arises in respect to the "Z"-mark and banning it in Estonia, she said. "We can't ban a symbol when we haven't started to talk about what is happening with the swastika and with all the other [symbols]. And who else would we have to ban? In any case we can't make these types of decisions only now and solely about Ukraine. Naturally, we see ourselves as a nation in jeopardy, but we must consider what rules are valid."

The TTJA announced Monday that Estonian ISPs must bar access to seven Russian portals, including that of news agency TASS, based on Russia's unilateral propaganda efforts and incitement to warfare.

The TTJA noted that: "For example, a speech by the President of the Russian Federation has appeared on the website in which he explained that the aim of the 'special military operation' was to protect those who had been the victims of bullying and genocide on the part of the Kyiv 'regime' for the past eight years. In his speech, the president justified the war, and called for a military attack on the sovereign state of Ukraine."

Another example was: "A comment from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov which has been published on the website where he said that he cannot wait to fight with bandits and nationalists (i.e. Ukrainians – ed.) and put an end to these criminals."

Still another example was: "Website, which featured a statement by the Russian foreign minister in which the minister stated that Russia did not intend to attack other countries, as it had not attacked Ukraine. Given that Russia is attacking Ukraine, it can be concluded that similar attacks on other states should not be ruled out."

"In none of the aforementioned cases did the owner of the website or the journalist who created the story consider it necessary to add an explanatory comment to what was published, or to or give the other party to the conflict an opportunity to make known their views, thereby presenting information on those websites in its entirety in a manner prejudicial to public order," the TTJA precept justifying the blocking of the sites adds.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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