Police forced to waste resources on poster ban

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

The police received 204 tips of potential violations of election campaign rules during the recent election. People reported posters and vehicles with names and pictures of politicians on them during the period when outside political display is banned. As it can take up to eight working hours to verify a single complaint, the police might have spent more than 1,500 hours on verifying such tips this fall.

This is only one of the reasons why all parliament parties agree that corresponding legislation needs to be amended.

This fall, the attention of the press was drawn to an ad that could be seen through the windows of Savisaar’s Union and Active Tallinn’s downtown cafe, as well as the Reform Party’s gigantic poster on an office building wall on Narva rd. that was also clearly visible from the street.

Four to eight hours of work

Because political outside display is prohibited during the period of active political agitation, the police were forced to follow up on all tips and claimed process violations. The police drew up 51 precepts and launched misdemeanor proceedings in 11 and criminal proceedings in four cases. The police received 36 calls pointing to potential violations on election day alone.

Checking a single claim can take from four to eight hours as officers must register the complaint, go to the scene, and take a picture of the ad. Next, officers must evaluate whether the advertisement is covered by the ban. The police must also ascertain the facts by contacting parties or politicians.

New bans to replace existing one

The situation was similar during the 2013 local elections, when the police received more than 150 complaints and tips. Back then, misdemeanor proceedings were launched in 24 cases, with seven of them ending in punishments.

“Which shows that this type of misdemeanor is difficult to prove. Primarily because of the vague phrasing of the law and empty legal definitions,” reads Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt’s (SDE) opinion on the Free Party’s bill to amend the local government council election act, Riigikogu election act, and other acts from September 14.

Enforcing laws that can be interpreted in different ways is burdensome for the police. That is why the Riigikogu should specify the phrasing of the law or consider lifting the outside display ban altogether. More so, as political advertising simply moves online, where no regulations presently apply, for the duration of the ban.

The Free Party proposes replacing the old ban with news ones: to restrict the volume of outside display, the maximum amount that can be spent on it, and ban all outside display only on election day.

The party proposes, for example, a maximum poster size of one square meter and an expenses ceiling of €500,00 for 90 days leading up to the election. The Riigikogu Constitutional Committee awaits proposals to amend until November 28.

Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) wondered why the Free Party does not want to lift the ban in its entirety, including on election day. For example, 51.2 percent of voters voted before election day – in other words, during the active campaigning period – in the 2015 Riigikogu election. The minister added that campaigning should not be allowed in polling stations.

Reinsalu said that the idea to limit the size of political posters to one square meter would constitute breach of entrepreneurial freedom. While it would be legally possible to introduce a ceiling of half a million euros for 90 days before elections, it could lead to misuse,” Reinsalu finds. Campaigns can be ordered and paid for in advance as the start of campaigns or campaign spending remains unregulated.

Reinsalu also wondered whether a universal limit would be sensible for all elections. The justice ministry refers to the €500,000 limit as a possibility, but one that does not help candidates who have considerably less to spend.

Member of the Center Party parliament faction and the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee Tiit Terik is in favor of lifting the ban and said it is not sensible to replace the old ban with new ones.

“The aim of the outside display ban was to keep campaign expenses in check; however, this has failed as campaigns have simply become longer and even more expensive,” Terik explained.

Outside display is used before the ban takes effect, after which advertising moves to television, radio, newspapers, or the internet. “The biggest expense is TV advertising a lot of candidates understandably cannot afford,” Terik said.

The Center Party politician said that the Free Party’s proposal of limiting the size of posters to one square meter is incomprehensible. “I believe it is unfair and undemocratic to take away one of the cheapest means of advertising, especially regarding local government elections,” Terik said.

Terik also finds the proposed restriction illogical considering the fact advertising spaces are predetermined, for example in bus stops. There are no one-square-meter spaces as it is just not enough for a street poster.

EKRE would cut state support

Deputy chairman of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and member of the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee Jaak Madison believes that the solution would be to cut state budget financing of parties.

“We can come up with whatever kind of restrictions for outside display; however, major parties that have money to spend will always find a way to get around them – money will simply be spent on other avenues of advertising. Besides, restrictions raise the issue of freedom of speech,” Madison said.

Madison believes politics would become more honest as a result of cutting state budget support for parties. The taxpayer currently supports political parties with €5.4 million annually. Madison said the sum could easily be cut in half.