First of all, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to the Estonian Association of Journalists, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. A mere year after the establishment of the Republic of Estonia in the winter of 1918, the Association of Journalists was also founded. This shows that free speech and national freedom went hand-in-hand right from the start. Our later history also shows that one cannot exist without the other.
I am very happy to welcome you, delegates of the European Association of Journalists, here in Tallinn. I hope that you had an eventful day yesterday and that the conference will leave you with some time to see the city, network and develop a wish to return.
For Estonians, freedom of speech and national freedom are almost synonymous. Once, during the occupation, a poem was published in which the first letters of its lines spelled ‘sinimustvalge’ – blue, black and white. The colors of our banned flag. Estonians noticed it, of course, and snickered at the poor censor who had missed such a simple and obvious detail. Such clear manifestations of the fact that we had not forgotten our country were, of course, few and far between. Nevertheless, these signs were sought for and found, mainly from literary magazines rather than political ones. Free speech did not exist, but the speech was fighting its way out in the literary magazine Looming and its library while the journal Vikerkaar already smelled of pure freedom.
Yes, even the smell of freedom reached us via the work of journalists. Vikerkaar. The Phosphorite War. Let us think of more. Self-managing Estonia. To hell with it! These journalistic actions encouraged the Estonian people to dream of freedom once again. The speech was getting bolder in its struggle, tested its limits and at one point discovered that they were not there.
Journalists played a very clear role in our struggle for independence. Long stories initiated by the Communist Party in daily newspapers and messages hidden within songs, poems and elsewhere were an obvious daily reminder of our lost freedom. It is no wonder that Estonians have loved and treasured the written word throughout history. Drawing on this, it is easy to understand why Estonia ranks 11th in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index and 8th in Europe. We are preceded only by the Nordic countries, the Low Countries and Switzerland. It is an achievement that we have been proud of and it gives us reason to be proud even today.
Speech is free in Estonia. The press is free. Journalists are free. Freedom of speech and the press have not diminished in Estonia in recent weeks or months.
Nevertheless, this freedom does not stand on its own. The experience of some other countries, where lying politicians and conspiracy theorists – who are not always the best at substantial debates – play a significant role in society, forces us to be very attentive in today’s Estonia.
Namely, it is characteristic of the free press to point out, on the basis of facts and analysis, that politicians are lying, that they are not competent. This is the job of a free press – to test those who lead us, either at the helm of large companies, state institutions or major parties, on a daily basis. To show society how we think, how we understand the world, what we believe in and how we want to improve life in Estonia.
However, if there is something to hide or nothing constructive to say, power tends to oppress the mind. We can sense this pattern. This pattern may stick. Naturally, not in the way, it did at the start of the Soviet occupation. Before the Soviet occupation, the media of the Republic of Estonia was not as free as today. Times were different.
Today, it is hard to imagine censorship outside of media companies. This makes possible self-censorship even more dangerous – whether it is caused by the outlet’s economic situation, a media company’s preference of a certain world view and their unwillingness to admit it or journalists’ understandable concern about their job or social media storms and personal attacks.
For years, these storms have not only originated from social media, but also from quasi-journalistic outlets such as municipal media. Outlets that have slowly started to air programs that cannot really be criticised from the journalistic aspect. This creates more confusion in people’s heads and makes it seems as if the messages spread by Tallinn TV are not always ideologically charged, because this is not the case with every program, or makes us not surprised with a minister’s adviser having their own political program where they, in truth, are properly grilled about their political views only every now and then. Today, we do not even raise our eyebrows if a channel airs a program led by two ministers with no independent journalists to keep them in line.
Looking at Estonian journalism today, it is impossible not to detect these patterns. It is important for us to be frank about all of this. This way we encourage journalists, heads of media organizations and citizens to defend and maintain our 11th place among the free presses of the world.
One day, I brought this perceivable pattern with me to the Session Hall of the Riigikogu. It was not a sign of speech not being free. It was a message and an expression of support for journalists, media companies and editors. Because freedom – including freedom of speech and the press – is something that we ourselves must constantly create. Again and again. It must be cultivated and sustained.
In many ways, Estonia owes its 28 years of development and success to its journalists. The media, which has been free, independent and resolute. The media that has developed and perpetuated its own freedom and independence on a daily basis in the context of constant competition between strong and competitive media companies. This competition has seen better and worse times – and the current period is definitely not the easiest time for it – but it has driven society forward.
Freedom of speech cannot be measured with a tape measure. Even if this was possible, the same measurement can produce different results on different days and in different years. The extent of freedom of speech depends, above all, on the context where it is measured. It depends on the environment that surrounds us at a given point of time.
