Opinion: Press freedoms in Estonia being rationalized, not attacked

Ahto Lobjakas, on the roof at ERR's radio house.
Ahto Lobjakas, on the roof at ERR's radio house. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

So that's it. Press freedoms are under attack in Estonia. With two journalists stepping down in a little over a week, one in the privately-run media, one quitting a show he had hosted for four years at public broadcaster ERR, this is but the opening salvo of a one-way struggle initiated by the incoming coalition government, and one party in particular, and we can look forward to much more of the same in future. Or so the narrative would have it.

Journalists are now having to engage in "self-censorship" for fear of being fired, politicians can make general statements about removing presenters from the airwaves, and meanwhile the opposition parties, president and society as a whole, can only look on impotently while Estonia's press freedoms ranking tanks.

Except it's a long way from that, and is not likely to be any nearer either, in the future. Ahto Lobjakas is a focussed and driven man, who had a very clear vision of what he wanted his show, or shows, to look like, and protected his niche jealously, it is true. But even he was capable of erring; when it might be prudent to temporarily lay off saying something, he would do it anyway, and thus the repercussions become a self-fulfilling prophecy of protestations about curbing liberties, trampling on consciences.

Mr Lobjakas said he was looking at winding things up in any case with Olukorrast riigis, some time in June. The show is in fact running to 2 June, so it may have brought his decision forward a few days or a few weeks, but he and co-host Andrus Karnau still had the full fifty-five minutes on Sunday to air their views, and with another five shows remaining, that gives them over four and a half hours' blank canvas to continue disseminating in the same vein, unopposed.* I think that's quite a good leaving present.

Both Mr Lobjakas and Vilja Kiisler over at Postimees resigned, they were not fired. People's patience for protestations, which could also backfire, over what happened is not boundless.

On the other hand, the timing is obvious. Yes this is all connected with EKRE coming into office, and yes they, and certainly leader Mart Helme, want to zip some people, there's no question about that. But Mr Helme is, and will be, subject to checks and balances within the coalition, within the complex web of relationships and connections and the delicate balance of favours and exchanges which are the very basis of how this country works. He knows his star has been in the ascendancy for some time, and that he is liked by a few of the right people; respected and feared by far more. But big deal. He is also rather media savvy — getting a party from 0 percent of support to, by some estimates, second-most popular in the land in barely seven years obviously outstrips UKIP, its analogue in the UK and one which has been described as having a "meteoric" rise (even though meteors actually plummet, downwards, into the atmpsohere — as did then happen with UKIP in fact).

But Mr Lobjakas would have upset people other than Mr Helme, I expect, and, in a country where the emphasis is very much on smoothing things over, presenting a united front, and adhering much more to the letter of the law, than the spirit of the law, I think he had quite a good run and will continue to do so in future.

Pressure to conform is real enough

There is a vast number of journalists here, given the country's size, and although Mr. Lobjakas was an outstanding one, there's always going to be that degree of tall poppy syndrome and a general ebb and flow, just as nothing really remains very constant in many other areas. That you can start a business in five minutes is commonly-announced as a way of attracting the type of foreigners who are liked here (i.e. entrepreneurial ones). Of course, you can wrap that business up equally quickly too.

Even in the social media sphere, the pressure to conform is immense. There is a huge, sprawling expats group on social media which I and many contemporaries are members of. Its principal admin is an Estonian. It is voluntarily policed by Estonians who pop up from time to time when a foreigner "says the wrong thing," only to disappear into the ether again, mostly. They aren't interested in debate (some of the comment challenges come simply on matters of opinion), merely in preserving Estonia's public image, under the guise of "we're just trying to help, what's wrong with that?" Mr Lobjakas himself has fallen foul of this type of group-think, as well, rather than a determined shot at closing down a free media on the part of EKRE.

The complex relationship between the private media sector, dominated by two corporations, and the public broadcaster (Mr Lobjakas worked for both, being a Postimees columnist and occasional interviewer of expats), and which of the two halves has the initiative, is at play also.

