Top court: Prosecution must give credible reasons for fining journalists

Supreme Court Criminal Review Chamber.
Supreme Court Criminal Review Chamber. Source: Ode Maria Punamäe/ERR

The Supreme Court agreed with the circuit court in that while Eesti Ekspress journalists Sulev Vedler and Tarmo Vahter and their employer Delfi Meedia AS did disclose criminal investigation details without permissions from the prosecution, fining them was not justified in this case.

The Office of the Prosecutor General asked Harju County Court to fine Sulev Vedler, Tarmo Vahter and their employer Delfi Meedia AS for publishing an article in the March 25 issue of Eesti Ekspress on an alleged money laundering investigation at Swedbank without the prosecution's permission. The article also included the names of suspects.

The first instance court fined the reporters and the owner of the publication €1,000 each, which decision was overturned by the Tallinn Circuit Court. The second tier court found that even though permission from the prosecution is required for publishing pretrial proceedings information, the fines were not justified as the article did not damage the investigation.

Witnesses free to talk

The Supreme Court's Criminal Review Chamber on Tuesday agreed with the circuit court's position, adding an explanation for when disclosing information requires permission and what merits a fine.

All three court tiers, as well as sides to proceedings, agreed that the Code of Criminal Procedure in principle makes it possible to fine journalists for disclosing proceedings materials without permission, based both on the phrasing and explanatory memo of the code. Such punishments are furthermore not in breach of the principles of free speech pursuant to European Court of Human Rights precedents.

However, the Supreme Court clarified that the prosecution cannot grant or withhold permission arbitrarily and must weigh the public's right to be informed against the need to solve the crime and protect the interests of people or companies the data concerns. Refusal to grant permission can be challenged in court.

"The requirement to seek permission does not apply to information people have obtained outside criminal proceedings – for example, when witnessing the crime. Fines can also not be imposed in cases where victims tell their loved ones about the crime after they have been questioned," the Supreme Court's judgment reads.

Eesti Ekspress journalists Sulev Vedler and Tarmo Vahter wrote on March 25 last year that the former board of Swedbank had been handed suspicions of money laundering. The publication said that the information was correct and that Swedbank notified the stock exchange of possible money laundering suspicions a day before the article was published. Several former bankers had told the paper Swedbank was a suspect.


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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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