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Study: Freedom of speech perceived as biggest human rights concern in Estonia

People in Tallinn.
People in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A study commissioned by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights on what people perceive as the biggest problem in terms of human rights points to freedom of speech concerns.

Most people questioned found that the Estonian Constitution protects fundamental rights and that their overall situation in Estonia is good. However, there have been changes over the last decade in terms of which human rights people perceive as problematic.

In 2012, social equality was perceived as the biggest concern by 40 percent of respondents. Today, it comes in as the fourth most acute issue and is considered important by 15 percent of respondents.

Freedom of speech was highlighted as the biggest human rights concern this year by 25 percent of people questioned for a threefold increase compared to ten years ago.

Karmen Turk, a lawyer specializing in matters of human rights and free speech, said that the results suggest the environment in which people communicate is no longer under our control.

"It is under the control of international businesses. And I believe it is this lack of control that causes people to feel some anxiety even if their own free speech is not restricted, but they can see other people's Facebook accounts closed or their access to certain content blocked," Turk explained.

"I think it has to do with responsibility. People want to say whatever pops into their heads, while they don't want to take responsibility for their words. /.../ Now, if a new law is passed to hold you responsible for something you've said based on emotion, it may turn out that you've been undermining your own footing all along," said Aet Kukk, executive manager of the Estonian Institute of Human Rights.

Kukk was referring to the so-called hate speech legislation the Riigikogu is currently grappling with, and which the study also asked people about. Half of respondents who had familiarized themselves with the bill supported regulating hate speech using legislative means. But asked about a potential threat to freedom of speech, also around half of respondents perceived the incoming law as such.

"I'd say the public mood is somewhere in the middle. A case of I'd like to fly but not that high," Kukk remarked.

"People do not really pick up on things unless they concern them directly," the manager of the Human Rights Center added.

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Editor: Merili Nael, Marcus Turovski

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