EU press monitor: A court ruling undermines Estonia’s press freedom

The Media Freedom Rapid Response, an EU organisation that tracks, monitors and reacts to violations of press and media freedom in EU member states and candidate countries, says its 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 District Court fined both journalists and the outlet’s publisher €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, the Princess of Hanover, to restrict free speech and sanction the journalists and outlet,” the Media Freedom Rapid Response, abbreviated as MFRR, said in a statement.

“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.”

A screenshot of the article on the Eesti Ekspress website that brought hefty fines for the newspaper's journalists.
A screenshot of the article on the Eesti Ekspress website that brought hefty fines for the newspaper’s journalists.

An undue interference with the right to free speech

“In the view of the MFRR partners, the implication of the ruling, ie 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 district court’s reasoning and reach a decision that respects the right to freedom of expression and to report news in the public interest.”

The Media Freedom Rapid Response tracks, monitors and reacts 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 an alliance led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig, International Press Institute and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa. The project commenced in 2020 and is funded by the European Commission.

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