In Estonia, as in elsewhere in Eastern Europe, oligarchs threaten media independence. They have not succeeded – so far.
Earlier reports by #DemocraCE Fellows in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary suggest that while Russian info-operations tend to get a lot of airtime in national and international media, they are far from the biggest threat to free speech in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
From Romania to Hungary, the principal threat to a healthy, critical media comes from national broadcasters bending to the will of increasingly authoritarian governments and from government-supported oligarchs purchasing private publications.
This pattern holds true in Estonia as well. In 2018, a joint operation between Baltic investigative journalists and BuzzFeed revealed how the website Baltnews was taking orders and money directly from Russian organisations, in particular, Rossiya Segodnya. The site was publishing news on topics that described tensions within the US and the EU (such as conflicts over Greek sovereign debt) and news on the war in Eastern Ukraine.
But the investigation critically revealed the limits of Russian info-ops. Journalists reported that the managers of the website were purchasing artificial page views and comments form troll-farms in order to inflate the popularity of their operation to the owners. Estonian security services say these websites also serve the purpose of manufacturing opinions that can then be used to characterise the “mood” of local Russians.
It appears that Russian disinformation campaigns do not penetrate as deep into the local media ecosystem as their funders would have us believe.
They may not have to. Politically motivated, polarizing, and purposefully misleading content has recently made its way into mainstream Estonian journalism.
A healthy ecosystem under threat
The acquisition of Estonia’s largest newspaper Postimees by the businessman Margus Linnamäe with ties to all three parties currently in government is particularly concerning. The newspaper’s reporting has become increasingly politicised. Its opinion pages have been slating ever further towards the populist right, and journalists known for their criticism of the current government, which includes the far-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), have left the newspaper citing editorial pressure to moderate their criticism.
Estonia still retains a healthy media ecosystem. As other #DemocraCE colleagues report, government capture of public media institutions has been a trend across the region. In Romania and Bulgaria, this has been a long-term process. In Romania, public media institutions were critical in amplifying misleading and incendiary content during Romania’s 2017. referendum on the institution of marriage. In Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS) has effectively monopolised public media as its propaganda arm.
Estonian public media institutions have largely resisted the pressure to limits its criticism of the government. The decision of the public broadcaster ERR to dismiss one of its liberal commentators earlier in the year was met with widespread condemnation, including by journalists within ERR itself.
Here, for most of the 2010s, politically motivated incendiary rhetoric has been largely limited to the comments sections of major newspapers and to a small number of far-right websites associated with the far-right EKRE and fundamentalist Catholic organisation in Defense of Marriage and Family (SAPTK).
In addition, Tallinn TV, the TV channel of the capital was widely perceived as essentially a mouthpiece for the Centre Party, which runs the municipal government of the Estonian capital. But the propaganda of TTV was largely benign, and in any case, its ratings were laughable. And this year, the new mayor of Tallinn, Mikhail Kõlvart of the Centre Party shut the station down altogether.
Uued Uudised and Objektiiv, the online arms of the far-right were producing far more incendiary content, recycling misleading and scaremongering content from sources such as Breitbart or putting their own spin on news items gathered from mainstream wire services. They tended to report on pro-life rallies around the world, scare stories of refugees and migration, but also running commentary on current affairs in Estonia.
Over time, these website have become increasingly hostile, and their message has been amplified by EKRE politicians who are now in the government.
Mainstreaming the scaremongers
Yet recent developments have led journalists and commentators to ask whether the kind of aggressive and misleading invective that characterises these fringe websites is now becoming normalised in mainstream broadsheet journalism.
Most recently, this debate was resurrected when Peeter Helme, the editor-in-chief of Estonia’s largest daily, Postimees, penned an opinion article titled “Do you want total war?” – a quotation from none other than Joseph Goebbels. In the article, he criticised antigovernment protesters for existing in a “parallel reality”, for “floating ever further from the centre”, for “blind rage” and for “empty emotions”. He then argued that the far-right EKRE had “adjusted to Estonian politics” and moved further to the centre.
Critics pointed out that these claims were difficult to reconcile with reality: EKRE ministers, now nearly half a year in government, still call for “the destruction of this fake democracy”, end up in anti-semitic controversies, attempt to replace the prosecutor general and fire the chief of the police – the list goes on.
Equally concerning is the intensification of rhetoric. It is not every day that the editor-in-chief of major daily quotes Goebbels in his opinion piece. When queried about the title choice, Helme responded that “it is harder and harder to talk about serious issues, and only by using strong symbols can we do so.” This response appears quite ironic, as earlier in the year, Helme disciplined the journalist Vilja Kiisler for using “too combative” word choices in an article criticizing EKRE.
Second, when challenged about the factual errors in the article, Helme’s argued that opinion pieces “do not have to be always backed up with studies, they are places where journalists can speak from the gut.”
So the editor-in-chief of Estonia’s largest daily believed it was fine for journalists to write demonstrably false or misleading claims if they were “speaking from the gut”, and saw invocation of Nazi rhetoric as necessary for “speaking about serious issues”. Unsurprisingly, these comments caused quite the outrage.
Recently, following an expression of no confidence by the editorial staff of the newspaper, Helme was forced to resign as editor-in-chief. The no-confidence letter, leaked to the press, cited concerns over “censorship or self-censorship” and pressure to drop editorials and opinions pieces that criticised Linnamäe’s business interests or diverged from conservative talking points. In particular, Helme was accused of attempting to pull editorials supporting gay marriage, and criticizing the government’s backpedalling on reforming the pharmaceutical industry, which is currently dominated by Linnamäe’s companies.
The future of Postimees is still up in the air. Will the new editor-in-chief be a more hands-off manager or will Linnamäe, the paper’s owner, crack down on internal dissent? Under Linnamäe, the paper has been losing money and haemorrhaging staff. The newspaper can be a wide-tent, a quality journalism outfit, or a conservative flagship supported by a friendly oligarch. It cannot do both.