The Estonian Broadcasting Council (RHN) on Tuesday discussed an appeal submitted by Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) deputy chairman and MP Martin Helme in which he demanded that Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) journalists who had "demonstrated bias" be "removed from the air." Following the council's meeting, however, RHN chairman Rein Veidemann said that there is no reason for ERR to make any changes.
According to Mr Veidemann, the council acknowledged that ERR's internal procedures work.
"Of course they can be amended and improved, but it is basically clear that a few solitary snafus or errors may occur here or there in connection with a programme host's style, for example," the chairman told journalists following the meeting. "But basically, every journalist has the right to ask as needed, and the sharpest questions. What is clear, of course — they may not take a stance when it comes to their ideological preferences or regarding people, and this cannot come out."
At the meeting, Mr Helme had named specific ERR journalists that he believed have been biased, Mr Veidemann said, himself declining to name them in turn to the media.
According to the council chairman, several council members had said at the meeting that whether a journalist reveals their attitude toward a given individual is a matter of their professionalism.
"It is clear that anyone can make a mistake — researchers make mistakes, journalists make mistakes, people make mistakes — if we're talking about solitary errors," he told ETV news broadcast Aktuaalne kaamera. "Regarding ERR's programme as a whole, then we have no reason to consider any sort of changes. ERR has with its entire staff of journalists proven that those duties imposed on our public broadcaster are being fulfilled."
Nonetheless, he admitted that the discussion at Tuesday's meeting had gotten heated.
"Martin Helme was of one position, the other members of others," he described. "But the council will not take up any penal actions; these are out of the question by law. We are not state television; we are a public broadcaster."
Helme: ERR demonstrating institutional bias
Speaking to Aktuaalne kaamera following the meeting, Mr Helme said that he was not pleased with the results of Tuesday's meeting.
He explained that with his item on the agenda, he had been drawing attention to ERR's coverage not before, but following the 3 March Riigikogu elections, which he claimed exhibited systemic bias.
"I'd like to draw attention to the fact that the Estonian Public Broadcasting Act includes three or two paragraphs with at least seven subparagraphs, all of which call for the ensuring of societal coherence, call for balance, call for professionalism," Mr Helme said.
"My position is that these requirements have been broken," he continued. "And not just in one or another programme; I cited an entire slew of examples in which news and opinions were combined, not kept apart; in which opinion programmes are involved in very clear incitement to hatred — in some radio programmes — and how this encompasses not just news programmes, but also English- and Russian-language programmes.
"My clear position is that this is a case of institutionalised bias," the EKRE MP serving on the council said. "Unfortunately, my colleagues did not agree with this."
According to Mr Helme, the council discussed at length what the RHN's role in the current situation will be going forward, and what guidelines it should provide to ERR's board or ethics officer.
"But the bottom line of this relatively heated discussion was that the remainder of the council believes that [current] procedures suffice," he said.
Mr Helme stressed that he did not go to the council demanding that one or another person should be fired.
"I came to the council saying that professionalism and balance are being breached, and something needs to be changed," he explained. "I hope, at least, that this was a needed impulse for some kind of internal reflection."
Heidy Purga: Journalists are society's watchdogs, not cheerleaders
Reform MP and RHN member Heidy Purga wrote on social media following the meeting that it is not within the council's competences to dissect the personal matters of ERR employees or attack from a position of power editorial teams and the people working as part of them. The council is, however, bound to verify that ERR fulfils the duties ascribed to it by law.
"Over time, very many politicians have reviled journalism, which means that journalists are doing their job, like it or not," Ms Purga wrote. "Journalists are society's watchdogs, not cheerleaders, sometimes publishing positions that authorities may not like at all. Journalism has great power, but also great responsibility. An impartial journalist doesn't mean that they do or write programmes and articles that are neutral or lack the author's position."
Editor: Aili Vahtla