A court has fined two journalists a thousand euros each, following publication of an article which alleged the former management at major lender Swedbank had been involved in money laundering activities.
The ruling relates to a claimed lack of public interest, rather than the veracity of the article's claims, and has already led to push-back, including from former President Kersti Kaljulaid, over its perceived threat to press freedom in Estonia in the same week Estonia placed fourth in an international media freedoms ranking.
Daily Postimees reports (link in Estonian) that Harju County Court judge Alari Möldre imposed a fine on April 14, of €1,000 on two Eesti Ekspress journalists – Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler – plus a further fine of €1,000 on the publication itself.
The fines came in respect of a March 25 article which appeared in Eesti Eksrpess and which claimed that former management at Swedbank had come under suspicion of money laundering.
Both the journalists and the publication challenged the decision last Friday, it is reported.
Eesti Ekspress has stood by its line that the information published in the March 25 piece was true and correct, noting that Swedbank itself had announced to the Tallinn Stock Exchange, the day before the Eesti Ekspress piece published, that the prosecutor's office itself suspects Swedbank in Estonia of possible money laundering activities.
Several former bankers also confirmed this suspicion to Eesti Ekspress.
The county court judgment came down to a question of public interest, the weekly adds.
"The court agreed with the prosecution that there was no public interest in disclosing the information, and that the only motive was to satiate curiosity," Eesti Ekspress stated.
Eesti Ekspress said that the ruling followed the precedent of a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment from 2004, relating to photos taken by a paparazzo, of Caroline, Princess of Hanover, eldest daughter of Prince Rainier of Monaco, which the ECHR ruled infringed human rights.
Sulve Vedler wrote in Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian) that public prosecutor Sigrid Nurm had sought an even heftier fine, of €3,200 for each party, on the grounds that the prosecutor's office had not granted him, Tarmo Vahter, or Ekspress Meedia, permission to publish information on pre-trial proceedings, while the journalists had not informed the prosecutor's office of the content of the article in advance either, Nurm said.
Such permission was not a requirement, however, Vedler wrote. "Hitherto, the principle has prevailed in Estonia that speech is free and that published information must be truthful. The journalist and the publication did not need to ask anyone for permission to broadcast important news to the public."
County court judge Möldre argued that, whilst the press code of ethics states that the media is required to monitor closely the wielding of power, both political and economic, this principle is trumped by a section in the code of criminal procedure which bars the publication of criminal case file materials without the permission of the prosecutor's office.
Eesti Ekspress editor-in-chief: Fining journalists sets a dangerous precedent
Fining journalists in relation to their work sets a dangerous precedent, Eesti Ekspress Editor-in-Chief Merili Nikkolo says.
Nikkolo wrote that (link in Estonian): "This sends out a message that the prosecutor's office's permission must be sought in writing articles, or at least that they should be kept informed, to enable them to choose which topics are of important public interest and which not."
"Such a principle is not in line with press freedoms," Nikkolo added.
"I must stress that the question does not related to the facts of the story. Everything was right and correct in the article; the journalists are being fined for doing their job well," Nikkolo said, adding that she did not find the argument that the article was simply published to satisfy a curious public was not overly compelling.
The question now reasonably arises as to whether the prosecutor's permission must be sought in all such cases, or whether a fine should be expected if not.
Nikkolo has an apparent ally in former President Kersti Kaljulaid, who said that while the county court has the right to offer its legal assessment of a case, suspicion of money laundering by one of Estonia's largest banks is clearly in the public interest.
Kaljulaid tweeted, linking to the Eesti Ekspress piece, that: "Interest in such topics is by no means confined to media and economic publications. It goes without saying that a free press in principle cannot solely publish that information which has been pre-agreed involving all the parties. This would constitute something other than journalism. This is unfortunate news following yesterday's Press Freedom Day."
Kaljulaid was referring to the announcement on Tuesday that Estonia had risen back to fourth place in the World Press Freedom Index rankings published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) , the country's joint-highest position ever and behind only Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
A major money laundering scandal reported from 2019 onwards led to the closure of Estonia's branch of Danske Bank, while a Swedish TV report in the same year linked Swedbank to the case; the bank was fined 4 billion Swedish kronor, or approximately €360 million, in its home country in March 2020.
Eesti Ekspress is part of the Ekspress Meedia group, which also operates weekly Maaleht, daily Eesti Päevaleht, portal Delfi and other publications.
The rival Postimees Group publishes the daily of the same name and its regional variants, radio station Raadio Kuku, TV channel Kanal 2 and other publications.
Harju County Court is on the third tier of Estonia's court system, with the two circuit courts occupying the second tier and the Supreme Court in Tartu being on the most senior rung.
Editor: Andrew Whyte