In response to a critical appeal by Estonian private media leaders regarding ERR funding, Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) said that the mission of Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) is to provide a public necessity, i.e. essential information that people need to have a voice in society, adding this must be freely accessible to all.
ERR falls under the Ministry of Culture's remit.
According to Hartman, Estonia should strive to maintain a balanced dual media system in which public and private media work together to provide the best information field for society while ensuring access to diverse media.
"Estonian Public Broadcasting's mission is to provide a public good, i.e., essential information people need to be active members of society. It must be accessible to all and free of charge. The development of ERR has reflected the growth of the media sector in general, including the emergence of new platforms. In the case of ERR, all of these changes were made in consultation with the broadcasting council, which is made up of sectoral experts. The greatest acknowledgement of the ERR's work is the very high level of trust that society has in public broadcasting," Hartman said.
The minister added that it is clear that ERR's role is also changing, and that the Broadcasting Act, which governs the public broadcaster, is being revised accordingly.
"We have agreed with the incoming coalition to continue revising the ERR Act in order to clarify the role of ERR in the changing environment. Our aim is to review not only ERR's financing model, but also the board's composition and increase the proportion of independent experts. Also the need for ERR to have a modern and cost-effective physical workplace has not gone away," Hartman continued.
Hartman, referring to the private media houses in Estonia, said that they, too, play an essential role, and that the state has also backed them when necessary.
"For example, when Russian propaganda channels in Estonia disappeared following the invasion of Ukraine, it was critical to empower the Russian-language media channels in Estonia, in order to convey information and expand the local audience. The total amount of this support was €2.3 million for last year and this year combined. The state supported the production of publications also during the pandemic period," the minister went on.
Hartman pointed out that the Riigikogu amended the Value-Added-Tax Act in the spring of 2022, to cut the VAT rate on physical and electronic media publications from 9 percent to 5 percent, beginning August 1, 2022, in order to support the private media.
Appeal from private media leaders
On Wednesday, four leaders of Estonia's private media made an appeal to the incoming administration, claiming that funding ERR's expansion projects with taxpayer money stifles competition and undermines press freedoms.
ERR Board Chair: Private media criticism of ERR is a compliment to broadcaster's work
In response to the address as published on the website of daily Postimees, ERR's board chair, Erik Roose, said that the statement should be taken as a backhanded compliment about ERR's work, and also in effect a clutching at straws in the light of contradictory signals on how the private media sector is performing.
He said: "Certainly the contradictory signals from the private media have been causing some confusion, given the constant backdrop of reports about growth in digital subscriptions and record business results. We expect transparency and factual accuracy from the private media, to back up such statements.
On the other hand, Ekspress Grupp's reported revenues totaled €64.1 million in 2022, 20 percent compared up on year, while its net profit for the same 12 months was reported at €4.1 million all told.
Meanwhile the group reported digital revenue growth of 23 percent. As of the end of December last year, Ekspress Grupp's digital revenues accounted for 78 percent of the group's total turnover.
A more accurate comparison for a public broadcaster may be found with equivalent organizations in other European countries and by this metric, Roose added, ERR also performs well, not least because it is significantly underfunded in comparison.
"According to the annual report from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), compared with other public media organizations, ERR's budget, relative to GDP, has fallen significantly below the European average. Compared with, for example, the historic year of 1991 (when Estonia restored its independence-ed.), ERR's budget today is just a quarter of that."
Roose, whose CV includes long stints in the private media sector, clarified for the private media companies a falsehood contained in the original statement, that ERR was a "state media" broadcaster.
"ERR is a public media organization. One might assume that colleagues in other media houses make a distinction between public and state media, which we are ready to explain if necessary," he said.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include comments from ERR Board Chair Erik Roose.
Editor: Urmet Kook, Kristina Kersa, Andrew Whyte