Politicians divided on need to amend law concerning media freedoms

Eesti Ekspress logo.
Eesti Ekspress logo. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

Politicians are divided on two recent court rulings which have raised concerns over media freedoms in Estonia, with some saying that the legal code needs amending on the matter, and at least one other saying that the situation is fine as it is.

Marek Jürgenson (Center), chair of the Riigikogu's legal affairs committee of the Riigikogu belonging to the Center Party, would maintain the status quo.

He said: "I am convinced that in case of ongoing proceedings, journalists should have to ask the prosecutor's office for permission."

However, Heljo Pikhof (SDE), vice-chair of the same committee, said they would like to raise the issue and analyze options for a change in legislation.

Pikhof said: "On the one hand, freedom of the press must not be jeopardized, so that our journalists do not ignore one issue or another due to a fear of punishment. On the other hand, it must be guaranteed that the rights of persons subject to proceedings or involved in proceedings are protected, including with regard to the protection of personal data."

Minister of  Justice Maris Lauri (Reform) said she did not want to comment on the issue before the court ruling came into force, while Reform's Riigikogu whip, Mart Võrklaev, suggested that the party was open to discussion on legislative amendments.

Võrklaev said: "Our position is, first, that court decisions must be respected. Second, journalists must be able to do their job freely, and according to the rules."

"If the law needs to be changed, or amended or if something needs to be clarified, then we are ready to discuss and review that," he went on.

Journalists themselves say the two decisions – the first, by Harju County Court, which fined two journalists with investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress, as well as the publication itself, €1,000 each over the publication of pre-trial information relating to money laundering hearings into former Swedbank managers, and the second, from the Tallinn Circuit Court, which annulled the fines but stated that journalists had to obtain permission from the prosecutor's office before obtaining and publishing such information – have led to an oppressive situation for journalists in Estonia.

Former justice minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) says the problem has already presented if the press perceives its freedom as being restricted.  Reinsalu said amending the Criminal Procedure Act would be the best viable solution.

He said: "I would have some sympathy for this stance. I can see at present that a real problem exists in reality. It is not just a legal question, it is actually perceptible."

"If we are pushed by this particular case in the event of journalistic controversy, one where the press perceives that it is in some way subject to regulatory limits, which may not have been the intention of legislator regarding these laws then the so-called cognitive space of freedom must also be protected."

Priit Hõbemäe, new  editor-in-chief at daily Postimees, is one leading media figure who has said that the media in Estonia is under the cosh, noting that even what is said at a publication's daily editorial meeting falls under the purview of section 214 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

"Imagine an investigative editorial office, one which is considered to be the flagship of editorial offices, where that someone informed me of something along those lines. Then, if somewhere, some information arises from that procedural file, suddenly it transpires that there's a question whether fines should be imposed on 20 people at a time, or that they should be prosecuted in some other way. In any case, this is a very difficult situation."

Hõbemägi says he would prefer the case to reach the Supreme Court, in order to obtain clarity.

At the same time, this hinges on whether the prosecutor's office challenges the latest ruling.

One argument presented in favor of having to obtain permission before disclosing pre-trial information in a journalistic publication is that it could make a suspect in a case aware of their status as such ahead of actually having been formally informed of that.

News of the fines issued to the Eesti Ekspress journalists appeared in the media just one day after Estonia was ranked at fourth in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedoms list, its joint-highest position to date.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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