Freedom of the Press
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The constitution provides for freedoms of speech and of the press, and the government respects these rights in practice. Libel is not a criminal offense, but journalists can be sued for civil defamation. Legal amendments enacted in 2010 contained provisions that many observers regard as threats to freedom of speech, including a measure that would allow courts to imprison journalists for refusing to disclose their sources in cases involving major crimes.
The news website Delfi remained embroiled in a legal case in 2014 involving media outlets’ responsibility for reader comments. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Estonia had ruled that online portals could be held liable for comments posted by their readers. The case was referred to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR upheld the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, stating that holding online portals liable for comments was a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression given the offensive nature of the comments in the particular case, the portal’s financial gain for publicizing them, and the fact that the Estonian court imposed a reasonable fine for damages. Many free speech organizations found the ruling to be a potential threat to freedom of expression online, as it could lead websites to suppress legitimate user comments. In January 2014, Delfi requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR; the request was accepted in February, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.
The principle of access to information is outlined in the constitution, and the Public Information Act establishes mechanisms for access and obliges authorities to assist citizens in the process. Estonia is a signatory to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Access to Official Documents, which establishes the right of anyone to request information held by public authorities at no charge.
There are two press councils in the country. The Estonian Public Broadcaster (ERR) is supervised by the Public Broadcasting Council (RHN), whose members—by law, four media professionals and one representative from each parliamentary faction—are elected by Parliament. In 2012, after the terms of the four media professionals expired, the ruling coalition replaced them with its own appointees without a public debate.
The country’s numerous media outlets carry a wide variety of views, generally without government interference. In 2012, however, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip questioned the integrity of some journalists as he responded to media criticism of his environment minister. Several politicians have also criticized the ERR in the past, calling for stronger regulation of journalistic activities and a greater government presence in the RHN.
In 2013, Minister of Culture Rein Lang announced that he would resign following a scandal involving a leadership change at Sirp, a publicly owned newspaper. It was alleged that Lang used his political power to influence the paper’s decision to hire Kaur Kender as the new editor in chief. Lang denied the allegations, but chose to resign after it became clear that it would be difficult for him to effectively continue his work as minister of culture.
In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, there was considerable debate in Estonia about politically motivated journalism by Russian progovernment outlets. During the year, the Ministry of Culture convened a committee of media professionals and experts to examine issues related to Russian-language media in Estonia, where Russian speakers comprise approximately a quarter of the population. In May, the committee proposed establishing a new Russian-language channel, in addition to strengthening existing programming. The new channel is expected to launch in 2015.
In December, authorities detained Italian journalist and former European Parliament member Giulietto Chiesa shortly after his arrival in Estonia for violating an entry ban issued days earlier. Chiesa had traveled to the country to participate in an event organized by a media club that Estonian authorities had linked to Russian foreign intelligence forces. He was released the same day and ordered to leave Estonia. Violence against journalists is rare, and no major incidents were reported in 2014.
The Estonian-language print media landscape includes four major dailies with national reach—Postimees, Õhtuleht, Eesti Päevaleht, and Äripäev—in addition to several regional, municipal, and weekly papers. A small group of private companies owns most newspapers, though some small publications receive aid from regional or municipal governments. Circulation of most newspapers continued to decline in 2014. ERR operates two television stations (ETV and ETV2) and five radio stations. There are two primary national commercial television stations—Kanal2 and TV3—and a large number of private radio stations and cable and satellite services. For the country’s sizable Russian-speaking population, there are television and radio programs in Russian (including on public channels), Russian-language newspapers, and access to broadcast and print media from Russia. Estonia remains among the leading countries in the world regarding internet penetration, with approximately 84 percent of the population accessing the medium in 2014. All major newspapers have gone online in recent years, and several online-only news portals have extensive readership.
Ownership in Estonia’s small media market is concentrated among a few companies, with competitors Ekspress Grupp and Eesti Media controlling most of the sector; cross-media ownership also persists.
Many commercial broadcasters have struggled financially in recent years even as cable operators have continued to earn profits. In 2012, Parliament amended legislation governing “must-carry” rules, clarifying that free-to-air broadcasters have the right to charge “reasonable” fees to cable operators that rebroadcast their content; the amendments did not provide guidelines for calculating such fees. As a result of the country’s 2009 economic crisis, a number of print outlets ceased publishing, while others cut staff and salaries and reduced their output. The crisis also led to significant declines in the advertising market. However, the sector has shown signs of recovery, and the decline in advertising revenues has since slowed or reversed.