Estonia Stumbles in Media Freedom

Here is another featured article from the students as part of the “media freedoms in post-communist countries” series.  This one describes Estonia – often held up as a model of media freedom and democracy in the post-communist world, this country nonetheless has struggled with some of their own media restrictions.


 

In the 2013 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Estonia was ranked 11th, just short of scoring as one of the top ten most free media environments in the world. While this seems amazing compared to most other former Soviet members – especially compared to Russia (148) or Turkmenistan (177) – Estonia did drop eight spots from their 3rd place ranking from the previous year.  In a recent interview with Estonian Newspaper Association’s managing director Mart Raudsaar, Raudsaar points to three main reasons why Estonia fell in the rankings:

  • a recently passed bill for toughening punishment for so-called hate crimes,
  • calls by some politicians to regulate the use of language by journalists, and
  • concerns about the self-regulation of the media.

If these trends continue, Raudsaar cautions that this could lead to further restrictions in the future and financially hurt media outlets.

With the tougher punishment for so-called hate crimes, Estonia could see more cases such as the one in 2008 involving Vjacheslav Leedo and Delfi, Estonia’s largest social web portal. Leedo sued Delfi for damages of a half million kroons for about 20 personal attacks made out of 185 comments made online by mostly anonymous users in response to an article made about one of his companies. Although the defense disputed that they are not able to monitor and edit all comments made on their sites, the Estonian courts still ruled in Leedo’s favor.  In the appeal to the European Court of Human Rights the Court recognized the reasoning of the Estonian courts.

This ruling could lead media outlets to restrict and edit the voice of its audience in fear that its content could be used against them in a lawsuit. Furthermore the financial risk of a lawsuit could move some outlets to get rid of user comments entirely. With the exception of two TV stations and 5 radio stations, the rest of Estonian media is privately owned. This might force media to make decisions based on money instead of freedom.

Additionally as politicians such as Prime Minister Andrus Ansip began calling for the regulation of the language by journalist and the criticism of the self-regulation of media, could this create new regulation against media outlets? Even though the Estonian Constitution guarantees no censorship, there have been a few examples of exceptions to the law. For instance, in 1997 a journalist was fined for offensive remarks against a politician and parliament voted to ban tobacco advertising on television and radio. So laws restricting speech are not impossible to imagine.

While a drastic change in media freedom in Estonia is unlikely there could be a subtle change through laws and regulations on how media outlets deliver content and language used.

Bibliography

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