Opinion: Is ERR truly surrounded and facing censorship?

Former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks.
Former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Taxpayer-funded media is easiest to pressure by claiming that in a democratic state, the public broadcaster must be under the control of the representatives of the people, writes former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks.

Is Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) truly surrounded, and has the key to implementing censorship been found? Or has journalism taken on the role of supreme authority? Black and white Estonia, spring 2019.

There is nothing new in those in power and those aspiring to it wanting to control the press. Parliamentary democracy can be viewed as a game in which various political forces compete to communicate their messages. If one power manages to achieve a monopoly on the truth, then it's game over, although the gullible may remain under the impression that the game continues.

Politics is an especially interesting game, as the players are able to agree on the rules among themselves. In so doing, they often forget what the game is that is being played. If a coalition agreement becomes more important than the Constitution, then this game is no longer benefiting the people.

By threatening to get the state involved, it is possible to pressure journalism to employ self-censorship or drop troublesome topics.  Taxpayer-funded media is easiest to pressure by claiming that in a democratic state, the public broadcaster must be under the control of the representatives of the people.

The last attempt was made by a Reform-led government (Reform-Centre-People's Union of Estonia) in 2006. A bill was introduced according to which ERR's supervisory board would have consisted exclusively of MPs and which would have abandoned the still-functioning balanced makeup which includes one representative from each parliamentary group plus independent experts. I summed up criticism of the bill in a previous opinion piece. Many of the arguments from the time remain relevant today.

Balanced coverage important

The one-sided coverage of the debate over the migration compact may be one reason why the election results were what they were. In other words, the disregard or nonperception of various attitudes and fears in society has brought us to where we are today.

Unlike other media channels, it was ERR that provided the most balanced coverage of the heated debate (with a few exceptions).

I wouldn't overdramatise politicians' calls to ensure balanced coverage of topics. This is the freedom of speech, so long as it is not followed by journalists being "called on the carpet" or ERR being turned into a political party.

At the same time, efforts to limit democracy never sneak up overnight. This is why a close watch must be kept on the rhetoric of the nascent [Centre-EKRE-Isamaa] coalition.

If we don't, we may end up with parliament broadcasting in lieu of public broadcasting, where the public interest yields to party interests. And where the freedom of speech turns into freedom in words.


Opinion piece posted with the author's permission.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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