The past two months have witnessed an unprecedented series of attacks on freedom of the press in Estonia.
As in the rest of the world, politicians in Estonia have often criticised the press for negative coverage, and, on occasion, tried to steer media institutions in directions more favorable to them.
The former president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was widely known for his disdain for the press, whom he derisively called “tintla“ (hack writers). In 2013, the then-ruling liberal Reform Party appointed the writer Kaur Kender as editor-in-chief of the publically funded cultural weekly Sirp, a move that was widely interpreted as an attempt to silence a publication known for its criticism of the government.
Both of these cases were roundly condemned, and responses to the Sirp decision led to the resignation of the minister of culture, Rein Lang. But that was 2013, and much has changed since then.
Far-Right Attacks on Free Expression
Following the parliamentary elections in March of this year, the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) became a junior partner in a coalition government led by the ostensibly centre-left Centre Party.
EKRE has a long history of attacking media freedom while cultivating its own network of online websites and local talk-radio stations peddling “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories. Their content is familiar to anyone in Central Europe: Stories of George Soros funding globalist conspiracies, scare stories of Muslim immigrants, and “gender theory” threatening to pull apart Europe’s Christian foundations.
The leaders of EKRE, Mart and Martin Helme, father and son, have attacked the mainstream media since the early 2010s. Mart Helme believes that media institutions have been infiltrated by agents of “the deep state”, including the Internal Security Service. Martin Helme has criticised cultural weeklies for their “unbearable left-wing content” and “anti-conservative hate speech”.
During coalition talks, Martin Helme, who is a member of the broadcasting supervisory board, demanded that journalists working for the public broadcaster ERR be “punished” for their bias.
Organisations monitoring freedom of expression widely recognise that such statements by high-ranking politicians have a chilling effect on journalism. Given the history of EKRE politicians, they are, unfortunately, also not surprising.
Public Broadcaster Caves to Pressure
What has been striking over the past two months has been the willingness of editorial staff to acquiesce to such pressure. On April 27th, the liberal commentator Ahto Lobjakas announced that he will quit his weekly opinion show on the public broadcaster ERR. He cited editorial pressure to moderate their criticism of EKRE.
Lobjakas reported similar comments from his superiors, who asked him to focus more on EKRE’s policy, rather than their rhetoric. Lobjakas had called EKRE’s incoming ministers “racists, anti-Semites and other such scum”, immediately apologising for “scum” afterwards. He wrote on his Facebook page: “I was told about the importance of ‘balance’. Logically, this could only mean that I would have to find racists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites in other parties besides EKRE or, in their absence, refrain from discussing the issue of values altogether.” Having been suggested to take a leave of absence in the interests of his “psychological health”, Lobjakas chose instead to resign.
Lobjakas has been a target of the far right for years. Many liberal journalists, too, have found Lobjakas, in particular, to be too hostile in his commentary. Yet if freedom of expression only means freedom for speech one agrees with, then it is no freedom at all.
Lobjakas has been critical of EKRE for years, and he has criticised other parties in power with equal rhetorical force.
That Lobjakas has no patience for racists, anti-Semites or neo-Nazis is of no surprise to anyone. If this did not cause editorial concern before the March elections, it should not cause any concern after. If the only factor that has changed in this time is the ascension of EKRE to power, then it is hard to see such sudden concern about “issues of style” as anything other than bending to political pressure. This should be resisted and condemned.
Private Media Under Threat
Compounding the problem of political pressure is the consolidation of the media market in Estonia into the hands of a few local oligarchs, who are taking a more active role in editorial decisions. In 2015, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Margus Linnamäe bought Eesti Meedia, which owns the nation’s largest daily, Postimees, the television station Kanal 2 and many local newspapers.
Linnamäe has since been transforming the paper into “the flagship of a conservative worldview”. Besides replacing editors and senior journalists, Linnamäe has introduced a new section in the paper, in which conservative activists and experts write on topics ranging from demography to security, completely destroying the wall between the newsroom and management.
Several journalists have pointed to discrepancies between the sums spent by the moderate-conservative Isamaa party (also in government) on campaign advertising and the number of ads run on channels belonging to Linnamäe’s corporation. These allegations are currently being investigated.
Though no friend of EKRE, Postimees has also acquiesced to pressure from the right. On April 22nd, Vilja Kiisler, a liberal journalist at the newspaper, announced her departure in response to editorial pressure. In Kiisler’s case, at issue was an opinion article titled “It’s not the rhetoric, it’s the content that’s disconcerting”.
The Postimees’ new editor-in-chief, Peeter Helme (nephew of Mart Helme) reportedly criticised the article for its “aggressive style”. Kiisler countered by arguing that in an opinion piece, the journalist’s style and content are inseparable, and that “her red lines had been crossed”. In the context of this overall conservative turn at Postimees, Kiisler’s resignation was only to be expected.
The increased power of local oligarchs in media was to be expected as the global crisis of print media has led to international media powerhouses, such as Schibsted, to flee smaller struggling markets, leaving only local magnates and public broadcasting to pick up the slack.
With public broadcasting under pressure by the new government, and private media increasingly under political pressure from its owners, freedom of expression in Estonia needs all the defenders it can get. Hard times are ahead.