On February 5, 2019, the American non-governmental organization Freedom House published its annual Freedom in the World 2019 rating, where it ranked Estonia among the free countries, estimating its freedom of speech level at 94 points out of 100 (at the level of Germany and Iceland).
On April 18, 2019, Estonia ranked as high as 11th among 180 countries according to the annual rating compiled by Reporters Without Borders in the Press Freedom Index.
The experts for Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders make their ratings, allegedly based on a survey of journalists, human rights activists, social scientists and lawyers. However, such high rates, at least, bewilder those familiar with freedom of speech in Estonia.
The independent analytical center “Euroexpert”, a partner of the Foundation for Protection of National Values, has prepared a special study on freedom of speech violations in Estonia.
In a country with a “high level” of press freedom, the Estonian special services tightly control not only independent, but also so-called mainstream media, owned by Estonian private or state-owned companies. It costs them nothing to “destroy” a journalist reputation, or threaten potential advertisers with “explanations”. Regular “random” checks at the border are also in place, as well as filing flimsy administrative and criminal cases.
Of particular note is the annual report released on April 12 by the Estonian Internal Security Service (KaPo), which includes journalists and media with a different from the ruling parties view on events in Estonia and the world. Getting into the yearbook is a “black mark”, after which all the above described actions are included, up to squeezing a particularly dull one out of the job. The organizations that get such a “mark” instantly lose the state, sponsor support and the financing by European funds and other enterprises.
In Estonia, with just over a million potential readers, the events given below have become a warning to journalists, human rights defenders, and members of non-governmental NGOs for the years to come.
Immediately after the memorable events in April 2007, Igor Kuldmaa, the editor-in-chief of the most popular Delfi portal in Estonia, was fired, as he tried to convey more or less objective opinion about the situation around the Bronze Soldier to the readers.
According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2007, Estonia, together with Slovakia, took 3-4 place in the freedom rating.
In 2009, popular Estonian bloggers, Inno and Irya Tyahismaa, came under close attention of the Estonian intelligence services for their critical and sometimes satirical publications about Estonian state of affairs. On April 28, the police broke into their home, conducted a search, seized photo, video and office equipment, as well as personal belongings and telephones. Their legal request to wait for a lawyer was denied.
In November 2010, the Estonian Parliament, despite numerous protests by the public, a number of politicians, the journalistic community (on March 18, the six largest Estonian newspapers that belong to the Union of Estonian newspapers came out with blank front pages of newspapers), adopted the so-called Lang law on the protection of sources. Its provisions obliged journalists to disclose their confidential sources of information without a court order at the authorities’ request.
The adopted law did not spoil, but improved the indicators of press freedom in Estonia: according to the rating compiled by the international organization «Reporters without Borders», it ranked 9-10th in the world in 2010.
In August 2011, the editor-in-chief for the Estonian state radio news Vallo Kelmsaar was dismissed for “improper coverage” of the authorities actions during an attack on the Estonian Ministry of Defense building by an Estonian citizen and lawyer Karen Drambyan.
Priit Toobal, MP, a member of the Council for the Estonian State Television and Radio Company (ERR), said at the time the Kelmsaar dismissal, who had worked on the radio for 15 years, was political. In his opinion, the journalist could have critically reacted to the authorities’ moves – the Drambyan murder.
In 2011, the 2009 most voted reporter for the most popular Estonian radio Vikkerradio, Mart Ummelas, resigned in protest against the «lacquering» reality policy, lack of reasoned criticism of the authorities and a list of people not admitted to work in the mainstream media. Ummelas said that journalism, which by definition should be the watchdog of democracy, ceases to perform in Estonia, and the largest media group leaders choose only those political partners who not only contribute to business, but also make it possible to establish close ties between the government and the media.
“Reporters without Borders” placed Estonia and the Netherlands 3d and 4th in their ranking according to the 2011 outcome.
On March 7, 2014, Yevgeny Levik, editor for the Radio Broadcasting Service of the Estonian Public Broadcasting Service (ERR), a journalist with 20 years of experience, was dismissed. The reason for the dismissal was the “incorrect” views he had on Ukraine agenda, and the coverage of the Kiev events in Estonia.
On December 15, 2014, Italian journalist, publicist and public figure, ex-MEP (2004-2009) Giulietto Chiesa was detained in a Tallinn hotel, taken to the police station, and later was expelled from the country. He was supposed to speak to journalists and the public at the international media club Impressum in Tallinn on the topic “Should Europe be afraid of Russia?”
In November 2014, Margarita Kornysheva, editor for the Russian-language part of the Delfi portal, when speaking at a round table on the issuess of the Russian press in Estonia, arranged by MEP Yana Toom in Brussels, said that “journalists in Estonia have never been in so tough a state as now. And obedience in the Estonian media just rolls over. ”
On April 15, 2015, the contract with the Delfi editor Kornysheva was terminated because the employee “despite the warning, ignored the reasonable orders of the employer or violated work obligations,” and also “caused a third party to distrust the employer.”
Kornysheva is one of the most famous journalists of the last decade, she has worked in the leading Estonian media. She is the author of hundreds of investigations on political corruption, privatization, economics and crime, as well as so “dangerous” for Russian journalists in Estonia topics as revival of neo-Nazism, Russophobia and the Security Service (KaPo).
Kornysheva herself stated that her dismissal was political in nature and linked to the “inconvenient” topics of her publications, mainly related to Russian themes, as well as politicization of the Security Service activities, which Kornysheva had proved with solid evidence in her work.
In 2015 Estonia remained at the 11th place in the 180th Annual Press Freedom Index, compiled by the international human rights organization Reporters Without Borders.
Over the years there have been a lot of “quiet” dismissals, by “mutual agreement of the parties”. Similarly, the journalist for the “Postimees” Andrei Babin, who received the prestigious award – a creative business trip to Russia, was threatened with dismissal by the management if he accepted the award. Babin chose the award and was fired.
Over the past four years after the Kornysheva scandal, the situation with the freedom of speech in Estonia has not changed. After stripping “mainstream” media, journalists do not risk going beyond the “red line” and turn on the self-censorship mode.
All the cases that we contributed here should be known to the experts of Freedom Haus, Reporters Without Borders, and yet, year after year Estonia has been given prestigious high rankings. The analysts for these organizations seem to simply “automatically” give “good marks” to the media in the friendly states, not really delving into the affairs of distant and obscure countries.
Besides, we have noted that we deliberately did not cite numerous examples of harassment of journalists, publishers, media experts – “propagandists” and “agents of Kremlin influence”. According to the local security police and “tame” mainstream media, all of the mentioned above are to blame for other, unlike authorities, views on the intercommunal living of Russians and Estonians, development of relations with Russia. Also, the review does not include regular cases of resistance to the work by Russian journalists, including bans on visiting the country and refusals to issue visas.
Alexander Kornilov, exclusive for the Foundation for Protection of National Values