Ex-Postimees EIC: Decision not to publish Mihkelson story was collective
Marti Aavik, former editor-in-chief (EIC) of Estonian daily Postimees, said the paper had decided not to publish the story about the photo scandal involving Chair of the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson (Reform) at the beginning of the year, due to a lack of clarity about what had actually happened. Aavik also said the decision not to publish was not made by him alone, but a collective one made by the editorial board.
Georgi Beltadze, chief of Estonian-language news at Postimees, said on Friday, that paper's editorial staff had first become aware of the Mihkelson case in mid-December 2021, when Marti Aavik was still editor-in-chief. According to Beltadze, after initially beginning work on the story, staff were then banned from covering it.
Aavik told ERR, that the information had reached Postimees' editorial staff anonymously, via an email containing extracts from a court ruling in a child custody dispute, which had already been declared closed.
The paper's editorial office then contacted Marko Mihkelson and the mother of the children in the photos for comment. Postimees also reached out to lawyer Maria Mägi-Rohtmets, the representative of the children's father, who, according to Aavik, presented a very different account of the story to that of Mihkelson and the children's' mother.
According to Aavik, both Mihkelson and the children's mother said, that the complaint was part of a longer custody dispute and that the photographs in question were from a series taken of the children in a playhouse.
In contrast, Aavik said, the other party involved described the images as "horrific."
However, as the pictures had been deleted in accordance with the prior court ruling, no one at Postimees had the possibility to view them in order to establish which side of the story to believe.
"It was not possible to assess which version (of the story) was the most plausible," Aavik explained.
"Without having seen these pictures, we could not be convinced that we would be able to somehow draw conclusions of a higher quality than those reached by the police and the prosecutor's office," said Aavik.
Aavik also said, that Postimees was not the first media outlet to which the story was leaked, leading to the paper taking a cautious approach to publication at that time.
According to Aavik, the thinking was, that if other media outlets had decided not to report on the issue, and the police and prosecutor's office had not initiated any criminal proceedings, questions arose as to what more Postimees had to add.
Aavik also rubbished suggestions that a story like the one involving Mihkelson had to be published, to prevent a senior politician from being blackmailed.
"The material was known to the Estonian authorities. The risk of blackmail was questionable. The state authorities were aware of the Mihkelson issue," Aavik said.
Aavik explained, that the question of whether to go ahead with the story came down to considering any potential harm that could have been caused to those involved if the story was made public.
With journalistic ethics dictating that disputes related to child custody generally tend not to be reported, Aavik said, Postimees placed a great deal of emphasis on considering the interests of the children involved.
"We discussed it with all the journalists involved, and it was hard to see the benefit (of publishing the story). However, the (potential) damage was immediate and obvious," Aavik noted.
In addition to this, Maria Mägi-Rohtmets, the children's father's lawyer, was not prepared to go public at the time. "The question arose of whether we even had a story. My assessment was that we did not. It was a case of either adding flesh to the bones or leaving it unpublished. And other editorial offices in Estonia had also come to the same conclusion for quite similar reasons," said Aavik.
"Those to whom (the story) had not been leaked before, have received it in recent weeks and had to make made similar decisions. If the court has decided that there is no crime, and the police has too, as well as different specialists, then journalists have to ask themselves, what additional knowledge they have to go ahead and claim otherwise," Aavik said.
Aavik added that the Postimees editorial board's decision not to publish the story at the time was a collective one, and that nothing was left unpublished as a result of a personal decision made by him alone. "The implicit accusation that something was being swept under the carpet offends me greatly," Aavik said.
Asked whether he would leave Mihkelson's story unpublished even now, Aavik said, that it was difficult to say with certainty.
"In every new situation, everything has to be reconsidered. I am not in that role today, but the quality of the information must always be assessed (to determine) whether you can draw any conclusions," Aavik said.
"Reading these stories at the moment, I've become none the wiser (about what happened)," Aavik said. "Looking at the material, the only difference is that the name and face of children's father's lawyer is in the story."
On Thursday, Estonian media outlets Postimees and Eesti Päevalaht both reported that Marko Mihkelson, chair of the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee, had taken inappropriate pictures of a minor. According to Mihkelson, the incident is connected to a family dispute over the custody of children.
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Editor: Michael Cole