Fmr Press Council vice-chair: We should avoid commands and prohibitions

"Otse uudistemajast" with Toomas Mattson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Toomas Mattson, former vice-chair of the Estonian Press Council (Pressinõukogu), said on "Otse uudistemajast" webcast that Estonia should strive to avoid any legislation that potentially poses risks to democracy and free speech.

In recent weeks, a media scandal broke out in Latvia, causing many journalists and experts to question whether the country's freedom of expression is at risk.

The Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) fined TV Net €8,500 for an incorrect use of the word "deportation" by a guest on a Russian-language program. The topic of discussion was the fate of Russian citizens whose residence permits are not renewed because they failed the language test; the guest referred to this as "deportation" (in Russian: diportatsija). The NEPLP argued that the correct word to use in this case is not "deportation" but "expulsion" of Russian or Belarusian citizens to their country of nationality.

"This supervisory authority, in its lengthy decision, determined that the interviewee had used the term 'deportation' incorrectly, as in Latvia the term is synonymous with the 1940s crimes against humanity. The journalist and the media outlet were held responsible for not correcting the interviewee," Anvar Samost, head of news for ERR, summed it up.

Mattson said that the current situation in Latvia is extremely alarming. "Compared to this, Estonia is still in a very good place," he said.

"Fortunately, the kind of madness that seems to have broken out in Latvia is not happening in Estonia, and I sincerely hope that it never will. At the very least, I do not see any immediate signs that such a frenzy is ready to break out in Estonia. Our resilience seems to be stronger and our common sense more intact than often is the case on the Latvian side," he said.

Otse uudistemajast" with Toomas Mattson and Anvar Samost. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Mattson said that he could recall a few isolated cases in Estonia where an agency or official went rouge and began attacking the press.

"In the 1990s, a police chief attempted to seize the entire circulation of the daily Eesti Express after discovering a brothel advertisement in it. And in 2007, the Language Inspectorate (Keeleinspektsioon) issued an injunction against the daily Eesti Päevaleht: a notice that their website contains multiple misspellings was issued and as of the next day, they had been ordered to adhere to the government-approved standards for written language," Mattson recalled.

Samost said that the above-mentioned Latvian case is not the only instance in which the state has interfered with the press in Latvia, and that various penalties and injunctions have been imposed on members of parliament as well. Samost asked Mattson how Estonia should be responding to the situation in Latvia.

"We should keep a close eye on what is happening in Latvia and Lithuania so that, at the right moment, we could avoid the hysteria that has been unfolding there, both at the level of the authorities and in society as a result of it," Mattson said.

"As I see it, in Latvia, fining people for such unpatriotic language usage has not been met only with disapproval, but also with applause and a sentiment akin to: 'We have to put these scumbags in their place and show them who's boss!' If such attitudes are already permeating society through the leaders of government organizations or officials, the situation is already extremely dire," he said.

Mattson said that some signs of those trends could be seen in Estonian society as well.

"Otse uudistemajast" with Toomas Mattson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"I understand people's emotions about the war and the situation in Ukraine and elsewhere, but it's frightening to read influential people's columns or opinions stating something like, 'We must now expose these scumbags to the point where dust is flying!' Such moods spreads faster in a society where any way of thinking that does not conform to the official line is promptly repressed and labeled. This is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation," he said.

At times of crisis, there tends to be an attempt to push this type of attitude to its limit, he said. On the one hand, it is more convenient for the authorities to accomplish certain things when everything is continually framed as a crisis, but on the other hand, it brings out the darker aspects of society that are perhaps less prominent under normal circumstances. "The outcome can be extremely sad," he said.

Samost gave an example of the the spread of attitudes and policies from Latvia to Estonia. When Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine last year, attitudes towards the Kremlin's media channels in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had developed differently.

"Some of these channels had been regularly shut down in Latvia and Lithuania, whereas in Estonia it was assumed that people ought to be able to make their own decisions and understand whether they consume free press or propaganda. Latvia and Lithuania blocked access to Russian channels entirely, including online portals, on February 24 of last year, citing Kremlin propaganda, and Estonia followed suit almost immediately, albeit with clearer justification and less restrictions imposed," Samost recalled.

He pointed out that there have been cases in Latvia where people, who have found ways to watch Russian state channels at home have been tracked down and punished.

Mattson, who admitted to having recently watched some of those channels himself, said that it would be very harmful and dangerous for such trends to spread to Estonia. "I find it regrettable that we often have to give in to the herd instinct," he said.

"It's a two-way road. Many people have said that we are minimizing the impact of Russian propaganda here, but I believe that in order for people to be able to think independently, they have to be exposed to a variety of perspectives, whether they agree or disagree is irrelevant; we must have this opportunity," Mattson said.

"When shaping our decisions and attitudes, we should be able to place ourselves in the shoes of others, from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. In other words, we should be able to view a topic through the perspective of an American, Frenchman, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, etc. Then, many things will become clearer and we will be able to formulate our position in a way that is persuasive and straightforward for everyone to comprehend," Mattson said.

"Otse uudistemajast" with Toomas Mattson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Under the proposed legislation of the Ministry of Justice, an incitement to hatred based on religion, sexual orientation or gender could become a criminal offense.

Mattson said that the law will probably be passed in some form; if not, Brussels will penalize Estonia. He recalled that the European Framework Decision on hate speech went into effect in 2008, meaning that Estonia has had 15 years to drag its feet on the issue. Until now, he said, the issue has not been the subject of a heated discussion in Estonia.

"If it is possible not to regulate something, we should leave it unregulated and address the problem when it arises, in my opinion," Mattson said.

He said that it would be preferable if the adoption of the law could be even further delayed or if it could be adopted with a very limited wording, with the European Commission then being informed that this is Estonia's interpretation of the EU Framework Decision.

Mattson said Estonia and its government should not seek to appease Brussels at all costs; rather, "what we should do in society is prevent the proliferation of orders, prohibitions, regulations and sanctions."

"All of our efforts should be directed toward ensuring that society relies on agreements, negotiations and normal interaction," he said.


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Kristina Kersa

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