Judge who fined journalists: Law not very clear

A courtroom scene in Estonia.
A courtroom scene in Estonia. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Current Estonian law is not clear enough on the fining of journalists, says the county court judge who recently ruled to do just that.

Last month, third-tier Harju County Court judge Alari Möldre fined two journalists from investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress €1,000 each, in relation to information on a suspect in a money laundering case at Swedbank, Estonia's largest lender.

Möldre was on vacation when the story broke the week before last, and issued a written statement to ERR Monday, stating that another court ruling would help bring clarity to case law on the matter.

Möldre wrote: "I have explained my position in the contested regulation as a judge, and took into account the law in force in doing so."

"The law does not state unequivocally who can be fined specifically according to the paragraph [of the relevant law], but the law can be interpreted differently, and in case of disagreement, must be disputed in court," the judge went on.

"Additionally, there is no established case law on the issue. I have nothing to add to the views set out in the ruling at the moment. A judge is independent in their decision."

"Equally important is the right of all people to express their views, including on court decisions," Möldre added.

"However, both as a judge and as an ordinary person, I find the insulting statements and labeling deplorable," he continued.

Chair of the county court, Astrid Asi, said there was no single assessment as to whether the fine of the media was correct.

Asi said that in her opinion, it was a good thing that following the request of the prosecutor's office, it would be clear in the courts to whom § 214 of the Code of Criminal Procedure should apply.

 She said: "Section 214 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which has become well-known, has not been unequivocally assessed by the judiciary. Legislation is not so unambiguous in this respect that we could say with conviction and on the basis of past legal practice that only one solution is the sole one possible. It is not viable to take decisions of the Supreme Court with clear guidelines in this area, nor is the law unambiguous."

 As to the public interest aspect of the case, Asi said that: "Covering money laundering in the press is in the public interest. However, it must be made clear at what point in time it makes sense to publish investigative material so that all parties can do their job best. There is always a dispute between the public interest and the procedural interest. In this case, and in the future, a single red line will not be drawn."

Asi added that judges only understand the law according to their conscience also, which can lead to differences of interpretation.

The fines came in respect of a March 25 article which appeared in Eesti Eksrpess and which related to pre-trial information disclosure on one of several former Swedbank management at Swedbank who had come under suspicion of money laundering.

In addition to the two journalists, Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, Eesti Ekspress' parent company was also fined €1,000.

The news came just a day after Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced Estonia had risen to fourth place in its worldwide index of countries by press freedoms, behind only Norway, Denmark and Iceland.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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