President on media freedom at Äripäev conference

President Kersti Kaljulaid
President Kersti Kaljulaid Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid's speech at Äripäev's 30th anniversary conference '30 years of free press in Estonia'

Dear watchdogs! Representatives of the Fourth Estate!

Honored listeners gathered here because you care about free journalism. I do, too!

Do you know what you get when you Google the phrase "word is free?" You get page after page of results on how to get Microsoft Word for free. There you have it – a changing world. What is worse, when I Googled "speech is free", the second result was a New York Times article titled "Freedom of speech is killing us" - no question mark. Congratulations! Google can be a damn good soundboard now and again.

But despite Google search results, speech is free in Estonia AD 2019!

It is free today, just as it has been for the past 30 years, and I am convinced free speech will survive the challenges of the next three decades. Especially attempts to remove the second part of the principle – that everyone is responsible for the things they say.

A free country and free speech have been synonyms for Estonians. I will also mix and match these terms in my speech today. Free Estonia, freedom in Estonia, free press – they cannot be separated from one another.

History is full of both positive and cautionary examples of how one draws strength from the other and can disappear without it.

Freedoms need to be constantly recreated if we want them to last. Again and again. It is not something where we can cut corners or take time off! Because it might be the very decision you make today – not to stand up and say that various behaviors are not compatible with our freedoms – that proves crucial. And this freedom cannot be manufactured by politicians.

They create – provided there is public demand – the preconditions, including democratic order, rule of law, recognition of universal human rights and media freedom etc. If only thinking about frantic calls for a body for the protection of free speech to be created with the president – how free would speech be when managed one way or another by politicians?

This freedom cannot be created by journalists alone either, no matter how good they are. This freedom can be created by editors. Heads of desks. Editors-in-chief. Owners of media houses. That is the backbone of our free speech. You can and must give your journalists certainty in that they're free and independent. And that you are willing to fight for that independence at all costs, even if it ruins your relationship with someone. Please be bold as that is what freedom depends on!

Additionally, journalists are hard-pressed to ensure the existence of a balanced mix of opinions as everyone who dares swim upstream opens themselves up to criticism on social media or publications' comments sections. Even those going with the flow might be left with the impression they are swimming upstream and no longer want to say anything since the content majority refrains from commenting. Even knowing one represents the silent majority, one still tries to avoid abuse.

Perhaps things will be different again in five years – no one will believe an image, text or video without seeing encryption data to prove its authenticity and verifying the source beforehand after being burned too many times. That would bring new exciting challenges – hopefully the need to constantly prove the validity of one's claims and that they are based on facts, as well as clearly separate fact from opinion and other things we've left behind on our current orbit.

Whereas, free speech is not always a subjectively pleasant thing. I see quite a few familiar faces here whom I've met in the dynamic of an interviewer and interviewee in the past three years. I have always been the interviewee – I would very much like for those roles to be reversed sometimes!

It is also no secret for any media house that I am constantly momentarily displeased. You always want the journalist to have done their homework better. You want people to listen and follow your train of thought. For them not to ask questions answers to which are a simple Google search away!

Coming back to more serious topics, I have plenty of examples of, perhaps unconscious, gender-based discrimination by journalists. Plenty! But you know we do not engage in generalization based on individual incidents and will always be available for comment, irrespective of how frustrating the last attempt was. Because we – you as the interviewer and I as the interviewee – know we are defending democracy and free society every day by giving free speech, including opinions that differ from ours, room.

I believe everyone here knows that the thing I find important about free speech is not to have the best interviews, features or news emerge. They don't, even though they could. The value of free speech lies elsewhere. The greatest value of the free press is that it's free.

And it has been for 30 years. Whereas, in the early days, journalism was not an independent mediator, relaying events for listeners-viewers. The press was a catalyst of social processes. An enabler, not just an amplifier.

But even after the Singing Revolution, journalism – by now the Fourth Estate and watchdog in a more traditional sense – has played a notable role in our society it has had a hand in building and describing.

I would even go further than that – Estonia owes a lot of its 30-year success story to a strong free press. It has been a special story. No other free country can boast such rapid economic and social growth.

The strength of the media has been based on two factors during these decades. One is people as it is wont to be everywhere. Dedicated and still sporting ambition to change and better the world in the wake of the Singing Revolution. It is very important that our society has idealists!

But these people have been given a sufficient and socially recognized platform by the structure of our media – constant competition between several strong media houses, accompanied by stubbornly refusing to choose sides, adopt ideological positions where right and wrong primarily depend on the latter.

It came about spontaneously somehow because we knew where we had to go at first – as far as possible from what Soviet totalitarianism had given us. It meant surrendering the ideological position, pronounced independence, clear differentiation between oneself and political decision-makers and otherwise important instances, such as business people, a certain distance and unbiased approach. Holding ideological independence and the freedoms of editorial boards to be supreme values.

Everything is much more complicated today as we can no longer simply take a look in the rear view mirror and then do the opposite of what we see. The world today is just too different from what it was 30 years ago. Today, we are navigating based on our own skills, knowledge and values alone. We look right and left and wonder how this world differs from yesterday's. And must phrase time and again what this independence stands for.

Is the freedom of editorial desks still the alpha and omega in terms of free speech? Or should it be? Because the world has a lot of countries that have press freedom and, at the same time, publications that have defined themselves from an ideological viewpoint. Of course, there are even more countries where press freedom as we understand it does not exist at all.

The impression I'm left with is that our society does not want to move in either direction. Our information space is too small and lacks a major independent core – only four countrywide dailies – the fringes of which could accommodate all special interest publications without that core taking a hit.

