The Ministry of Culture wants to regulate the order in which cable and digital television providers need to present channels. The ministry also wants operators to seek a permit before a channel can be aired in Estonia.
Estonia adopted the European Union's television services directive last year. Because compliance with a part of it was voluntary, provisions according to which operators need to highlight certain channels in their electronic channel and program guides did not make it to Estonian legislation. Andres Jõesaar, media adviser for the ministry, now said that this was a mistake.
"If we take [ERR's] ETV+ that is listed as channel 97 in some cable operators' lists, it could be seventh instead. So that people would not have to endlessly flip through channels to get to it, to have Estonian programs up top in those menus," Jõesaar said.
The legislative intent prescribes highlighting general interest channels.
"We are talking about channels aimed at a broader audience," the expert said, adding that while hunting and fishing channels are narrowly specialized, Estonian ETV2 or TV3 can be described as general interest.
But the ministry highlights another reason for amending existing legislation.
"It helps ensure that quality media channels are highlighted as opposed to channels there are no grounds to ban but that might still negatively impact viewer mentality toward Estonia and the EU and contribute to social rifts," the ministry said. Jõesaar confirmed that this is one of the amendment's aims. "It would not have been included otherwise," he said.
Ministry: Up to a fifth of Estonians have not found general interest channels
But the legislative intent document includes no guidelines for recognizing channels that cannot be banned but that might split society.
"This will be up to the service provider to decide," Jõesaar said. "Estonia will not be drawing up a list of suitable channels."
The potential regulation would also not define which channels are aimed at a broader audience and should make the top and which channels are specific and should take a back seat.
The document, published last week, suggests that 5-20 percent of Estonian residents have not independently found the channels the amendment would highlight. Jõesaar suggested that we can only guess at what these predominantly Russian-speaking people are watching.
Jõesaar said that the ministry only wants the rules to apply to digital TV and channel guides. Printed TV guides will not be affected.
Only channels with a permit to be shown
The ministry also wants stricter regulation for which television channels can even be shown in Estonia. Two mechanisms are currently used. First, the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) can order operators to pull channels that violate the Media Services Act.
For example, the agency decided on February 25 that channels which aired Russian leader Vladimir Putin's war speech can no longer be shown in Estonia. RBK joined NTV Mir and RTR Planeta on that list a few weeks later.
But Andres Jõesaar said that such a case-by-case approach is arduous.
"It does not allow us to address systemic risks," he said, adding that detecting violations requires lengthy program analysis and that sanctions only apply to serial violators. "And the whole process is very slow," the ministry representative remarked.
When banning RBK, the TTJA highlighted both Putin's speech and Sergey Lavrov's press conference, also describing the chauvinist expressions used by the latter. Some channels are banned based on international sanctions.
"But sanctions will run their course at some point, and there is no sense in extending sanctions if countries have levers with which to stop certain channels from being shown."
The Ministry of Culture now wants to give Estonia such a mechanism. If the initiative becomes law, every television channel will need a permit to be shown in Estonia. It is enough for a channel to have such a permit from another country today.
"For example, Latvia had such a law before. It allowed the country to react much more decisively and shut down a host of Russian channels," Jõesaar said.
He said that decisions which channels to allow and which to block would be made by the TTJA, as well as the rules based on which the calls are made.
"I believe it will be a rather complex system that will see the TTJA consult security agencies as it needs information that may not be publicly available, such as regarding ownership etc."
Circumventing regulations still possible
Jõesaar admitted that the long arm of the law still does not reach everywhere. After Russian networks disappeared from the official television market, several unofficial service providers surfaced.
To give a simplified explanation, people simply hook their TVs up to a digital box that allows them to watch Russian and Belarusian channels over the internet. No one knows how many users such so-called IPTV solutions have in Estonia.
"There is nothing we can do about it, and we would be very grateful if someone could come up with a solution," Jõesaar admitted.
Latvia tried to ban the IP-addresses these devices used. "But such blocks can be bypassed just as easily," Jõesaar said. "We have consulted experts, and there simply isn't a good way to combat such possibilities now."
The ministry official said that VPN services are offered by global giants who are difficult to sanction.
"There is no way for the Ministry of Culture to order VPN service providers outside Estonia or Europe to do something," he said.
Hotel TVs to be regulated
But the ministry plans to go after accommodation service providers making use of such solutions.
"Check into a hotel and try to tune in to banned channels in your room when visiting certain parts of Estonia," Jõesaar said.
The Ministry of Culture has received several reports of such accommodation providers. In addition to IPTV solutions, companies also use satellite dishes, while simple aerials are enough to catch Russian networks close to the border.
The ministry has turned to the Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association and major Ida-Viru County service providers, while the current law only allows it to wag its finger. Every company can decide which channels it wants to offer customers.
The ministry's legislative intent would give the TTJA powers to order accommodation providers or other public places to stop showing certain channels.
Editor: Marcus Turovski