Delfi chief satisfied with court decision but self-censorship a concern

Urmo Soonvald.
Urmo Soonvald. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Urmo Soonvald, editor-in-chief of portal Delfi and daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL), told ERR that he was satisfied with the Supreme Court of Estonia's ruling, that the fine imposed on two Eesti Ekspress journalists for publishing details about pretrial proceedings was not justified. In Soonvald's view, the ruling was thorough and made with careful consideration of the interests of the press.

"We think that the Supreme Court's decision is thorough. It very carefully considers everyone's interests, including (those of) the press, and we are satisfied with the decision," Soonvald said.

Previously, Estonia's Prosecutor General Andres Parmas said, that in his view, it is important for journalists to be able to agree with the prosecution about when it is or is not reasonable to publish pre-trial information.

According to Soonvald, the prosecution's request that it is asked for permission before the publication of details ahead of criminal trials is reasonable.

"We understand that in certain cases, the publication of pre-trial information requires the permission of the prosecution," Soonvald said.

"We hope to have a meeting with the prosecution in the near future, so that all the parties can consider (each other's) different interests and objectives, and that this could provide a basis for agreeing on some common 'rules of the game,'" he said.

The Supreme Court also noted that the law still leaves the possibility for journalists to be fined in cases where there is sufficient justification for doing so. According to Soonvald, it is perfectly understandable for journalists to also be aware that every action has consequences.

"I think that the Supreme Court's reasoning is understandable. Freedom of the press, like freedom of expression in general, is not an absolute right, and it is understandable that when exercising press freedom, other rights and freedoms must also be taken into account," he said.

Soonvald added, that when it comes to the subject of press freedom, the issue was far from black and white. "We are working to ensure that the press remains balanced and does not unduly infringe on the rights of others in (the process of) exercising its own rights," said Soonvald.

At the same time, Soonvald said, that it is important to ensure that the fear of being handed large fines does not lead the press to resort to excessive self-censorship.

"There is still a risk (that this will create) a certain degree of self-censorship, fear and excessive caution. These key words are theoretical, but I cannot fail to mention them," he said.

"Of course, we have to agree on the 'rules of the game,' which respect each other's work and allow all parties to do their jobs to a high standard. However, in doing so, the press cannot give up its identity and its role," Soonvald added.

According to Soonvald, there is no threat to press freedom in Estonia, but that also depends on the determination of journalists.

"Press freedom continues to be fine in Estonia. The press understands its role, as underlined by the Supreme Court. But, any debate of this kind can put a small dent in the courage and determination of journalists. I hope I am wrong," said Soonvald.

Samost: Prosecutor's Office has set precedent for curbing press freedom

Anvar Samost, head of news at ERR said, that if the court had sided with the Prosecutor's Office it would have been a serious blow to press freedom in Estonia.

"On the basis of this case, the Prosecutor's Office started to take steps toward creating the unprecedented right for itself to interfere in the activities of the press and restrict press freedom in Estonia. Their interpretation of the Code of Criminal Procedure would have meant journalists could not report independently on any criminal proceedings, or even discuss their coverage in the editorial office," Samost said.

Samost welcomed the Supreme Court's view, that freedom of the press is of great importance in situations where the activities and decisions of the state are beyond public scrutiny due to their confidential nature. He also agreed with Soonvald, that a conviction for publishing information considered confidential or secret could discourage journalists from reporting on issues, which are in the public interest.

Samost added, that the Supreme Court's assessment of whether the penalty imposed on the journalists by the prosecution was proportionate, was also an important issue.

"In this regard, the Supreme Court said very clearly, that the court must be satisfied that the penalty would not constitute a form of censorship aimed at discouraging the press from publishing criticism. Unfortunately, however, what happened gave the impression that the prosecution was seeking the latter result. Hopefully, they have now drawn (the right) conclusions from the Supreme Court's ruling," he said.

Samost added that, despite the favorable Supreme Court ruling, press freedom in Estonia has now been reduced slightly compared to before the case. However, he remains confident that journalists and editors will not be heading to the Prosecutor's Office to confirm their actions before publishing news stories any time soon.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Estonia ruled in agreement the circuit court, that even though Eesti Ekspress journalists Sulev Vedler and Tarmo Vahter and their employer Delfi Meedia AS did disclose criminal investigation details without permission from the prosecution, the imposition of a fine was not justified.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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