Feature: Estonian media landscape and freedom of the press over the years

2022 World Press Freedom Index map.
2022 World Press Freedom Index map. Source: Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Estonia ranked fourth out of 180 countries in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. While Estonia has consistently been close to the top of the RWB ranking, fourth place is the country's highest to date. ERR News discussed media freedom in Estonia with head of news for ERR Anvar Samost.

First, it should be noted that the information sector has radically changed over the years.

Free and independent journalism was thriving in Estonia in the 1920s-30s. But between 1945 and 1988, the USSR turned the media into a propaganda tool for the Communist party.

In 1988, what was then the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was the first country occupied by USSR to declare its sovereignty from Moscow. The media played a crucial role in the national liberation process. And when the Soviet Union finally recognized the independence of the Republic of Estonia in 1991, the information sector flourished.

What followed and became the norm was the takeover of media companies by foreign investors, especially Norwegian and Swedish. The trend continued into the 2000s and led to more intense competition between companies and through it the diversification of content and sources of information. But it did not last.

"In general, the Estonian media landscape is very diverse and competitive given the small size of the population, especially when compared to Latvia or Lithuania which are historically and culturally similar but have not have had the same kind of diversity, at least for the last twenty years," Anvar Samost said.

However, the issue of ownership concentration has been the main concern of Reporters Without Borders, warning about abuses all over the world regarding the problem of media ownership. And Estonia is no exception. The information sector is now dominated by two main owners: Ekspress Grupp and Postimees Grupp.

"Every small country and small market struggles with this challenge. It's inevitable. If you only have 1.3 million people, then I reckon you should consider the situation very good if you have three of four different publishers competing with each other. We have it, and that is the good news. The bad news is that we don't have much foreign ownership in media anymore, unlike twenty years ago, which I believe was very beneficial to Estonia and Latvia while it lasted. The fact that the two private publishing houses each virtually have a single private owner holds considerable risks and some of those risks have materialized in different ways," the journalist explained.

In March 2017, Postimees journalists accused the daily's owner of meddling with the editorial policy of the news outlet, denouncing pressure on their professional freedom.

"On the other hand, public service media is doing very well in Estonia compared to some other countries. So, there is a pretty satisfactory balance I would say."

Another distinctive feature about mass media in Estonia is the double audience. There are 320,000 Russian speakers in Estonia, and studies have showed that Estonia has two radically different information fields, one for the Estonian-speaking audience, and one for the Russian speakers. Nevertheless, according to the head of news for ERR, there is improvement.

"It is less and less true every year. The change has been especially dramatic since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. But it is true that approximately 100,000 Russian speakers in Estonia live in their own information bubble. Until the beginning of this year, this bubble was created by Kremlin-owned or originated TV channels, but many of them are not available anymore. And it is probable that the orientation of the audience has changed somehow. I am not sure if the size of the audience is the same, it's probably less and mostly older generations. Younger people tend to watch less television, and secondly their language skills are so much better that they are not confined merely to Russian language sources. This has been changing and we don't have a single outstanding publisher or media company left that is oriented at a sizeable segment of Russian speakers in Estonia."

Speaking about freedom of the press, Estonia gives its journalists extensive liberty. Only, it remains incomplete. Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed but is constrained by laws protecting against defamation and disclosure of private data. Regarding the first one, fear of libel suits can lead to self-censorship among journalists. Secondly, laws protecting private data have recently become a pretext for Estonian authorities to increasingly restrict media access to public information, according to RWB.

Anvar Samost highlights another issue. "The main challenges to media freedom and freedom of expression in Estonia come from certain court decisions. For example, there was recently a lower-tier court decision which basically put the whole criminal corpus process beyond the limits of journalists. I expected it to be overturned in other court instances, while we currently have a very strange situation where the Office of the Prosecutor General maintains they are the only ones who can decide what kind of information can be published about criminal proceedings in court. This is the main challenge right now."

But overall, freedom of the press is really good in Estonia. Political power is not hindering journalistic work and physical attacks towards journalists remain extremely rare. "What should also be mentioned, traditionally and historically, journalists have been unregulated in law. Which is very good because any kind of legal regulation of the press and journalists brings nothing but new restrictions," Samost concluded.

Many independent media outlets are also making their mark, especially on the internet. Online media has exploded in recent years. Indeed, 1.2 million Estonians use the internet for 91 percent of the population, and about 70 percent use it for information. Among young people, the figure rises to 100 percent according to Statistics Estonia. A 2016 Eurobarometer survey showed that 56 percent of the Estonian population used websites as their primary source of information.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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