A plan by the Estonian state aimed at better integrating immigrants into Estonian society via the help of an English-language news portal has fallen through, prompting the Ministry of the Interior to demand up to one quarter of a €100,000 grant provided to the company which owned and set up the portal.
The portal, Eesti.life, was created in 2021 following a joint initiative by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture, to provide an online environment for English-language news about Estonia and relevant to new arrivals here.
The bulk of the €150,000 came from EU funding (around €100,000 in funding was actually paid to the beneficiary – ed.), while the interior ministry signed a contract with the tender winner, Ore Meedia OÜ, in December 2021.
At present, opening the portal's news section includes in second place on the list an article about the passing of Center Party co-founder Edgar Savisaar, who died in December 2022.
The "Easy uudised" section has more recent articles in simplified Estonian, for instance on the teacher's strike which ended last Tuesday, though the lack of publication dates and times as would be standard on a news site of any repute makes it difficult to distinguish between newer and older information.
Eesti.life also still carries a "latest from ERR News" widget, on which no communication was sent to ERR News itself.
The interior ministry is now demanding the original support funding given to Ore Media be returned in part.
Last Friday, February 2, the ministry addressed a letter to Ore Meedia, stating that according to the funding agreement, the company was required to create a media channel for migrants to Estonia which would result in them being better informed about current affairs in Estonia, to better understand the meaning of news in a local context, to understand Estonian society and culture more, and to get more involved in Estonian society.
However, the interior ministry concluded from a final report presented in February of last year that the recipient of the funding had not achieved adequate results, meaning the project's goal was unfulfilled.
The Interior Ministry stated that: "Taking into account that it is not viable to determine clearly the number of original news stories published within the web portal (many of the articles published by Eesti.life had already been published by the online magazine "Life in Estonia"), that no social media posts had been issued, that it is not possible to estimate any rise in the number of visitors to the media channel, that data on the share of migrants [using the site] is lacking, and that there is insufficient evidence on any meetings held with representatives of migrant organizations, the set objective has not been achieved to any significant degree."
The goal of rendering the significance and meaning of news in this context more comprehensible for migrants to Estonia was similarly unfulfilled, the ministry noted.
The Ministry of the Interior wrote that no documentation of meetings held with the representatives of the target groups and the feedback therefrom was present, while there is no evidence that comprehension of the news in Estonia had improved for the target group, hence the desired outcome not having been achieved, to any significant extent.
According to the interior ministry, the aim of improving migrants' understanding of Estonian society, culture and values had been partly achieved.
Since the beneficiary of the funding had not provided detailed information on this, however, and that articles on the portal have no publication date, it was hard for the ministry to determine whether the articles had been published during the project's eligibility period, while there was also no evidence of any communication with the target demographic.
In the opinion of the ministry, fostering a greater sense of community involvement had largely not been achieved by the project.
"Taking into account that no posts on the Eesti.life Facebook and Instagram accounts were available to the public as of the end of the project, and the beneficiary did not provide evidence of the discussions with immigrant organizations, this result has not been achieved in any meaningful way," the ministry stated.
In conclusion, the Interior Ministry found that the goal of the project could not be considered fulfilled, since three of the four expected outcomes have not been met to any significant extent, while the fourth has only been partly achieved.
Demanded refund comes to €25,000
Ore Meedia had been provided with the opportunity to submit objections to the identified shortcomings, and did so.
Ore Meedia proposed the Interior Ministry not reclaim any funding, as, according to the company, only four of the 17 expected aims had not been met.
In addition, Ore Meedia said, some of the planned activities had not been conducted as a result of a delay in signing the contract, too lengthy of a processing period with regard to the interim report, and as a result of an interim payment not having been transferred in full.
The implementation of the project had also been negatively impacted upon by the Russia-Ukraine war, Ore Meedia said. The company also submitted additional evidence concerning meetings held with the target groups.
However, after evaluating these circumstances and explanations, the ministry opted to demand the funding be part-returned.
At the start of this week, the interior ministry sent another letter to Ore Meedia, explaining once again the reasons for the requested part-refund of the support and pointed out that the charge that they had been unable to commence with the project for reasons caused by the ministry is unfounded, as in fact they had been able to receive the support from the date of the decision to grant it.
According to the ministry, Ore Meedia also had the option to abandon the use of the support funding if it no longer suited the dynamics of their company, yet they did not do so.
"To summarize, we would outline that while in your letter you repeatedly point to obstacles to the implementation of the project's activities, you never once expressed to the Interior Ministry, during the implementation of the activities, your desire to alter the grant agreement or to terminate it prematurely, and so to give up the further use of the grant /.../ Insofar as you did not do this, you retained the obligation to implement the project as agreed," the ministry statement went on.
Since it is not possible accurately to estimate the volume of damage, the ministry demands the maximum recovery rate possible, i.e. 25 percent of the original support.
According to the final report, the project's total costs of €101,251.47, minus some prior costs, giving the total final support cost of €98,810.47.
Of this sum, the Ministry of the Interior is demanding €24,700.37 back from Ore Meedia, who have been given 90 calendar days to make the payment.
Project delayed from the outset
ERR also asked the Ministry of Culture whether, in retrospect, the expectations set for the website had been unrealistic and given the above, the state will have to foot a bill of approximately €75,000.
Olga Sõtnik, head of the culture ministry's cultural diversity department, forwarded the joint response from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of the Interior, highlighting that the funding applicant had been given the opportunity to either develop a new online publication, supplement an existing one or cooperate with existing publications, while the benefactors themselves offered metrics and target levels to get a more accurate assessment of results.
Both ministries noted that: "Unfortunately, Ore Meedia had not been able to fulfill its obligations on receiving the funding. Delays during the project occurred, while the planned activities were then carried out on a much smaller scale than pledged. After checking the funding's utilization, the interior ministry came to the conclusion that, although the media channel had been created with migrants in mind, the goal of the project cannot be considered fully met."
The EU budget period which the funding came from ended on December 31, 2023. Sõtnik said the unused portion of the support will be returned to the European Commission, and the state co-financing portion to the Estonian state budget.
At the time the website was created, the Culture Ministry justified the need for it on the grounds that immigration into Estonia is rising, yet there is little original content which reflects what is happening in Estonia.
Since preexisting publications producing news in English had not been interested in it, the Culture Ministry claimed, OÜ Ore Meedia ended up winning the tender.
A total of seven people were involved setting up the Eesti.life portal, though the plan had been to involve freelance authors as well.
The site was intended to work along the lines of news portal principles and to create new content on a daily basis.
With the delays in the project, as of October 2022 the Ministry of Culture had not been able say whether the project would go ahead or be closed down.
In July 2023, the culture ministry issued a defense of its decision to create the website, arguing the state is obliged to at least try to share information in English with English-speaking people residing here, though conceded that it would be incorrect to state that everything had gone well with that round of applications and the project that ended up receiving the support.
Earlier, a representative of Ore Meedia had told ERR that this was not a case of throwing away good money after bad, since the site will remain online in the future, replete with all articles
OÜ Ore Meedia was incorporated on September 13, 2021 with a share capital of €2,500. Its only income for 2022 was the support subsidy of €100,000, and the company's costs for that same year, 2022, were reported at €8,499.
Editor: Andrew Whyte