The background matters. In the last few months, the media has found itself under unusual attacks even in Estonia. Consequently, some steps, words, terminated employment relationships or invitations to a balanced discussion, which would have only made you shrug at another point of time, now come off as scary. In addition to having such an effect, they can also be dangerous if the environment allows it.
Free speech may well be the strongest force in the world. This is why many regimes are so terrified of it that they do everything in their power to prevent its spread in society. At the same time, freedom of speech is also one of the most fragile and vulnerable phenomena.
It is an ecosystem in its own right. It is not one solid lump that you can chisel a chip off and be certain that speech continues to be free less that one small corner. It is not so, because one small loose chip may cause the whole society to lose faith in free speech.
What is the importance of free speech anyway? What is the importance of press freedom? Why is it important for us to have independent journalism? Independence in itself does not guarantee good journalism. Independent journalism does not essentially guarantee the highest quality. But you know what – this is not important at all, because the value of independent journalism lies in its impartiality.
Just as the value of democracy does not lie in making the most right and quickest decisions. Its value lies in democratic decision-making. People can make decisions. People can also make mistakes. This also applies to journalism – independent journalism makes mistakes, too, but this is a small price to pay for its independence.
Independent and free media cannot be severed from the nature of democracy. If democracy is the foundation our metaphorical social house stands on, then freedom of speech is its window. After all, we can have a windowless house. However, soon enough, we begin to feel a bit weird in it. The lack of ventilation makes it stuffy. Stale air makes people sick. In the end, the house will be swallowed by dry rot.
So, what jeopardises our press freedom in 2019 in addition to political threats? On the one hand, the media cycle has accelerated to a great degree. Everything is available 24/7. This requires editorial boards to respond with ever increasing speed, to continuously fire away, for fear of being abandoned by their readers, listeners or viewers the moment they stop to breathe and relax for a bit. Abandoned and forgotten.
And if readers do not click, view or listen, there will be no money. The number of subscribers is declining anyway and the media survives on advertising. This, however, tends to be directed into Google, Facebook and the ever-increasing number of platforms, the names of which are unknown to an average 49-year-old.
This, in turn, leads us to another problem – information is available, there is a lot of it and it is free and everywhere. The New York Times and local yellow news outlets are at the same distance from consumers. They may look the same and make superficial consumers believe that the information contained therein is of equal quality. Or that there is information in both of them rather than only in one with the other offering information-like content that is actually produced with other purposes in mind.
If we add the general wave of populism, threats of hybrid war and use of information as a strategic weapon to this, it results in a perfect storm. Life is not easy for you journalists.
Who can provide journalists with the certainty that speech will continue to be free? Not me. I can go around saying that speech is free, but this does not actually make it any freer. I can remind people every now and then, but this freedom can, above all, be sustained by the media itself. Editors. Editors-in-chief. Owners of media companies. They are the backbone of our free speech. They can and must guarantee the freedom and independence of journalists. They must stand up for their journalists. Only then can journalists provide society with the certainty that speech is free. That our house has windows and it does not develop mildew, rot or collapse altogether.
What can I do as a politician in addition to casting light on worrying patterns at the Riigikogu?
For instance, I can say that I admire those county-level one-person shows, who travel, act, edit and fly from Jõgeva to Tartu all on their own in a mad rush just to be on the air in the evening. I naturally respond to the questions of these men and women.
I can also say that I see how Evelyn Kaldoja keeps a blog and conducts interviews during the Munich Security Conference, collecting material for later lengthy stories. I think that at some point, she may come to hate online media more than any politician while being there.
I can say that I see how the hands of experienced journalists specializing in foreign policy, who have mainly been focused on writing in the past, shake when presenting their first online story. I know that they do it in addition to, rather than instead of, their old work. For the same salary no less.
Thank you, Estonian journalists, for being free. Dear editors and owners, take good care of our journalists. Protect them and their peace at work as much as you can and are willing to against attacks coming from either power or money.
Naturally, because everyone can make mistakes, I am certain that there will be slip-ups that need to be dealt with and heated debates. However, even fighting can be safe if the fundamentals are kept in place and nobody must call them into question. It is only natural that editors reorganize their staffs and provide negative feedback on journalists’ work. It is also natural for politicians to occasionally have qualms about stories that are actually quite good if different thoughts are tied together in an incomprehensible manner. Nevertheless, it is clearly more difficult to discuss these things in the current environment. This is not actually beneficial for anyone: not to journalists, not to our media companies and not to even politicians.