Journalist and politics analyst Ahto Lobjakas has rebuffed claims that he was fired from his show on ERR's Raadio 2, instead leaving of his own volition, primarily on the issue of self-censorship. Mr Lobjakas, who is also a columnist for daily Postimees, had been facing public criticism for bias in reporting, principally from members of the coalition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).
''I was not fired. I was given a choice between self-censorship and leaving,'' Mr Lobjakas wrote on his social media account on Saturday morning, as reported by ERR's online news in Estonian. Mr Lobjakas presents the Olukorrast riigis politics show on Raadio 2.
''In a twist of irony, I have gotten fatigued and bored over the past several months with the increasingly aggressive day-to-day politics. Four years is a long time to keep such a show fresh and I already had a plan to quit early on In June. However, before I could make that announcement, my position on the show had become untenable,'' Mr Lobjakas, who also presents a day-time half-hour political interview show, Achtung! Lobjakas, continued.
"Something changed after the election,'' Mr Lobjakas continued, in his post.
''Less of an adversarial approach was requested, with more attention on the new coalition's program being preferred to talking about inappropriate persons or ideas. The importance of 'balance' was emphasised,'' he added.
Mr Lobjakas concluded that criticism of the government was thus now not tolerated at the public broadcaster.
''Noone is under direct pressure resulting from ill-will, but nonetheless, the pressure is there and there is a clear subtext, making for an insecure and nervy atmosphere where you are expected to cooperate and keep your head below the parapet. This is a slippery slope in which many young democracies can start with self-censorship, and end up with something other than a free society,'' he added.
Broadcasting supervisory council
''Why things have turned out like this at ERR, I cannot say. At the same time, I have to note that when I read into what ERR's council and its board has stated, over the last few weeks, the overriding desire is to heal tensions and mend the cracks in society. But this has nothing to do with a free press as a value and as an institution that these people are supposed to be defending. On the contrary, such statements can only be currently read as an attempt to justify themselves and others in adapting to compromises – to the benefit of those in power, and at the expense of the press,'' Mr Lobjakas continued in his post.
In addition to its own board, ERR is subject to an independent broadcasting supervisory authority made up of a single representative from each elected political party (currently five) plus three other independent experts.
One supervisory board member, incoming finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE), had previously made statements to the effect that journalists at the public broadcaster who displayed bias ought to be taken off air, without initially naming names.
Mr Lobjakas' name is one of several which have subsequently been touted; Centre's own council representative, Marika Tuus-Laul, did also name two TV anchormen, Priit Kuusk and Johannes Tralla, as having been too heavy-handed in their interview technique with leading members from her own party.
After meeting to discuss the matter on 9 April, supervisory council head Rein Veidemann effectively overruled Mr Helme's complaint, saying that there was no reason for ERR to make any changes.
Mr Lobjakas also referred in his post to a statement made by Kristo Rajasaar, Raadio 2 editor-in-chief, which said that he, Mr Lobjakas, had been under attack in recent weeks (Mr Rajasaar confirmed to ERR on Friday that Mr Lobjakas had not been fired from his position).
"Raadio 2 has always been on my side, but ERR, as an institution represented by the board, has taken a neutral position against these attacks or has made concessions to the attackers. This last aspect is but a small problem for me...but if you live by the sword, you have to be prepared to die by the sword, as the saying has it. It is rather more a problem for the broadcaster and all its journalists,'' he said.
Of possible replacements, Mr Lobjakas suggested choosing a female presenter, and thanked his former colleague Andrus Karnau, who also appeared on both Olukorrast riigis and Achtung! Lobjakas, for having the wherewithal to help keep the show on course in discussing the political situation in the country, rather than whether the trains run on time.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas stated that he was concerned about the perceived question marks hanging over press freedoms in Estonia at the moment.
''We cannot accept a situation where the impression may arise that press freedoms are imperilled,'' Mr Ratas said Friday.
A free press is an indispensible prerequisite in the functioning of a democratic society, he said, and the public broadcaster must remain independent in all aspects of the production and transmissions of its programs and other media output, he added.
Outgoing foreign minister Sven Mikser (SDE) noted on his own social media page on Saturday morning the similarity in headlines on articles by ERR, Postimees and news portal Delfi, which all noted the choice presented to Mr Lobjakas as between one of either self-censorship, or jumping ship.
Postimees, as its name suggests, belongs to Postimees Grupp; Delfi is a part of Ekspress Grupp, the two major private news corporations in Estonia.
EKRE member, though not MP, Varro Vooglaid, a regular critic of Mr Lobjakas, called for the latter to be replaced by Ivan Makarov, a managing editor at ERR, on his social media page Saturday morning. Mr Makarov is, Mr Vooglaid said, ''the most outstanding embodiment of common sense at ERR'', adding that if the broadcaster was able to put Mr Lobjakas on air for such a long period, replete with what Mr Vooglaid called his liberal, left-wing and globalist views, in the interests of balance, rejecting a replacement with national-conservative views, such as Mr Makarov, would make a mockery of claims of impartiality.
Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted on the matter on Friday, saying that: ''As a primary object of Ahto Lobjakas' calumnies and vituperation for a decade, I have a special right to stand up for his right to say what he says. No justifications for limiting his right to speak will sway me. Nothing supposedly true now wasn't true before.''
As a primary object of ahto @lobjakas' calumnies and vituperation for a decade, I have a special right to stand up for his right to say what he says. No justifications for limiting his right to speak will sway me. Nothing supposedly true now wasn't true before. Live with it.— toomas hendrik ilves (@IlvesToomas) April 26, 2019
Mr Lobjakas has stated that the last broadcast of Olukorrast riigis, at least with him as presenter, would be on Sunday, 2 June.
Editor: Andrew Whyte