Journalists force Estonia’s largest daily’s editor-in-chief to leave over censorship concerns

The journalists of the largest daily newspaper in Estonia, Postimees, forced its editor-in-chief, Peeter Helme, to leave his post, threatening to leave themselves unless Helme resigned; according to the journalists, Helme wasn’t suitable to work as the chief editor and was trying to impose censorship over the newspaper’s content.

Nineteen journalists of Postimees gave an ultimatum on 1 November, threatening to resign unless the editor-in-chief leaves his post. They said in the ultimatum that Helme had in several occasions attempted to impose a censorship upon the journalists and told them that certain opinions and views were not aligned with the worldview represented by Postimees – an unprecedented approach at the newspaper, according to the journalists.

The staff had a crisis meeting during the day and in the evening, Estonian time, Helme announced he was going to resign.

Helme imposed censorship

According to an employee of Postimees, who spoke to Estonian World under the condition of anonymity, one of the reasons why the journalists demanded Helme’s resignation was that on 31 October, the editor-in-chief pressured the head of the opinion section to censor the daily commentary that supported gay marriage. The source said Helme had noted that Postimees wasn’t a newspaper that supported gay marriage.

However, the daily commentary is a genre where journalists express their own opinions, not those of the newspaper. The source told Estonian World that Helme’s position that the opinion section should be the place to publish articles that align with the worldview of the newspaper itself means direct censorship.

“The press is based on trust. The biggest asset of the newspaper is the readers’ conviction that the editorial board is free to deal with the topics. For some time now, Postimees has been troubled by readers’ hesitation that the page is no longer comprehensive and independent,” the source said. “We have worked hard to prove otherwise. However, we are now in a position where we must admit that addressing certain topics and representing some opinions is indeed, hindered at the Postimees.”

Helme said in the evening of 1 November that he decided to leave his post to guarantee the peace at the workplace.

Postimees owner meddling in a newspaper’s editorial content

Peeter Helme became the editor-in-chief of Postimees in April 2019. Before that, he briefly worked as the head of the opinion section of the newspaper.

In July 2019, Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation that conducts political advocacy on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press, expressed concern about Postimees and called the newspaper’s owner to respect the editorial independence of the daily.

Postimees, established in 1857, is the largest daily in Estonia.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the newspaper’s owner, Estonian businessman Margus Linnamäe told his staff that “not all opinions are worth repeating, only the good ones”. The newspaper’s motto, which appears at the top of page one every day, was changed by Linnamäe’s team in May to: “We stand for the preservation of the Estonian people, the Estonian language and the Estonian culture through the ages.”

“We are concerned to see a media owner meddling so openly in a newspaper’s editorial content and threatening its independence like this,” Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of the European Union and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders, said. “Must we remind Margus Linnamäe that the Munich Charter says that the journalist’s profession must never be confused with the advertiser’s or propagandist’s? Such behaviour could threaten Estonia’s 11th ranking in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index and its favourable climate for journalists.”

Many Postimees journalists have already left

Although Linnamäe bought Postimees in 2015, his editors did not start leaving until 2018, when he began to impose his vision and ideas. “They included Neeme Korv, one of the newspaper’s oldest journalists, who had worked with all of the editors-in-chief since 1991 and who had edited the op-ed pages for the past 11 years, until he left in December,” the organisation said.

“I’d never before worked with an editor-in-chief who wasn’t able to control all aspects of the newspaper,” Korv told Reporters Without Borders. He said he saw press freedom being restricted within the newspaper and complained about it to Linnamäe himself several times, but never got a proper answer.

Postimees’ building in Tallinn, Estonia.

The Estonian media has also written about Linnamäe’s desire to make Postimees a flagship of conservative media and to that end, there have been many changes among the staff of the newspaper.

In April, Vilja Kiisler, a journalist at Postimees, decided to leave her post due to differences with the paper’s editor-in-chief over what she expressed in an opinion article. Kiisler announced on 22 April she would be leaving the newspaper after she wrote an op-ed about the politicians of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, a far-right party that has now been included in the Estonian governing coalition.

Peeter Helme is the nephew of Mart Helme, the leader of the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party.

Cover: Peeter Helme (Photo by Ave Maria Mõistlik/Wikimedia Commons).

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