ERR ethics adviser: Mihkelson stories raise more questions than answer

Tarmu Tammerk.
Tarmu Tammerk. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Commenting on stories published in major Estonian papers Thursday regarding MP Marko Mihkelson (Reform), ERR ethics adviser Tarmu Tammerk said that they raised more questions than they answered, noting that the children's interests should have been top priority in this coverage in any case.

Dailies Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) both published stories on Thursday night according to which Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee chair and Reform MP Marko Mihkelson has had to provide statements to police regarding the taking of inappropriate pictures of a minor.

Police concluded that the photos in question did not constitute child pornography and did not launch proceedings, as they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. According to Mihkelson, the case is connected to a family and custody dispute.

Speaking to host Liisu Lass on ETV's "Terevisioon" morning program on Friday, Tammerk said that coverage of the matter thus far has been somewhat soap operatic, and raises questions regarding who took the pictures, in what context and whether the photos in question were such that they shouldn't exist.

Official investigators did not believe that the photos were such, the taking or possession of which should have been punished. Nonetheless, the dailies' stories hint that the photos in question were not considered ethically proper.

Tammerk highlighted the fact that this topic had been discussed among journalists for some time already, and the question for the editors-in-chief of the two papers is — why were these stories published now? What suddenly became time critical, due to which the topic could no longer wait? Thursday's stories did not make that much clear, he said.

The ethics adviser does find the argument cited by Postimees editor-in-chief Priit Hõbemägi credible that the public must know things about politicians that make them vulnerable to blackmail.

"If a politician has something resembling a skeleton [in their closet], then that can be discussed, but why now and how serious this story is in the context of Mihkelson's political career and international relations was not made clear in these stories," he explained.

Children's interests a rule of journalistic ethics

The most important principle in the coverage of topics involving children, however, which seems to have been sidelined in the current case, is the fact that children's interests need to be considered, Tammerk said.

"[The journalist] must consider whether children's interests will be harmed or not," the ethics adviser stressed. "This is a general rule of journalistic ethics."

The general principle stipulates that, as a rule, custody disputes between parents aren't covered in the media. The press will only cover them in situations where cases involve some sort of generalization — if it's part of a broader issue — in which case parties should be involved anonymously, without naming any of the adults or children involved. In that case, the publication of such topics can be considered.

"To take one case whose background is clearly a dispute between parents over a child — it seems that the aforementioned considerations were overlooked for these stories," he said. "These specific children's interests were not prioritized. That is a serious journalistic ethical issue in these stories."

Tammerk doesn't believe that the stories run by the two papers on Thursday make anyone feel like they'd been informed about something that had remained pending in court; instead, this is turning into a trial by media, which shouldn't be taking place.

"Do we really not trust the justice system, then, or the investigators who investigated this incident, or the decision made not to make this public?" he asked. "It also remains unclear what exactly the dispute was about."

Mihkelson should have gone step further in his statement

He did acknowledge, however, that one additional justification for publishing this incident was the fact that Mihkelson himself was thereafter forced to speak up on the matter, which he did.

"If we didn't also have his position here, then it could be said that this was a one-sided act of retaliation being organized by certain players," Tammerk said. "Nonetheless, neither these stories nor the comment to follow indicate whether their content is such that would force a politician to be put on public trial in the columns of the papers again following a court ruling."

The ethics adviser likewise emphasized again the need to take children into consideration in such situations. "When covering children in the news, what should always be posted on the wall and borne in mind is the banner 'Children's interests first and foremost, then consider everything else,'" he said.

Analyzing the explanation Mihkelson posted on social media on Thursday night, Tammerk found that if the politician was already going to make a public statement, he should have gone a step further and stated whether he himself did anything wrong. Mihkelson avoided doing so in his statement, however.

"He simply describes the incident as a case of retaliation or an opportunity to influence the court," the ethics adviser said. "But the human aspect — whether [he] had handled things the right way — goes unrecognized, because maybe he has done things due to which he's ended up in this mess."

According to Tammerk, it's difficult to say now what will become of Mihkelson and his political career.

"The fact is, it will be very difficult for him to continue in his current status simply due to the fact that he's ended up in such a mess," he said. "How much of his own fault or wrongdoing which he should have absolutely prevented is involved here is very difficult for us to say right now without, once again, knowing the exact content of this matter."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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