PBK programs result in ERJK investigation

PHOTO: Priit Simson

Party Financing Monitoring Committee (ERJK) decided yesterday to launch proceedings based on articles published in Postimees on whether the Center Party used programs it procured on the Perviy Baltysky Kanal (PBK) for advertising purposes.

“There is sufficient information for suspicions which need to be verified,” said deputy head of the committee Kaarel Tarand.

Postimees wrote on January 4 that programs procured by the city of Tallinn overwhelmingly portrayed centrists before the fall local elections.

Eight of the committee’s nine members voted in favor of the investigation. The only vote against was that of Tallinn Deputy Mayor Tõnis Mölder (Center).

Tarand said that first the committee will view several months’ worth of PBK programs “Good Morning, Tallinn”, “Our Capital”, and “The Russian Issue”. The process will be carried out by four members of the committee: Ardo Ojasalu, Kaarel Tarand, Paul Puustusmaa, and Tõnis Mölder.

Members will count the programs’ guests and see which parties they represented, as well as whether they ran at local elections and the topics they discussed.

“Next, we want to access all documents concerning contractual relationship between the city and PBK to learn their nature,” Tarand explained.

The aim of the monitoring committee is to determine whether the programs clash with the Political Parties Act: for example, as concerns illicit donations or misuse of public funds.

The committee will monitor two aspects. Firstly, whether politicians from different parties were represented proportionally. “For example, if the balance is way off, we can talk about whether public assets were spent on a single party’s campaign,” Tarand said.

Secondly, the committee can evaluate whether the programs constituted notification of citizens and public information, or whether the content fell outside the capacity of local governments. For example, it is not a local government task to talk about foreign policy, national defense, security, or the official language.

Upon finding transgressions, the committee can bring control action against the Center Party for using programming paid for by the taxpayer for advertising purposes and obligate the party to return the sums based on advertising prices.

ERJK is in the middle of another similar process against the Center Party. The Reform Party faction of the Tallinn city government asked the committee to establish whether city newspapers Pealinn and Stolitsa printed party propaganda that should also be paid for as advertising.

“The party told us they feel it is free journalism. We found today (yesterday – ed.) that we will not get a proper answer from there and will move forward with proceedings,” Tarand said.

How binding would ERJK decisions be for the Center Party? “The Center Party has always contested the committee’s control actions in court. We have been forced to go through all three court instances in several cases, whereas the committee’s decisions have been upheld and the party ordered to return sums on every occasion. Which it always has,” Tarand said.

Mayor of Tallinn Taavi Aas (Center Party) said after the committee had made its decision that he considers ERJK to be biased and that he entertains no hope for an objective decision.

“The most outspoken member of the committee is Kaarel Tarand who has very clear political sympathies and even clearer antipathies,” Aas said. The committee is also heavily slanted toward our political competitors from whom no objective attitude can be expected.”

The mayor said that Estonia needs a new and independent organ to monitor party financing. “The national audit office has been authorized to monitor the purposefulness of local government spending; ERJK has no powers in this matter,” Aas noted.

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