Public funds have been used to advertise politicians and parties under the label of information activities
Eestlased Eestis 14 Jan 2015  EWR
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Airi Mikli | Toomas Mattson | riigikontroll.ee
TALLINN, 14 January 2015 – After analysing the information expenses of local authorities, the National Audit Office found that the City of Tallinn had used funds from its budget to finance information, which against the background of the 2013 local elections could be regarded as election advertising of politicians or political parties.

Using politicians in the information activities of local authorities is not prohibited in itself, but the information activities of a local authority cannot be aimed at building the image of a political party or the election advertising of politicians.

The amount spent from the budget of the City of Tallinn on notices that can be construed as election advertising in 2013 was ca 337,000 euros. Tallinn has not acted in public interest when using its funds for the election advertising of politicians and the political party, which is why it has violated the Local Government Organisation Act and the procedure for the management of municipal assets, and the amounts spent on such information do not comply with the city budget. In addition to the elements of election advertising in the messages of the notices, the facts also suggest the city planned to seek political influence.

This is highlighted by the unusual behaviour of the agencies of Tallinn in the period leading to the elections, as a significant share of the money allocated to information activities was spent in the period before the elections. In 2012 the city spent 12% of its TV information budget on the provision of such information from August to October, but the relevant indicator a year later was 93%. The majority of the TV information given during this period in 2013 was political in its nature. It also became evident that the agencies of Tallinn that usually issue very few notices or none at all suddenly started issuing notices with strong political messages before the elections. It also became evident that on top of adding political nuances to messages, the city also started giving information about events of which the general public is usually not informed on such a massive scale, such as the completion of investment projects.

The fact that a local authority spends money on such advertisements is also an example of the abuse of public funds, which creates unfair political competition and is a threat to the development of democracy. The outgoings of a local authority can only be based on public interest. If a local authority spends money on advertising politicians or parties, it acts in private interests and wastes taxpayers’ money, as this leaves less money for doing something in public interest.

The National Audit Office is of the opinion that the laws of Estonia are currently inadequate and cannot efficiently prevent election advertising for the money of public agencies. This statement does not apply to local authorities alone, but to public sector entities in general. Such violations can be ascertained after the fact, but doing this requires a lot of time and resources. The effective standards are not enough to efficiently prevent prohibited activities or to quickly stop such activities at the time elections. The National Audit Office therefore considers it necessary for the Riigikogu to continue reviewing the laws that regulate advertising and the financing of political parties.

Although the essence of prohibited advertising cannot be exhaustively furnished by law, rules about the qualities of prohibited advertising should be regulated. The law should provide a list of certain universal qualities that characterise prohibited advertising. This would give the persons who order and supervise advertisements a more definite basis on which to decide whether or not an advertisement is lawful. The National Audit Office also advises to amend the Political Parties Act by giving the Political Party Funding Supervision Committee the status of a body that exercises state supervision with the right to apply the state supervision measures set forth in the Law Enforcement Act.

The National Audit Office identified a notice with a political message in Tartu within the context of the audit. This information was not financed directly from the city budget and the collected evidence gives no reason to claim that the city sought to achieve political influence with the notice.

The National Audit Office audited the expenses of the information activities of 15 local in 2012 and 2013 in order to obtain an overview if the content and size of these expenses.

The amount spent by Estonian local authorities on information activities is ca 4-5 million euros per year. Tallinn and Tartu were selected in the course of the audit on the basis of the analysed data and the lawfulness of their expenses was evaluated in detail. The opinion was given on the basis of the Local Government Organisation Act and the legislation of Tallinn and Tartu regarding the use of municipal assets. The National Audit Office also evaluated the compliance of information expenses with the budget and the adherence to public procurement rules when costs were being incurred.

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
 
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