An article in the media concerning an ongoing money laundering investigation which published without prior approval on the details being obtained from the prosecutor's office endangered the entire proceedings, Chief State Prosecutor Taavi Pern says.
The article in question, published by investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress on March 25 this year, alleged that former management at Swedbank in Estonia had been engaged in money laundering. The authors of the piece, along with Eesti Ekspress itself, were fined €1,000 each, on the grounds that the article was not in the public interest.
Pern says that it considers if wrong for the media to publish pre-trial procedures at its own discretion and focusing on its economic interests at the expense of all other considerations.
Pern told ERR Wednesday evening that: "It is particularly reprehensible when false information is published in the media."
The information being published concerning an on-going investigation could harm that investigation, Perm added, noting that this was particularly the case if the media jumped the gun in making it public that a person was under criminal suspicion ahead of that person being informed of that fact by the authorities.
He said: "Disclosing information about a person that significantly harms that person, in addition to disclosing information concerning the suspicion of a crime committed against him or her in a situation where the facts have not been verified and the contents of the suspicion can be heard via the press before giving evidence may irreversibly damage criminal proceedings"
Eesti Ekspress published information about the suspicion against one particular individual, before that suspicion had been presented to the individual themselves, Pern said.
"In this way, false information about them has appeared publicly and they have been treated as a suspect publicly, before this had been officially disclosed," Pern went on.
"Disclosing information about criminal proceedings without the approval of the prosecutor's office has therefore led to an error on the part of the journalist, the disclosure of incorrect information and possible damage to the proceedings."
Restricting pre-trial proceedings information to the media is not a practice peculiar to Estonia, Pern added, and falls within legislation of all those states which have signed all the human rights conventions in one form or another, in the interests of obtaining fair trials.
When the fact that criminal proceedings were going ahead was first made public in 2019, Pern went on, this was done with the fact of public interest in the fact of the proceedings in mind, while the additional and detailed information being in public interest was far more questionable and could lead to a situation where defendants could be presumed guilty until presumed innocent, rather than vice versa.
Harju County Court issued fines of €1,000 to two journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, as well as to Eesti Ekspress itself, in mid-April, following the article containing the Swedbank allegations appearing on March 25.
The fines themselves related to the public interest aspect of the story, rather than the veracity of the facts as reported.
Once the fines were reported in the media, on Wednesday, push-back ensued on the extent to which journalists had to seek permission from the prosecutor's office before running a story that was in the public interest.
This was rendered particularly poignant given that the news came just a day after Estonia reclaimed its position in fourth place in world press freedom rankings issued by Reporters Without Borders, a juxtaposition of events highlighted by former president Kersti Kaljulaid.
Editor: Andrew Whyte