The Estonian government’s attempt to make journalists disclose their sources is taking so much flak, it’s hard to believe they will go ahead with it.
Marius Dragomir, Transitions Online
In the widely acclaimed Millennium trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, the first thing that one of the main characters, journalist and publisher Mikael Blomqvist, does following the killing of one of his freelance reporters is to delete all digital material related to the sources used by the murdered journalist for a story he was working on. When the police summon the newspaper to hand over all the dead man’s written material, Blomqvist complies with the request, adding serenely that he destroyed only the information that could endanger the man’s sources. The officer grits his teeth but can’t do anything against the journal or its staff.
In reality, that is exactly how it works. Sweden remains one of the few countries in the world that guarantees total anonymity of journalistic sources. Swedish law goes so far as to threaten imprisonment for a journalist who reveals sources without their prior approval. But Estonia, a country with an enviable record of press freedom and much Swedish influence in the media, made headlines recently after it unveiled a bill that wants to do exactly the opposite: force journalists to disclose their sources.
A FLIMSY SHIELD
Plans for a new Estonian press law were made public in 2008 when the minister of justice, Rein Lang, created a working group to produce new legislation on media freedom. The initiative didn’t stir much interest.
One year later, representatives of the same ministry boasted that, in accord with European good practices, the country was to adopt legislation that would protect Estonian journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. The country’s journalists were already covered by a nonbinding ethics code that obliges them not to disclose news sources. The bill, the ministry said, was meant to give legal force to that protection.
But although it guarantees in principle the journalists’ right not to reveal their sources, the legislation put forward by the ministry foresees at least 50 situations, most concerning investigations of serious crimes, in which journalists could be jailed if they refused to disclose the identity of their sources to various authorities such as the police and courts. The last case of a journalist in Estonia being ordered by police to disclose a source was five years ago, after a reporter for the prominent daily Eesti Paevaleht wrote a story about a waiter who spat on a customer’s cutlet. The police wanted to identify the waiter, but in spite of being kept under arrest for two days and interrogated, the reporter didn’t snitch.
Since its content was made public in November, the Rein Lang bill has been sharply criticized. The dispute between the press and the government climaxed on 18 March with a protest action by six major dailies. Postimees, Ohtuleht, and Aripaev appeared with blank front pages and three others, including Eesti Paevaleht, ran a blank inside page. The papers published a statement complaining that the measure could “send journalists engaged in investigative journalism to prison, obligate them to disclose the names of the sources who have provided them with information,” and impose fines on newspapers given a warning by the authorities.
The bill, which was sent to the Estonian parliament for debate, has since triggered an avalanche of protests and criticism from various press watchdogs and industry associations in Estonia and abroad.
Such legal restrictions have a chilling effect particularly on investigative journalists, who often must rely on anonymous sources, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the World Editors Forum, the European Publishers Association, and the European Federation of Journalists warned in a letter to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
A PROUD RECORD
What’s so surprising about the Estonian press law saga is not so much the legislation itself but the fact that it was written by the government of one of the most progressive countries from the old communist block. Estonia sports an impressive record of freedom of speech and has been praised for its progressive and liberal approach to new technologies.
Estonia came sixth in the 2009 Press Freedom Index compiled by the international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, behind four Scandinavian countries and Ireland. The birthplace of Skype, Estonia led the Internet revolution, making access to the Internet a legal right long before Western European countries even thought about it. The country held the first online election in the world in 2007. A tiny former Soviet republic with some 1.4 million inhabitants, Estonia had only half of its population hooked up to a telephone landline fewer than 20 years ago.
Much of the privately owned media in the country have been in the hands of Scandinavian media groups. Norway’s Schibsted and Sweden’s Bonnier Media and Modern Times Group have made hefty investments in the Estonian media over the past two decades.
The Rein Lang bill looks strident in this orderly, Nordic environment. With pressure pouring in from all over, the Estonian authorities have slowly stepped back in recent weeks and promised that they would adopt the measure only after serious consultations with industry representatives and media experts.
A member of the Justice Ministry’s working group on the bill, Robert Antropov, told journalists that the planned provisions on source disclosure are meant to smoke out criminals who can be convicted only with the help of journalists. But the arguments put forward by the government don’t hold water. Criminal codes exist to enable the authorities to take care of criminals and there is no reason for media legislation to share this responsibility. Europe is moving forward to bolster protection of sources. Sweden’s legislation of freedom of print information, for example, which protects journalistic sources, has been extended in recent years to digital media. Belgium just did the same.
The Justice Ministry has invited in recent weeks a swath of media and legal experts and journalists to debate the proposed legislation. After the slaps it has taken already and with such a good lot giving advice, it is hard to believe that the proud Estonians will ever go ahead with this law.
Marius Dragomir is a media analyst in London.
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