Top judge: Media ban on pre-trial information could be revisited

Supreme Court Chief Justice Villu Kõve.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Villu Kõve. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A recent ruling which prohibts the publication of pre-trial court proceedings without prior permission of the prosecutor's office could be revisited, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve says.

Kõve made his remarks in the context of a recent case where two journalists with Eesti Ekspress, an investigative weekly, were fined for penning an article in which pre-trial information on hearings into alleged money laundering at Swedbank, including the suspect status of one of the former managers at the bank. While the fine, also levied on Eesti Ekspress itself, was overturned, a separate ruling required prosecutor's office permission ahead of disclosing pre-trial information.

Kõve told daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL), a sister publication of Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian), that: "This is a two-tiered question. One of these concerns the letter of the law, and the other is does that law have to be as it is?"

The provision at the center of the current disputes has been enshrined in law for a long time and, while there have been leaks concerning cases in the past, they have never been reacted to in this way until the first-tier court made its recent rulings.

"In that sense, I think it is positive that this issue has been raised. Maybe now it will be debated, the politicians are will take it up and it will be up to them to decide on the kind of legislation we want. Politicians may disagree right now, but maybe it depends on what the current position of politicians on criminal proceedings is," he went on.

Kõve also said that he did not have sufficient information to hand to take a firm position on the procedure for the unauthorized disclosure of the procedural materials of a specific case, though added that barring this should only be done as an exception rather than a rule.

"It is clear that such penalties or interventions to prohibit the publication of material should be justified only in very exceptional cases. For example, to protect human life or well-being," he added.  

News of the journalists' fining was reported in early May (relating an article published in March; the fines were issued in mid-April), just one day after Estonia was ranked fourth in the list of countries by press freedoms, as collated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a position it had last occupied around a decade earlier.

Earlier this month, the second-tier circuit court overturned the fines, of €1,000 apiece, but also ruled that prosecutor's office permission must be obtained before disclosing pre-trial information in the media. The principle argument for this was that doing so could harm a case if, for instance, an individual who was a suspect in a case was unaware of that status until finding it out via the media.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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