But like I said, freedoms can first and foremost be created by heads, owners and editorial desk chiefs of our media houses. No one can threaten our press freedom from the outside, provided something greater – free and democratic Estonia – does not come under threat as a whole, while making sure it doesn't is a responsibility that goes well beyond the scope of the media. Provided the big picture remains – the true extent of freedom of speech is determined in our media houses.

And often, we don't know what's right. We have been searching for the past 15 years. At one point, it seemed all the information in the world had to be poured into people's heads. Kim Kardashian's backside next to Andrus Andsip's front on the same page and vice versa. Giving away all content for free and paywalls that even force regular subscribers to log in every day. Policy-making in papers' comments sections and dropping the latter altogether. Disseminating only pieces of information, while recently pondering and giving meaning to it, looking only at the past year. Sildam's interviews, Roonemaa's investigative pieces, Ekspress editorials, Kärt Anvelt's return to the world of print… There are other examples.

The need for the latter – news given meaning – is growing more urgent at a colossal pace. Whereas the situation is made difficult by the fact it is a necessity many people do not perceive. There is enough reading material out there, and the need for analysis quickly dissipates in a situation where quality of life does not seem to suffer from its absence.

And it seems to me that it is this lack of perception that has allowed this void to expand beyond what the media can fill. How else to explain all the sprawling nonsense? From the confident and proud ignorance of energy pillar and flat earth enthusiasts to websites pretending to be news portals and fake news. And everything else in between and around. None of it could exist without consumers.

Of course, propaganda masquerading as traditional media is nothing new. While presenting things as fact with no scientific basis whatsoever seems to be. Almost an entire generation of people have been brought up knowing the first Maaleht of January has the horoscope on its front page. How were these people meant to intuitively grasp that astrology is nonsense? It is a respected newspaper otherwise. The media house no longer assumed responsibility for enlightening the people, like Papa Jannsen did. But for this not to sound like media criticism – it is impossible to require the people to recognize propaganda channels in a situation where politicians and officials buy air time in those very channels. You see the minister and the mayor on television, followed by an ad for the Rescue Board, while you're somehow expected not to trust everything in between? It is hopeless. So, there are plenty of dark alleyways to check if we want our journalism to start with a capital J.

And they change over time. Our society also changes hand in hand with the media. Thirty years ago, we would have intuitively realized that a newspaper or portal only sending the ball into a single goal can in no way represent the free press, making it automatically a threat to the longevity of a democratic and free Estonia. That is no longer the case today, whereas this blurring of lines is taking place not just in Estonia but also in so-called old democracies.

Modern society – including the press – has suddenly accepted lying as a political practice. By letting slide lies and name-calling, attempts to split society into having suitable and unsuitable members based on inconsequential characteristics, the press is helping pave the way for restriction of freedoms, including media freedom. Not to mention damage to the credibility of the media and politicians. That is the real danger.

I understand it is difficult to find the strength to react every single time, especially after learning that pointing out lies, keeping the fire lit under those going after fundamental rights doesn't really accomplish anything. Why do you relent? Why do you not ask again and again, why they lie, paint labels on people, badmouth women? Why, why, why? The question must constantly be asked as the entire Orwellian world is based on truth being lies and lies the truth. That it is possible to defend human rights and restrict them at the same time. That media freedom is a given, while it is threatened by ideological, economic or other considerations. Newspeak. I have thought long on that word, and I believe I only really understood it recently, almost at the age of 50. Reading the book it was somehow different than real life.

Hopes that this realization will gradually become universal are baseless. More and more people even have themselves convinced that limited freedoms aren't that bad as long as wages keep growing. But restriction of freedoms will come to stunt economic growth, either gradually or as a result of a geopolitical disaster – but it will happen. The problem is that by the time this realization dawns, we will have lost too much or really existentially too much.

The only cure that I perceive – as concerns the free press – is boosting the value of editorial boards as hallmarks of quality. Climbing the value chain of information quality. The world has always been colorful and rapidly changing, it's simply that this information has not been shot at us from a hundred barrels simultaneously before. The bar for obtaining information has never been this low. Now, you must be the ones to fuse those barrels into one, analyze the contents and put your stamp of approval on it.

I know you think about these things too, and you have made some important editorial decisions in recent years – whether to cover every scream let out in search of attention or only those that speak of something else as well? And if numbers show that fewer articles do not equal fewer readers, perhaps the right path beckons?

This search and untangling of knots has been happening on a completely free market over the past 30 years. It has even been considered bad form to debate whether the state should or could support the media market somehow.

I believe that we need to ask the question how to help the independent today. In the end, we do not question a person's freedom and choices simply because the only way they can realize them is using social benefits because they find themselves at a disadvantage in society. Rather, it is referred to as amplification of a person's freedom and independence.

It is possible to help journalists in a way that not only leaves independence intact but empowers it. We need to ensure conditions that can help free speech last and reach people.

Our local media and county papers are a part of the mortar holding our society together the importance of which has been consistently underestimated, especially on the local level. How else to explain the persisting desire to replace it with municipal media? Do we need to start supporting county newspapers in additional to culture magazines because of their value to society? How often must mail be delivered in a country that is wealthy enough to offer its citizens free public transport?

I apologize for seeing problems rather than solutions. I believe that we can come up with solutions together if we think about things from our individual perspectives while sticking to liberal democratic values that include freedom, and especially media freedom. We depend on each other. There is no media freedom without democratic rule of law, just like reduction in media freedom for whatever reason – new technologies, biased treatments masquerading as free press, ineffective models of taxation – will surely result in restriction of other freedoms. And vice versa – those who attack and question media freedom must be recognized as those who would not hesitate to restrict everyone's freedoms and fundamental rights.

We must ask all of these questions today, 30 years after the rebirth of the free press in Estonia. To make sure speech remains free for the next 30 years. So we could recreate this freedom day in and day out.

Congratulations to everyone celebrating this anniversary this year!

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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