An ugly mark on press freedom in Estonia: a court fines journalists for doing their job

Estonia, who recently rose to the fourth place in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, doesn’t seem to like its new ranking very much as a court in Estonia recently fined two journalists of the weekly Eesti Ekspress for reporting news that the state prosecutor’s office didn’t want them to report.

The Harju District Court fined Sulev Vedler and Tarmo Vahter, journalists at Eesti Ekspress, both €1,000, and the media house publishing the newspaper got a similar fine. The reason for the fine was an article the journalists and the newspaper published on 25 March about how the former leadership of Swedbank – the largest bank in Estonia and an affiliate of the Scandinavian banking corporation by the same name – was suspected in money laundering that happened years ago.

Vedler wrote in a later article that “Judge Alari Möldre fined us because we published the article without the permission from the state prosecutor’s office. The plaintiff’s representative, Sigrid Nurm, even wanted a harsher punishment – €3,200 each.” 

“The reason was that the state prosecutor’s office didn’t give me, Tarmo Vahter nor Ekspress Meedia (the media house publishing the weekly – editor) the permission to publish data that was under an investigation and we didn’t let the prosecutor’s office know about publishing the story.”

“Until now, the principle in Estonia was that speech is free and published information must be true. A journalist or a publication never needed to ask permission to publish news that’s important for the public,” Vedler wrote.

Sulev Vedler, one of the Eesti Ekspress journalists who was fined €1,000 for publishing the article the state prosecutor’s office didn’t allow to be published. Photo from Vedler’s Facebook account.

A dangerous precedent

The editor-in-chief of Eesti Ekspress, Merili Nikkolo, told news portal Delfi that they’re going to appeal the court’s decision she described as a dangerous precedent regarding the freedom of the press.

“We asked the court to set aside the verdict or impose the fine in the amount of €0,” Nikkolo said. “When the decision came and we read it, there was no doubt we’d appeal it.”

“Fining journalists for doing their job creates a dangerous precedent. It sends the message that in order to write articles, one needs to ask permission from the state prosecutor’s office or at least let them know so that they could decide which issues are important to the public and which are not,” Nikkolo told the news portal. She added that now they had to think about every such article, whether they needed to ask the prosecutor’s office permission, or else be fined.

“This principle is not in harmony with the freedom of the press. I emphasise, the question is not about the facts in the story. The story was right and correct. The journalists are being fined because they did their job well.”

State prosecutor: “You as journalists don’t want to understand”

Andres Parmas, Estonia’s state prosecutor, told Delfi that the fine was right because the journalists broke the law. According to him, the journalists published information that his office didn’t allow them to publish and thus, the journalists damaged the investigation. 

“The object of a criminal investigation can’t be published. The state has the responsibility to hold a criminal responsible; by publishing the article, they damaged the investigation,” Parmas told Delfi, adding that there’s no point in talking about the journalists doing their job, because “in that case, you don’t understand that publishing is banned” and “it’s something you as journalists don’t want to understand”.

Andres Parmas, the state prosecutor. Photo from the state prosecutor’s office website.

The Eesti Ekspress article in question, published on 25 March, says that the state prosecutor’s office is suspecting Swedbank Estonia and its former leaders in money laundering in the amount of more than €100 million. The suspicion is related to transactions made in 2014-2016.

On 2 May, the 2022 World Press Freedom Index was published by Reporter Without Borders, assessing the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories. Estonia was ranked fourth – having risen from last year’s 15th position. It’s entirely possible that the fining of journalists for doing their jobs will be reflected in the next year’s index – as the index takes into the account the legal framework for the media, including penalties for press offences and how the media is regulated. 

Estonian World and its journalists firmly stand with our colleagues from Eesti Ekspress and any other media outlet unjustly persecuted by the state or anyone else.

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