Eesti Elu
European journalists express concern about proposed sources law in Estonia
Arvamus 09 Apr 2010  Eesti Elu
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“Press freedom must be defended everywhere in the world with the same energy and the same insistence,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said in 2009 as his organization issued its eighth annual world press freedom index. Estonia fared very well in that index, placing sixth behind the five nations – Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden – that tied for first.

Since then, however, Estonia’s international reputation for free press among peers has taken a bit of a beating, prompted by a law drafted by Estonia’s Minister of Justice, Rein Lang, that seeks to significantly reduce the traditional protection, including anonymity, afforded to journalists’ sources. The proposed law would provide courts with the power to imprison journalists who fail to reveal their sources as well as providing the legal system with the right to impose fines on newspapers solely on the suspicion that they intend to publish “potentially harmful information.”

While the draft has been presented to the Riigikogu only in its preliminary, draft form, Estonia’s media has been up in arms about its implications. The most notable reaction to date in print occurred on March 18th, when six of Estonia’s leading newspapers published blank front pages to protest the proposed law.

At the end of last month three prominent international media workers organizations decided to get involved. On March 29th the European Newspaper’s Publisher’s Association (ENPA), representing 5,200 newspapers in 25 European countries (including Estonia); the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum, representing 18,000 publications in more than 120 countries; and the European Union of Journalists (EFJ) representing 250,000 journalists across Europe (including Estonia) wrote an open letter to Estonia’s President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. (It may be of interest to note here that the EFJ is the European group of the International Federation of Journalists, which represents journalists unions and associations across the world and is the largest professional organization of its kind.)

The letter, which can well be considered as reflecting the representative voice of journalists in Europe, has two key paragraphs, which state as follows:

“We are deeply concerned that this law poses a serious threat to freedom of the press. It would, in particular, have significant negative impact on investigative journalism and articles based on information provided by whistleblowers. Furthermore, the draft law is in clear conflict with Estonia’s treaty obligations, international standards of professional practice and codes of journalism ethics, including The Code of Ethics of the Estonian Press.

“ We respectfully call on you to do everything possible to ensure that the proposed unprecedented draft law is rejected in its current form and that amendments are introduced to provide full protection for journalists’ sources. We urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure that your country fully respects its international obligations and standards of press freedom.”

Since the Union of Estonian Journalists – Eesti Ajakirjanike Liit (EAL) – distributed this letter to its membership on March 30 (disclosure – the undersigned is a member of EAL) there has been no official response from either the president or the justice minister. Or, to be precise, nothing that has reached the membership of EAL from the EAL office. Nor have these eyes noticed anything online, while perusing Estonia’s dailies.

Is there a cover-up? Is this but a tempest in a teapot? Should journalists remain thankful that they at least have a job in these trying times? In these days of modern desinformatsiya, which include dishonest weblogs and pranks disseminated at the speed of the internet, facts are perhaps harder to ascertain than ever before. And when it comes to the fuzzy copyright and source acknowledgment issues on the net the issue becomes even murkier.

In one of those what ifs, had Bill Clinton (or for that matter Tricky Dick) been in power today, in the immediately tweeting and twittering interconnected media age, their transgressions-slash-ethics/law-breaking might never have taken place. Or so one hopes, knowing of the power of honest reporting based on reliable sources, sources who have provided the gen with the knowledge that they personally will not suffer vindictive retribution for exposing the truth to the media.

Is this what Justice Minister Lang is attempting to avoid with his draft law? Does THI have an opinion that might/could be publicized? It is good to know that large international journalists’ organizations are on to what might perhaps transpire in Estonia. Hats off to the brave journalists that went abroad to respected international organizations with their concerns.

Historical comparisons might exist for older readers, times, when newspapers would never dare publish a bare first page in protest of what to all intents and purposes is a rather draconian draft law.

Muzzling the media is no answer to resolving fundamental issues of honest and balanced reporting. For all of the flaws of Estonia’s dailies as seen from a North American perspective, (never mind their internet editions with the emphasis on titillation) one must still respect the Reporters Without Borders ranking as a valid and genuine peer evaluation.

Or is it truly that ethical journalism is so dangerous that democratically elected free world governments have something to fear? Pinch me, what century is this?
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