Prime minister: Press must be able to work freely

Kaja Kallas.
Kaja Kallas. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

Fines imposed on two journalists and their employer, Eesti Ekspress, are positive in the sense that the issue can now be examined in the courts, though the press must be able to work unhindered, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) says.

Kallas made her remarks following news that two journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, have been fined €1,000 each for disclosing pre-trial information concerning former managers at Swedbank, namely that they are under suspicion of money laundering.

Speaking at the regular Thursday government press conference, Kallas said that: "Estonia is a state governed by the rule of law, while we also have separation of powers. There is no role for the executive to criticize any other power, the judiciary. We have not commented on court rulings before and will not comment in the future," Kallas said at the government press conference.

"I am of the opinion that, naturally, there is an overriding public interest in covering money laundering investigations, and the media has certainly done a very thorough and good job in this regard," said Kallas.

"I think it's a good thing that these boundaries on freedom and responsibility are being debated in the court, to see where they will run. It is certainly important to ensure that the media have maximum freedom to do their job. Journalists must be free in their decisions and actions," added Kallas. "We are proud of our place in the press freedoms ranking, at fourth on the list; this is important and I hope we can keep that place."

President Alaris Karis echoed Kallas' position in a comment to ERR.

"Frees speech as one of the bearing pillars of a free society matters a great deal to me. I trust the Estonian press and judicial system, and I hope the next court instances will discuss and clarify the limits currently in question," Karis told the public broadcaster.

President Alar Karis. Source: ERR

Center leader says limits should be determined by court

Chairman of the coalition Center Party Jüri Ratas said that the limits of journalistic freedom need to be found in court. "The role of the press in shedding light on life in Estonia and bringing information and various processes to the public's attention is something we need to protect," Ratas said.

"Eesti Ekspress brought an important suspicion to light in the case of Swedbank. Covering money laundering cases is important and necessary. Estonia has rule of law, and our criminal procedure presumption of innocence. We also have a three-tier court system where these limits can be determined," Ratas said.

Jüri Ratas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

SDE question justice minister

Opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) drew up an interpolation for justice minister Maris Lauri (Reform) over the court's ruling, with party leader Lauri Läänemets saying there are legitimate questions regarding press freedoms in Estonia

"In this case, it is not clear what good the prosecutor's office defended, especially in the context where the prosecutor's office has left to the media cases with much weaker cause for suspicion that have not been proven later," Läänemets said.

The justice minister must state whether they see any need for legislative changes, in order to head off such cases in future, and must assess what impact the precedent will have on press freedoms.

"If serious and societal money laundering investigations are treated with curiosity by an independent body in your jurisdiction, do you see a need for better regulation of such issues?" the interpolation asked, referring to the prosecutor's office.

"Do you consider it necessary to find a solution to this problem? Do you consider it important to balance the independence of the prosecution with the obligation to appear before a special parliamentary committee to explain its own decisions, if necessary?" the interpolation added.

Lauri herself had said that journalists bear as much responsibility for their actions as anyone else, and should consider these in relation to pending court cases and the effects disclosing some information can have.

The third-tier Harju County Court fined the two Eesti Ekspress journalists following a March 25 article which reported that former managers at Swedbank were suspects in a money laundering case, with judge Alari Mölder, arguing that the information was harmful to the investigation .

Eesti Ekspress says it is appealing the decision.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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