The stinging split in Estonian media

Tarmu Tammerk

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

Joining political parties and running at elections this coming spring, journalists tend to see no conflicts between the two roles. Experts in press ethics beg to differ, pointing to the imminent choice to be made by society whether reporters-in-parties will in our land be a phenomenon acceptable or not.

«If people are actively in politics and claim they may, at the same time, be journalists, which side then will they be betraying?» sounds the merciless question posed by Public Broadcasting (ERR) ethics adviser Tarmu Tammerk.

This is no game, as we are right in the middle of a most forceful entry by journalists into politics of these past two decades. Mr Tammerk is of those disturbed by the fact that not all those running have been told to lay down the microphone or pen, once a party cadre.  

After turning a soc dem (SDE), TV host Mihkel Raud this fall led the talk show «Kolmeraudne» for three long months. The Eesti Ekspress columnist Andrei Hvostov (SDE), among other stuff doing political analysis, wrote his last editorial to the weekly paper at the end of November. Kalle Muuli, running for Riigikogu in IRL ranks, continues as editor-in-chief of Õpetajate Leht (Teacher’s Newspaper) financed by taxpayers.

The only one taking it to the journalists is Estonian Public Broadcasting, which, in addition to Mr Muuli, also cut cooperation in November with the TV host Maire Aunaste (IRL) who entered politics. On top of that, Russian language «Aktuaalne kaamera» journalist Jelena Poverina (SDE) and news anchor Maksim Rogalski (IRL) are under air ban starting January 15th during the elections period. Heidy Purga, now a Reform Party member, is for the time being allowed to continue hosting music programmes.

In Mr Tammerk’s opinion, for a journalist the line should be drawn once he announces he is getting actively into politics – that very instant, he should also give up job as journalist. «If some journalist says he isn’t joining a party at the moment but is just in the list for the elections, this is befooling the public,» he says.

According to Mr Tammerk, there has been the healthy line drawn between politics and the media these past two decades and it is regrettable that this is now attempted to be blurred by some journalists aspiring to be politicians. «In reality, all they want is just keep several doors open, but that is not honest towards the voters. Entering politics is a risk, but be a man then and take the risk,» thinks Mr Tammerk.

Meelis Süld, at helm of Estonian Union of Journalists, is equally resolute. According to him, a genuine conflict will be created with such journalists who, after failure at elections, return to journalism. «Then, trying to present their material as unbiased, that may not quite work anymore as we know he is linked to some certain party,» said Mr Süld.

Delay time needed

Mr Tammerk, the ethics adviser, says a delay time would be a solution – when it comes to returning from politics into journalism. Thereat, the principle should be that the more journalistic the activities of the person, the longer the time they ought to stay away.

«In news media, I don’t really see a way for someone to return to the job after elections. With such people, it is more important that the public feel he is independent. If for three months one has toiled under some party banner and the next week you return to writing news, this is not credible,» said Mr Tammerk.

According to a long-time media teacher Tiit Hennoste, a return into media is possible, but it requires totally denouncing former political affiliation. Those currently running have declared, however, that for this they see no reason.

Of the journalists entering politics and returning therefrom, over these past 20 years, the lion’s share have gone into public service, business or PR. Only a few have returned into media, such as Juku-Kalle Raid, Indrek Kannik, Andres Ammas and Rein Veidemann, to name some. The brightest example, however, is Kaarel Tarand who in 2011 ran in the Greens list while working as editor-in-chief at Sirp, the culture paper.

«I developed no conflicts with myself. Sirp was not the kind of a newspaper which would have had an impact on the masses,» recalls Mr Tarand who withdrew from writing in the paper during the time for five weeks.

Obsolete restraint

In the opinion of Mr Tarand, the barriers to journalists in Estonia from participating in politics are artificial and do no longer befit the contemporary society where the ability of journalists to impact society has decreased. To continue in their profession, he says, should be left to the journalists themselves to decide, and editors at the desk should not have the power to hinder a citizens from executing their fundamental rights.

«Politics and leadership in the society should never mean burning whatever bridges,» substantiated Mr Tarand. «Indeed, being in the parliament should be treated as a temporary job, from whence people return to their main or former activity, or go on to something else.» As assured by Mr Tarand, journalists continuing in their job after having identified themselves politically would not cut a publication’s credibility in his eyes.  

According to the MEP and professor Marju Lauristin, the time may have arrived where, as in Germany or the UK, Estonia ought to stop setting artificial barriers to journalist from participating in politics.  

«If the culture is weak, outer fences need to be erected. When it is strong, the fences aren’t needed. A journalist’s work is public – from the text, anyone may read whether the person is writing as a party ideologist or a creative individual with a broader view,» reasoned Ms Lauristin.

According to the professor, journalists writing about politics are daily doing politics anyhow, and their impartiality is a matter of professionalism. If a journalist who runs at elections will not assume the role of an ideologist at the party and will not quit being a journalist on the inside, the road back to media ought to be open.

From among the staff of Eesti Ekspress editor-in-chief Allar Tankler, there are two journalists entering politics: Viktoria Ladõnskaja (IRL) and Andrei Hvostov. According to Mr Tankler, there are no hindrances to them continuing in Eesti Ekspress after the elections as a reader does desire the more emotional journalism with an attitude, where the background of the journalist is not decisive.

«If not a political reporter, there should not be any pressure to exit the party or take a buffer time,» assured Mr Tankler. «If a part of the readers still say this guy is now a politician and I do not want to read his stories, then it depends how many such people there are. At the end of the day, the consumer decides.»

According to the journalists’ union chief Meelis Süld, this would be a step towards party-journalism. «If the editors-in-chief support that, they are supporting the party line in a sense. There’s just the risk of losing the readers who think otherwise. But is the readers are okay with it, there’s no problem,» he said.