A year ago, the pendulum was firmly with ERR, but it has swung back towards the private sector since then. In fact it is open season on ERR, as evidenced by a rather lame April fools' gag by the (Swedish-owned) Äripäev business newspaper, which reported that ERR head Erik Roose had been fired.

I too, have had a few poison darts come my way — and I'm referring to proper, working journalists who actually write pieces here. But the pendulum will swing back a year from now — in the meantime let the private sector and English-language blogs about Estonia have their fun.

One problem some of those who have come from elsewhere experience is a perceived lack of willingness to savage politicians, along the lines of the media in the UK or Ireland, say, and those in positions of power — in fact on the contrary, of falling in line and becoming as meek as a Therevada monk with anxiety issues, whenever the city gods of officialdom roar.

Smoothing things over always the preferred option

Again, this goes back to the Estonian way of doing things and finding compromise in everything, and yes, I mean everything. I recently saw a very approving post by head of the Lutheran church, Archbishop Viilma, about the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Bridgettine Convent in Pirita. Quite how Archbishop Viilma squares this glowing appraisal with some of the many statements made against the Church of Rome by the man whose name his own churches bear — referring to the pope as both anti-christ and devil (two separate entities), or indeed actions in attacking as unbiblical, practices and beliefs still held to by Roman Catholics today, only he knows. I suspect it is, again, keeping things nice and neat and prim, and being one big, happy family, trumping everything else.

We're talking about a country where the slogan on one politician's (Edgar Savisaar) electoral campaign poster was just one word: "Peace," accompanied, as I remember, with a full length photo of Mr Savisaar striking up an uncompromising stance as if to say: "You're not about to argue against peace, and thus call for a war on me, are you?" Were such a promotion to appear in my country, the guy would've been annihilated. But we're not in my country, that's the point.

In conclusion, I can only really speak confidently from the perspective of the English-language media here, a particularly small percentage of the whole picture. I would say we have monumental freedoms at ERR News. Over the past year, I have been instructed to run a piece a grand total of two times, one of which (the Metsavas spy case) I was in the process of running anyway, and told to take one down (which transgressed standard practice in terms of rewriting other works) once. And that's it.

I have lost count the number of times I have typed out explanatory, contextualising paragraphs noting Mr Kaalep's far-right/neo-nazi dalliances, and Mr Helme's (junior) calls for removing unnamed journalists from the airwaves at ERR, but suffice to say this happens with a frequency which helps to make EKRE by far the most referred-to party on the Estonian political scene over the last six months.

Oxygen of (adverse) publicity

All publicity being good publicity, calls for constantly referring to that party in the media, even indirectly (e.g. Kõigi Eesti's disingenuous statement that it had nothing to do with any particular party, thus causing people to drop EKRE into the ensuing comments) have played wholly into its hands and have been worth a few Riigikogu seats — and probably a European one too at this rate.

In fact the EKRE-related attacks on our coverage of that party originate from both left and right (the latter component is smaller in volume, though tends to be a little more carefully reasoned — which is not saying very much). This means that we are doing something right, and I'm satisfied you won't get as balanced a coverage of the recent elections and coalition negotiations pretty much anywhere else — in part because we're here on the ground of course.

What will happen to Estonia's ranking on reporters without borders index, itself hardly an exercise in high science and hugely open to manipulation, remains to be seen, obviously. Concern about a falling ranking will have to be squared away with all the other pressures and lobbiers and, most likely if it tanks, the matter simply won't be mentioned.

What we can do is exercise our own responsibility — in equal measure, on social media and elsewhere, and not just in "the media," in seeking to accurately represent the beliefs of others, allowing them to speak for themselves before rebutting them where needed, and not reporting half-truths in the interest of pushing an agenda. This is hard, but achievable, and should be a rule of thumb even if EKRE had never existed. It applies in equal measure for those resigning too. As Toomas Hendrik Ilves put it in a recent tweet — live with it.

*Or around 17 percent of the total running time of the Frost-Nixon footage. And Nixon was under interrogation.


ERR News always welcomes opinion pieces on relevant topics, from across the spectrum of viewpoints. Email [email protected] if you are interested in submitting a piece.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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