The recent fining of two journalists and their employer over an article about alleged money laundering by former management employees of major lender Swedbank is a positive thing, justice minister Maris Lauri (Reform) says, as it opens up debate on what the media can and cannot cover.
The media should not negatively impact on pre-trial legal proceedings, Lauri added, following news that the two journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, and the publisher of investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress, are being fined €1,000 each for the March 25 article, which named the managers suspected of money laundering during their time at Swedbank.
Speaking to ERR, Lauri said that there should not be a situation in Estonia where one group of people exist outside the legal system.
She said: "We can never, not under any circumstances, claim and create a situation in which some people are a priori immune from prosecution, or where their actions, potential mistakes, misdemeanor proceedings, are not investigated. This must be; it is in our constitution."
When questioned as to whether it would be reasonable for the media to consistently have to ask the prosecutor's office for permission to publish, Lauri answered that all must abide by the law.
"We have certain principles and basic principles within our legislation, and these basic principles must be adhered to. Every individual must follow this in their actions, and it is arguable that where one will think this has been observed, the other will think that it has not. It is the court's job to assess whether these have been resolved or not," Lauri went on.
In cases where a journalist is themselves the witness to a crime, in Lauri's estimation, permission need not be sought before covering the story.
"Certainly in a situation which has been witnessed, which has been heard [by the journalist], there is no point of contention here. You can always write in these cases and noone can instruct you."
"The question always comes back to this – when we have investigations, pre-trial proceedings, whose ensuing information arising from these activities, were it to become public, would it harm the investigation or not," Lauri added.
"In my opinion, you would create a very uncomfortable situation for yourself if, say, a person has been killed and you are aware of some information, which upon airing it leads to, for instance, the criminal concealing evidence as a result," the minister went on.
"I think you would feel very uncomfortable internally when we say there is a person killed and some information, you know it, you let it out and as a result, for example, the criminal is able to conceal the evidence.
"This is before said evidence is in hand. As a result of this, the criminal cannot be prosecuted. Where these boundaries lie and in what situations is a point of controversy, but there are those cases where journalists must also consider what is right and what may not always be right. Every person has to think," Lauri continued.
As an example, part of the question, Lauri said, on whether the media may publish information without seeking the permission of the prosecutor's office, hinges on the sources of the information.
"This depends on the circumstances, precisely where the information came from and why it was obtained. Maybe someone leaked it, perhaps someone is being malicious in order to mess up the investigation."
"Journalists also need to consider that if a crime has been committed, the perpetrator can be punished. I think such considerations arise in different situations for everyone. What I'm doing now - is this, what I'm doing, the right thing? Am I contributing to doing the right thing or am I contributing to something I don't really want to contribute to, but out of ignorance, accidentally, or sometimes by my own stupidity? This is always a place for consideration, and I understand that there are often points of contention in the areas of consideration. People have different perceptions," the minister went on.
"People always have to consider the where and how. Of course, if an individual, a lawyer say, takes things in hand and talks publicly and puts some information on a Facebook post, that's what the lawyer does. And if they break the law, then that is also something they would take responsibility for. This is because everyone must come to understand their place within the legal system."
As to her general assessment of the Estonian media's activities, Lauri said these were very fine, while adding that the media also makes mistakes.
"I also know from my own analysis of the economic situation, where things can slide a little one way or another, that this has not been presented objectively. This happens to us all, and I believe that we learn from such things, perhaps things arising from ignorance, or by accident."
"It is my belief that noone should assume that they are infallible; not only single individual. I certainly don't assume that I am infallible.
Lauri called it a positive development that in the course of the fines issued to both journalists and to Eesti Ekspress things will be clarified in relation to the media and in the Estonian legal space.
"I fully understand that this ruling antagonizes the press and creates a lot of questions. However, perhaps it will be a very good thing when they go via the courts and this is disputed, then in future it will be clearer where the boundaries lie and where they should be," Lauri added.
The government and the Riigikogu between them have no plans to make Estonia a more closed society, she added.
"But there the boundaries lie somewhere. In order to protect an individual, and also to protect research. Where do these boundaries lie? It seems to me that they need to be clearly debated in society," Lauri said.
"When the courts make their ruling, it will become clearer in the course of the dispute where that court thinks the limit lies. Then there is the point where the Riigikogu must also assess whether this boundary is actually in that place where society wants it to be. You can then alter that limit, if need be."
Media reports on Wednesday revealed that the third-tier Harju County Court fined two Eesti Ekspress journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, €1,000 apiece over a March 25 article which alleged that former managers at Swedbank were under suspicion of money laundering.
Eesti Ekspress' parent company, Ekspress Meedia, was similarly fined.
The county court judge, Alari Mölder, argued that the information was harmful to the investigation.
Eesti Ekspress says it is appealing the decision.
Editor: Andrew Whyte