Lawyers: Societal life need not grind to halt during criminal proceedings

Eesti Ekspress article by lawyers Oliver Nääs and Sander Potisepp. The headline reads:
Eesti Ekspress article by lawyers Oliver Nääs and Sander Potisepp. The headline reads: "Prosecutor versus journalism: Seems to be a matter of principle". Source: ERR

The most significant problem surrounding the controversial fining of two journalists with investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress is that the prosecutor's office has been unable so far to demonstrate how the journalists had significantly harmed the public interests of an ongoing money laundering investigation connected to Estonia's largest lender Swedbank, sworn attorneys Oliver Nääs and Sander Potisepp argue.

In an opinion piece which itself appeared in Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian), Nääs and Potisepp argue that: "There have been general discussions in the media to the effect that suddenly a planned search [by investigators] becomes meaningless or creates an incentive for an individual to give false testimony, without linking them to a specific case.

"There have been general discussions in the media that a planned search [by investigators] would potentially become meaningless, or that some people will get the incentive to give false statements without associating them with a specific case."

Without giving any explanation for their actions, it seems as if the prosecutor's office will on principle always have the say it what can and cannot be publicly reported regarding criminal proceedings, Nääs and Potisepp say – a situation which does not tally with a fully free press.

"The prosecutor's office should not have such a fundamental right, and this would not be in balance with freedom of the media," the pair wrote, adding that, unlike in the prosecutor's office viewpoint, social life will not grind to a halt and still and wait for the outcome, which usually takes years to arrive."

The two lawyers argued that connecting the precedent of a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling against paparazzi harassment of a member of a European Royal Family c to the one of the world's largest money laundering cases was also difficult to square, the lawyers added – referring to the county court ruling in Estonia which the fines arose from and which argued that there was insufficient public interest for the pre-trial proceedings to be made public.

"Inevitably, this raises the question of whether the prosecutor's office and the court examined the content of the decision at all before applying for and imposing a fine," the article stated.

Public prosecutor Maria Entsik said in an opinion piece for ERR last week  that journalists could be prosecuted (link in Estonian), which Nääs and Potisepp wrote, was also an interesting statement to have been made, as all those working with the investigation in the courts of their duties, including prosecutors, investigators, investigating magistrates, experts, consultants, etc. could also be responsible for disclosing the data of pre-trial proceedings.

"The fact that a journalist who does their daily work was not one of [the above] was disputed in the Supreme Court about ten years ago," the Nääs and Potisepp piece continued.

"It seems that the prosecution has taken a principled stance on this issue, and there seems to be more weapons in the arsenal than just a procedural fine to aimed at taming the press. "

As reported by ERR News, two Eesti Ekspress journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, were fined €1,000 apiece for publishing information regarding a suspect in the investigation into alleged money laundering activities on the part of former Swedbank managers.

Ekspress Meedia, Eesti Ekspress' parent company, was fined the same amount. The episode prompted push-back from both private and public media organizations in Estonia as well as from former president Kersti Kaljulaid.

It was also particularly poignant in that the news of the fines, issued in April, came just a day after Estonia re-attained fourth place on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom rankings, a position it last held around a decade ago.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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