Lawyers: Media must remain vigilant when state starts drawing boundaries

Estonian newspapers.
Estonian newspapers. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The media must be vigilant in democracies in cases where the judiciary or the state begin to limit journalists' activities or threaten them with penalties, sworn attorneys Karmen Turk and Maarja Pild say.

Turk and Pild made there remarks to ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) in the wake of Thursday's news that two journalists at investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress have been fined €1,000 each in respect of an article which reported on an ongoing money laundering investigation into former managers at Swedbank.

Turk told AK that the prosecutor office's claim that the journalists published data on the proceedings purely out of a desire to satiate curiosity and not with the public interest in mind is not valid as an argument.

Turk said: "We are talking about Estonia's largest bank, and we are talking about a case which has affected Estonia's international reputation.

"We surely cannot be talking about curiosity here. I am afraid that this argument is simply not valid in this case on its own," she added.

Estonia does not have specific legislation relating to the media and to media freedoms, Turk added, meaning that: "Every time either the judiciary or the state tells reporters that here is the limit, the press must be vigilant, each time," Turk said.

The topic goes further than Estonia, Turk added.

"If you look a little further, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is ultimately the place where such things are under scrutiny. There are still very often attempts to distinguish between what this journalist did in the current case, and did they obtain info illegally, for instance by applying duress, theft or using dishonest methods or did they just happen on the information. In the latter case, the ECHR has said that the state cannot meddle. How is that going with us [in Estonia]? We have the position of current law stated exactly as it is [with the Eesti Ekspress case], so it is very good that this debate has now started."

Maarja Pild said that the prosecutor's demands concerning the publication of journalistic material raise many questions.

"This goes beyond the law. Should we have this worded in legislation at all? Should there be some guarantees for journalists? The question is also should it be permitted to fine a journalist, as a natural person (Estonian: Füüsiline isik), whatsoever? After all, a journalist carries out their job and this inevitably affects and inhibits freedom of expression when fines are imposed," Pild said.

"We also know from the media itself that at the moment the prosecutor's office had demanded the imposition of a maximum fine. Inevitably, such a demand from the prosecutor's office raises a lot of questions, and also about the freedom of the media, simply what happens next," said Pild.

State prosecutor Sigrid Nurm had sought a heftier fine than those imposed, of more than three times the amount eventually levied.

"If such fines are threatened, even if the journalist does not think about them on a daily basis, some stories may be missed out. It is really important for society; we do not want to reach that stage in Estonia," she added.

There are other means of sorting things out with journalists rather than the prosecutor's office, Pild added.

 "There is such a thing as the press council (Pressinõukogu); individuals have the right to go to court, including the press," she went on.

The courts still possess the jurisdiction to assess what is in the public interest and what is not, Pild said, but referred to a Supreme Court decision which stated that it is still the journalist themselves who serves the public interest, and intervention can only happen when there is no such public interest. 

"Positioning the public interest in this way is very important, because then we will not get to a country where the prosecutor's office or the courts say what is in the public interest," she said.

The Eesti Ekspress article published on March 25 while the fines, to Sulev Vedler and Tauno Vahter, were handed down on April 15. Ekspress Meedia, Eesti Ekspress' parent company, was also fined €1,000.

The prosecutor's argument, in addition to the public interest claim noted above, was not that what had been reported was defamatory or inaccurate, but rather that information disclosed regarding one of the defendants – the very fact of them being under investigation – would have the effect of harming the investigation, since that individual themselves had not been aware they were under investigation up until that point.

The news came just two days after press freedoms body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced Estonia now ranked fourth in the world for press freedoms, behind only three Nordic countries - Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Eesti Ekspress is appealing the ruling, handed down by the third-tier Harju County Court.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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