An audit conducted by the National Audit Office has demonstrated that while the majority of municipal newsletters had not been used to promote personal partisan interests ahead of the 2017 local elections, there were nevertheless other signs pointing toward local government funding in some municipalities going toward election campaigns or other political image-building in various forms.
Within the period of review, which ran from January through October 2017, local governments published a total of 202 newsletters. The National Audit Office's review covers 191 thereof which were available in a digitally processable format, according to a Thursday press release.
The National Audit Office discovered problematic messages in the newsletters of altogether 53 pre-reform local governments, some of which were clearly inconsistent with the principle set forth by law that local government funds may only be applied toward the performance of local government duties and in the public interest.
Examples of such messages included the following:
1. Appeals made from an official position to vote for a specific person.
Detected in altogether six local governments, in six municipally-published newsletters, and in six cases. These included rather conspicuous calls to vote for a certain election coalition or political party in articles written by a municipal mayor or council chair, in some cases with their own candidate number included in the article.
2. Articles essentially merely blatantly praising a specific candidate.
Detected in two local governments, three municipally-published newsletters, and in nine cases. Either the article was focused predominantly on the unequivocally positive characterisation of a candidate (ie saying what a good person they are), or there was no other content at all. Such positive characterisations were based on statements from various individuals.
3. Unbalanced criticism of political competitors.
This was the most widespread issue. Detected in nine local governments, 14 municipally-published newsletters, and in 118 articles or caricatures. One-sided criticism targeting political opponents of those in power, expressly vilifying them, showing them as weak, or otherwise displaying opponents in a negative light, causing unfair competition.
Such messages cannot be substantiated by any needs arising from local government duties and there is no public interest behind them, the National Audit Office found. In terms of the frequency of such issues, the most problematic in this category were the newsletters published by Tallinn and Loksa.
In addition to the above categories, the audit also identified certain borderline, or "grey area," cases, which included signs of political motivation, but where links to the needs of the municipality as such could not definitely be ruled out.
Examples of such "grey area" cases included an abnormal increase in the coverage of activities of the head of the local government in the time leading up to the elections (eg newsletters suddenly start publishing opinion pieces penned by local government leaders where they had not done so before, or including portrait photos next to opinion pieces, or illustrating the actions of local government leaders on several photos in a single issue); summaries of achievements of those in power during their terms of office; giving frequent praise to the local government leader within the regular flow of information; praising the public policy positions of the political union exercising public power in the municipality.
The National Audit Office has recommended all local governments that finance newsletters create an internal set of rules to mitigate such risks. Among other suggestions, the auditing body recommended arranging for supervision, eg establishing an independent council for the newsletter to monitor the content thereof; such bodies already exist in some municipalities. The council should also include members of the opposition as well as independent experts, they added.
42 of the 65 local governments to respond to the National Audit Office's report, or 65% thereof, agreed to implement this suggestion in principle. Tallinn and Loska, however, which according to the audit saw the highest number of problematic articles, in most cases did not agree with the opinions of the National Audit Office pertaining to them.
In his written response, the Mayor of Tallinn found that the National Audit Office had assumed the position of state censor. "It would create a dangerous trend of state authorities start assessing the political correctness and appropriateness of the views of journalists and the media," the mayor wrote.
The position of the National Audit Office, meanwhile, coincides with that of the Estonian Newspaper Association, according to which local government publications cannot be regarded as newspapers. Furthermore, the Code of Ethics of the Estonian Press likewise rules out regarding individuals working for such publications to be journalists, as a journalist cannot be employed by an agency or institution that is the object of the reporting, as a principle underpinning independence.
Similar misuse of municipal funds nothing new
The National Audit Office previously addressed the reporting activities of municipalities in their 2015 audit entitled "Use of Advertising and Communication Funds in Municipalities and Cities," which focused on pre-election communication by local governments via TV channels, radio and outdoor media. This audit identified a number of TV commercials and posters as evidence that local government funds had been unjustifiably used to promote specific politicians or political parties.
At the time, the National Audit Office found that the City of Tallinn had financed certain reporting activities from the city budget that — against the backdrop of the 2013 local elections — could have been regarded as election ads for certain politicians or political parties. According to the audit, approximately €337,000 of Tallinn city budget funds was spent in 2013 on communication that could be regarded as election ads.
