Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting send dangerous signal

ECPMF

06 May 2022

No Comments

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.

 

On 25 March 2022, journalists Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler published an article in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress which named former management at Swedbank Estonia who had come under suspicion of money laundering activities between 2014 and 2016. On 14 April, following a complaint by the prosecutor’s office, the Harju County Court fined both journalists and the outlet’s publisher EUR 1,000 each for publishing the article without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. 

 

The decision is based on a section in the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits the publication of materials from the criminal case file without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. In its ruling, the Court stated there was no public interest in disclosing the information and that the only motive had been to satiate curiosity. The decision relies on the reasoning in a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that concerned the publication of paparazzo pictures of Caroline Princess of Hanover to restrict free speech and sanction the journalists and outlet. 

 

However, in this case at hand, the public interest is unquestionable: the article was related to the suspected fraud at a major financial institution that had possible implications for public funds. Moreover, Swedbank itself had announced to the Tallinn Stock Exchange that the prosecutor’s office suspected it of possible money laundering, one day before the publication of the impugned article in Eesti Ekspress. Several former bankers confirmed the suspicions and some even commented on the news themselves. Overall, the MFRR considers that the article was written in line with journalistic deontology and professional standards.

 

In the view of the MFRR partners, the implication of the ruling, i.e. that the prosecutor’s office’s permission must be sought before publishing articles or that they must be informed so they can choose which topics are of public interest and which are not, and the imposition of criminal fines, constitute an undue interference with the right to free speech and undermine press freedom.

 

The journalists and media outlet appealed the decision on 29 April. The MFRR partners will continue to follow the proceedings closely. We call on the Circuit Court to thoroughly revisit the County Court’s reasoning and reach a decision that respects the right to freedom of expression and to report news in the public interest.

Signed:

ARTICLE 19 Europe

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

International Press Institute (IPI)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement has been written by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by a consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) including ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

Read news by categories:

Related news

Statement

Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station Tilos Rádió

The partners of the MFRR express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council to block the frequency license renewal of Tilos Rádió.

READ MORE
Statement

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated against future attacks

Partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) have published a statement urging the Czech Government to come good on its promises to strengthen the independence of public broadcasters and to seize the opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its EU presidency programme.

READ MORE
Statement

Open Letter: Safeguarding peace and democracy in Europe through a strong European Media Freedom Act

To mark Europe Day 2022, ECPMF joined an open letter to European Commissioners Vera Jourová, Thierry Breton and Margrethe Vestager to call on the Commission to take an ambitious approach to the European Media Freedom Act.

READ MORE
Statement

Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must be investigated

The MFRR, together with Safe Journalists Network and RSF, have written to Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection of Albania, calling for a thorough investigation into a recent private data breach and intimidation of journalists in Albania.

READ MORE
Statement

Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting send dangerous signal

The MFRR partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.

READ MORE
Statement

CASE welcomes the EC’s Anti-SLAPP Initiative as a landmark step in the right direction

The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) welcomes the European Commission’s anti-SLAPP initiative unveiled today which includes key remedies and safeguards needed in any effective anti-SLAPP legislation.

READ MORE