TTJA looking to regulate impartiality and validity of news programs

People watching
People watching "Aktuaalne kaamera" news. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia's Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) wants to include in legislation an obligation for media service providers to express valid and impartial positions in news programs, Helen Rohtla, the watchdog's information society service, told ERR.

Why is it necessary to control the content of channels allowed to access the media market?

The law already prescribes license supervision when we're talking about Estonian media services providers. Talking about foreign channels that wish to be available to Estonian media consumers, there is no measure of provisional control right now.

Media service providers are obligated to make sure channels they carry are not in violation of EU or UN sanctions and drop them if they are.

Latvia and Lithuania have adopted a system where affiliation of real beneficiaries is checked before a channel is issued a license. Whether they are associated with a country's special services or whether the channel is subject to sanctions.

Things are clear enough when it comes to sanctions. But why are you looking to consult the Internal Security Service (ISS) when issuing channel licenses in Estonia? The ISS will never explain their decisions to the public.

The decision of whether to issue the license or not will be made by the TTJA. But we can consider feedback from other sides and possible risks they perceive. But those risks will have to be justified and well-weighed.

Even if the ISS cannot reveal all of its information, it will have to be available to us at least. We are talking about the media, restrictions to which must be very thoroughly justified. No such decision can be made lightly.

It does not look good when security services will be deciding which television channels can be included in service providers' network bundles and which cannot.

I will say again that the decisions will not be made by the security services but rather by the media regulator. We have the possibility of consulting other agencies, sourcing their opinion. But the decision based on those opinions will still be made by the media watchdog. /.../

Can you honestly imagine a situation where the ISS advises against licensing a particular channel in Estonia but the TTJA still does it?

Every decision needs to be justified. Any suspected risks will also need to be reasoned. This applies to all agencies involved in the process to avoid making decisions based on gut feeling and so-called media muzzling.

The problem is that some entrepreneurs are currently misusing the media label. Their purposes might have nothing to do with presenting versatile and trustworthy information to spark constructive public debate. It can be personal or political gain, pursuing a particular agenda. The media freedom label can be used to pursue other kinds of activities.

The TTJA has proposed including in legislation an obligation for media service providers to express valid and impartial positions in news programs. How would you be supervising that?

It follows the existing EU cross-border television directive. Similar regulation is in place in the U.K. and Latvia for example.

The idea behind the provision is to impose self-discipline on media services providers for information in news programs to really be balanced and impartial. It cannot only serve a single side's obvious interests.

We are asking market participants and other agencies for their feedback and thoughts. For now, we have proposed it on the level of an idea.

We need to consider how to exercise control, whether this idea seems sensible in our legal environment and can be included in our media legislation. And what should be the control mechanism and possible consequences of violations should it be legalized.

There is nothing simpler than just renaming a news program as something else. There are brilliant examples of pseudo-journalism in Estonia, which those behind it call investigative. In truth, this amounts to nothing more than just publishing one side's opinion. There are so many ways to circumvent this.

Our proposal narrowly concerns news programs aired at a set time in the evening or as short news during the day. But I do understand your concern and that the subject matter is wider.

It is another thing we can discuss, whether to limit ourselves to news programs or other programming as well. The principle itself is reflected in the journalistic code of ethics, meaning that the activity must be impartial and balanced to begin with.

Let us presume EKRE or the Social Democrats want to launch their own TV channel that also features news. It is clear in both cases that things would be covered from the point of view of particular ideologies. And it would only be natural. How would you resolve such a situation?

I believe it is possible to disseminate objective information through one's own ideological point of view.

There are no plans to prohibit someone's point of view from being expressed in news programs. The important thing is to give the other side the chance to weigh in.

Let us leave traditional television aside for a moment. The internet is chock full of various programs disseminating one-sided views.

We are no longer just thinking about traditional television concerning planned amendments to the Media Services Act. The concept of audiovisual media services has expanded considerably and includes so-called online television behind which there is considerable written journalism.

If a media outlet uses a web platform and has both written and video content, the Media Services Act can be applied as concerns the latter.

The Objektiiv portal is perhaps the best-known example in Estonia. How would the Media Services Act be applied in its case?

We do not have the implementing principles today. Nor has it been decided whether these changes would apply to all content or just news. All of it is still open to discussion.

Comparing the situation in Estonia and Latvia, which exercises stricter control?

The approaches have been different. Estonia has not taken protective or preventive measures very seriously so far. We have rather concentrated on mitigating consequences.

Our neighbors to the south have given more thought to preventing problems. Perhaps we should emulate them in this.

Therefore, it seems to you that the situation is better in Latvia?

Latvia's legal framework makes it possible for them to take more preventive measures.

The Latvian counterpart of the TTJA employs a lot more people. Executing what you're after will require more staff.

It may result in the media regulator requiring additional resources. But I would point out that the bill is also aimed at making it easier for local media entrepreneurs to operate flexibly, for example, by simplifying the issuing of radio licenses and the use of temporary media permits.

But once the changes materialize in legislation, at least in part, the additional administrative burden for the public sector and businesses needs to be considered.

Where to find the additional staff? We do not have too many capable experts in the field.

Naturally we must also look at where we can find people with relevant skills.

Looking at your proposals, I would say more than a few in Estonia will suggest that you want to start restricting media freedoms.

Thoughts and suspicions need to be discussed. And if there are aspects that cross the line, aim to limit media freedom, such proposals will not make the law. There are various control mechanisms that also look at whether the text of the bill is constitutional.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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