Auditor General: Useful newsletters being taken advantage of
"Well-organised reporting is a key premise for compliance with one of the core principles of a municipality, ie the transparency of its activities," Auditor General Janar Holm said, commenting on the results of the 2017 municipal newsletter audit. "In the most general terms, this also constitutes the legal basis of reporting, which is one of the duties of a municipality: a municipality must share information about their activities, act as transparently as possible, explain their decisions and choices, etc."
As explained by Holm, the sharing of certain information is prescribed by legislation, including the Local Government Organisation Act, the Waste Act, the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, and the Planning Act, but alongside this information, municipalities also publish information that is not directly prescribed by law — such as additional information regarding services, the promotion of events, and showcasing the municipality as an appealing place to live. "This is completely appropriate," he stressed.
The auditor general noted that nearly every municipality has had and has its own newsletter, which is generally distributed to residents' mailboxes free of charge and is funded by the municipality. "This is an effective tool for bringing information to the attention of the intended recipient," he said. "People always flip through it, if for no other reason than out of mere curiosity. Regrettably, some also see this as an enticement for using the newsletter for their political image-building and, as the audit has demonstrated, this idea is not merely toyed with, but rather there are clear signs that newsletter are unlawfully being used for partisan purposes, which happens in different forms and in various municipalities."
As such, he continued, it is not uncommon that public funds in Estonia are misused to achieve personal political goals. "This has been highlighted before, inter alia, by the National Audit Office," Holm noted. "This audit illustrates the extent to which local newsletters are affected by this phenomenon, and also reveals that the problem is real, fundamental, and persistent."
Although the audit identified several manifestations of issues, the practice in most Estonian municipalities demonstrates that it is indeed possible to produce information in a municipal newsletter that is not constrained by party-political interests, the auditor general noted, adding that this was dependent, first and foremost, on the political will and culture.
"The National Audit Office does not believe that the elimination of this problem requires any amendments," Holm concluded. "It would be difficult to devise new norms that work in a similar fashion across all municipalities. This problem has to be addressed first and foremost through more efficient controls, including external supervision as well as internal self-control measures."
Audit numbers, methods
Nearly all Estonian municipalities publish a municipal newsletter. In 2017, there were altogether 202 newsletters co-funded by 195 local governments. Following the nationwide administrative reform, the total number of newsletters was reduced to 96, co-funded by 74 local governments.
In most cases, the local government was involved in funding one to two newsletters; the exception was the capital city of Tallinn, which had ten newsletters (and currently has eight).
Municipal newsletters are generally published monthly or less frequently. According to the audit, six newsletters were published on a weekly basis. Print runs varied considerably in size, with 57 newsletters with a print run of up to 500 copies and four newsletters with a print run of over 50,000.
The audit analysed the newsletters to establish how candidates participating in the elections and their political unions were covered by these newsletters during the period lasting from January through October 2017. The analysis was based on the media monitoring report commissioned from Balti Meediamonitooringu Grupp, which identified mentions, titles of articles, numbers of pages, volume in terms of character count, added photos, candidates on the photos, etc. The audit reviewed those reports that mentioned top municipal officials (municipal mayor or mayor, deputy municipal mayor or deputy mayor, local government council chair) of the local government financing the newsletter in question, and the first three candidates in the electoral lists participating in the region where the newsletter was published. A total of some 6,000 articles were analysed.
The audit was based on the principle stemming from the Local Government Organisation Act and the General Part of the Civil Code Act according to which any spending of a local government can only be driven by public interest.
According to the National Audit Office, the use of public funds, including municipal media channels, for personal political purposes is condemnable for many reasons. For taxpayers, this is likely to constitute a waste of resources that could have gone toward something more beneficial. For political opponents, meanwhile, this represents an unsubstantiated advantage that distorts honest competition.
In terms of society as a whole, the auditing body added, this behaviour undermines the integrity of the public authority and fosters disillusionment with authorities and an indifference toward democratic processes, among other issues. Such misbehaviour has also been seen as a form of political corruption.
Editor: Aili Vahtla