Justice minister: Legal order requires same protection as press freedom

Lea Danilson-Järg.
Lea Danilson-Järg. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

New Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) tells ERR in an interview that protecting legal order must not be overlooked when seeking to safeguard press freedom. Who has made mistakes in interfering with the work of others is up to the courts to decide.

Why did you decide to accept the post of minister?

It came as an intriguing proposal and I believe it will be a very interesting addition to my recent career. I have headed [a ministry's] population and family policy department, participated in legislative drafting and can now directly participate in legislative policy at the Ministry of Justice.

What worries you in the field?

Because population topics have always been close to my heart and what I have mostly been working on, I've felt that demographic analysis has been light or lacking altogether in draft legislation. As many laws impact demographic processes, considering these effects is surely important.

One idea I have and that I discussed with ministry officials today (Tuesday - ed.) is how to improve effects analysis, including the demographic aspect therein. We agreed to analyze the problem and look for solutions.

You were not deterred by your lack of political experience?

While it would be better to accept a ministerial assignment as a politician, I have seen politics and the work of a minister up close from the time I headed the population and family policy department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs under Minister of Population Riina Solman. We worked very closely together as the field needed to be developed from scratch.

I have defended bills in the cabinet and it is nothing new. I also know the government's tools, different information systems and so-called procedural meeting systems, as well as the organization of work. I will need to learn fast in terms of being a politician. I have not been one before, while I believe it is something I can work on.

I'm sure you realize that even though your position is one of great responsibility and significance, time for ministerial work will be short in this government. Did your decision sport a longer temporal horizon than just until the spring elections? Do you plan to tie yourself to politics for the long term?

Difficult to say. Right now, I am working on what I have undertaken as justice minister in the current cabinet. I would not speculate as to what the future will bring and will take it one step at a time. Everything will be revealed in due time. I am concentrating on running the ministry today.

Does helping the party by running in the elections from the position of minister make sense to you? Have you made the decision?

I have not decided yet, even though we have discussed it in the party. These calls will be made once the elections are nearer.

What is your most important task from Isamaa as minister?

The most important tasks are those the three partners have agreed on in the coalition agreement. The latter includes its fair share of changes that will need to be coordinated by the justice ministry. We can help streamline the passing of these bills and make sure they are of high quality.

That is our first priority. But I have already taken the time to bring myself up to speed on the ministry's existing topics.

The coalition agreement prioritizes the family benefits bill. Where will it go from here?

Because it is the field of the Ministry of Social Affairs, they will be working on the bill. We can have our say once the social ministry has tabled the draft legislation and sent it our for coordination. Because people who used to work for me at the interior ministry are also working on the bill, I will keep in touch with them in the course of work. But the Ministry of Social Affairs has the lead.

Is the family benefits bill one where you see the need for a thorough demographic analysis?

Undoubtedly. Demographic aspects were highlighted during [coalition] negotiations. The creation of the large families benefit in 2017 has contributed to families having more third children. There has already been positive effect. Hiking that benefit is sure to add another positive impulse. Effects analysis is necessary, and I presume these factors and arguments will be included in the bill.

How would you describe your worldview?

Because I am an Isamaa minister, it makes sense that I sport a conservative worldview. My views largely coincide with Isamaa's priorities at the heart of which is the survival of the Estonian people, language and culture as provided by our Constitution.

Your coalition partner and colleague, Minister of Internal Affairs Lauri Läänemets (SDE) recently wrote the following on social media. "Officials are there to help and support people, find solutions, as opposed to regulating which surnames people can or cannot take." He is probably referring to giving same-sex couples the right to have the same last name. Where might you stand on this issue?

The coalition has agreed on no such change. It is clear that the government will not be addressing matters the three partners were unable to agree on.

All three [parties] have different views in different areas. I cannot tell you where I would stand were such a bill introduced. We would have to discuss it in the party.

So far, the position has been in line with the previous amendments to the Names Act that does not allow same-sex couples to take the same name.

How would you comment on the prosecution's falling our with the press?

I want to say first off that having worked in journalism, I value press freedom greatly. It is very important. On the other hand, I also understand the prosecution's concerns. It would be a tragedy if investigations came to a halt and people who deserve to be held responsible would escape punishment due to the disclosure of circumstances or facts. We need to try and find common ground and, in some cases, leave it up to the court to decide whether publishing certain information is justified or would get in the way of the investigation. It is up to the courts.

Should the prosecution also take a look in the mirror in terms of how and why such information reaches the press? Perhaps they should address these potential leaks instead of accusing the press of doing its job?

I would refrain from passing judgment. The matter is complicated enough and I believe courts need to decide who was in the right and who could have done better.

What effect punishing journalists for publishing such information could have on freedom of the press?

If the punishment is justified, I'm sure the court will be able to give a good enough explanation for everyone to understand that perhaps journalistic freedom was misused and the investigation hindered. For example, that the information could have been published at a later time etc. But every case needs to be seen separately. There is no universal solution. Press freedoms must be retained and I believe they will be after this case. (The Office of the Prosecutor General recently fined Eesti Ekspress and two of its journalists for publishing case information during the preliminary investigation phase that led to a public debate about media freedoms. The fines were later overturned - ed.)

You perceive no danger for journalistic freedom?

I perceive no danger. Things are great in press freedom terms in Estonia. Journalists are free to pursue all sorts of topics. And even if such disputes surface, I believe journalists will not be intimidated. Everything has been quite calm in the grand scheme of things.

Your fellow Isamaa member, former justice minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu has said that once the press feels its freedoms have been restricted, the problem has already been created.

It is important to cover all topics in the media, including press freedoms of course, while we must also honor court judgments. And if it seems legislation needs to be amended when court decisions seem unfair, that too must be discussed. And it can also be discussed in the media to finally arrive at different regulation.

But just as press freedom requires protecting, so does our legal order, so that those who have committed crimes would not go unpunished because information has come to light at the wrong time or because of false information. That is also crucial. Our security is important.

One of the goals mentioned in the coalition agreement is keeping society as open as possible and services available in the conditions of the coronavirus. In truth, no one knows what's coming this fall. It is clear that there will be a new wave, while no one knows how severe it will be. What legislative changes should be introduced concerning restrictions in such an uncertain situation?

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) has also suggested she believes society would not stand for such extensive restrictions again. Therefore, it seems to me no government partner wants to order wide-ranging limitations. I cannot say whether any legislative changes are in order, perhaps it requires additional analysis and debate. I believe it will depend on the situation as we do not know what it will be come autumn.

But based on the situation and the current attitudes of sides to the government, the will to order restrictions might be more decisive than what we have on the level of legislation. The latter can be adjusted if needed, but it requires additional analysis.

The matter of restoring judges' special pensions cropped up during the previous government's time. Do you agree with your predecessor Maris Lauri in that special pensions should not be restored?

Opinions differ. We have not discussed it in the ministry or the party. I would not give you a final answer at this time, but it will come up again, at which time I will be able to comment.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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