Much ado about a single word

Tühjad esiküljed.

PHOTO: Peeter Langovits

The Reform Party wants to retract the personal data protection act bill, even though it includes a contribution from former justice minister and Reform Party member Rein Lang.

“We will likely boycott the vote otherwise,” said fraction chair Jürgen Ligi. The party wants the bill retracted and replaced after it has been complemented. The Reform Party criticizes the coalition for hurrying draft legislation and emphasizes the need to find balance between civil rights and freedom of the press. The opposition leader’s representative said that their demand for the bill to be discussed with interest groups it concerns on a daily basis was ignored. “The press is not the only concerned party here. Hurried proceedings made it impossible for the committee and factions to get to the heart of it,” Ligi said.

Party Chairman Kaja Kallas attended the Reform Party faction meeting on Monday during which it was discussed how the expression “predominant public interest” found its way back into the draft in the first place. “It was unclear how it had gone missing, which is why the committee decided to restore it, more so as the current law and directive make use of the expression and it has not had a negative effect on the press,” Ligi reasoned.

The Riigikogu Constitutional Committee approved the decision to retain the recent phrasing of “predominant public interest” in the personal data protection act. The new European data protection directive would permit use of “public interest”. The proposal to replace the EU directive’s “public interest” with “predominant public interest” was made by former justice minister and Reform Party member Rein Lang, said committee member Hanno Pevkur (Reform) on Vikerraadio’s “Uudis+” program. “Rein Lang pointed it out to me and committee chair Marko Pomerants (Pro Patria). And a hint such as that needs to be verified,” Pevkur said on the radio show.

“What do I have to say for myself? I cannot agree that one of the goals of this data protection directive is to make life easier for the press. Its main goal was better protection of the rights of the individual,” Lang said. Pevkur, who wanted Lang as his adviser when he was deputy chairman of the Riigikogu earlier in the year, had plenty of criticism for how the bill has been processed. “The coalition forced expedited proceedings on participants which meant that no interest group, including the Estonian Newspaper Association for instance, got the chance to speak at the committee sitting.”

An unexpected blow for the media

Lang’s involvement with matters of press freedom is nothing new. The politician’s journalistic sources protection bill from 2010 culminated in a protest from all major newspapers in the form of blank front pages. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who proclaimed the bill that passed through parliament by the skin of its teeth, was voted enemy of the press that year.

Lang was justice minister also when the Estonian personal data protection act was passed in 2007. It states that personal data of persons can only be processed for journalistic purposes and published in the media without the person’s consent in cases of predominant public interest and in line with the principles of journalistic ethics.

The recent deliberations concern the directly applicable European Union data protection directive (GDPR) aimed at striking a balance between protection of private life and freedom of speech. The directive also deals with freedom of the press. “The criterion of predominant public interest gives the press an advantage, the privilege to publish various personal information irrespective of sensitivity of content. That balance and the proportionality of breach of privacy will be weighed first by the journalist and if necessary by courts in each separate case,” Chairman of the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee Marko Pomerants (Pro Patria) explained. Pomerants’ party will form its position by this morning.

Passing the law with this phrasing is a sucker punch for the press, finds Executive Director of the Estonian Newspaper Association Mart Raudsaar. The text of the European data protection directive makes no mention of “predominant public interest” but only talks about “public interest” – the former would confine journalistic freedom in the data protection act, representatives of major publications find in an address sent to the parliament committee.

The European data protection regulation emphasizes that the press can only publish information on a person’s actions or political preferences in case of public interest. “In other words, public interest will not be enough to justify covering the actions of influential people (the former being a precondition of that influence in the first place) and journalists will instead have to prove they are dealing with absolutely predominant public interest. Proving predominant public interest is much more difficult,” Mart Raudsaar explained.

How will votes be cast?

Member of the committee Jaak Madison said that the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) will vote against the bill once it hits the floor. “First of all, it is a European regulation that once more tries to override legislation of member states. Secondly, there is a real danger it will open the door to attempts to muzzle journalism that is not in accordance with the principles of freedom of speech and the press,” he said.

The Center Party sees no reason to water down current legislation. “The responsibility of the press and with it predominant public interest is especially important for Estonians who are not public figures and whose privacy and rights must in some cases take precedent over a newspaper headline,” said committee member Teet Terik. “I have to admit I agree with Rein Lang and, with all due respect for journalists, cannot understand this hysteria,” the MP said.

The social democrats decided they will vote against the bill at a meeting held yesterday evening. “Having listened to the opinion of Marju Lauristin, who is in charge of the data protection directive in Brussels, the social democrats made a unanimous decision not to support more stringent restrictions for the press,” party Chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski said. “We need to discuss how to take that word out of the bill again,” he added.

Chairman of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor proposes three scenarios for Wednesday.

First, Reinsalu can retract the bill as he represents its initiator which in this case is the government.

Secondly, the bill might simply fail its final vote.

Thirdly, if there are no protests, the committee can remove the bill from the agenda and return to the matter in fall.

Member of the Free Party Jüri Adams said that a single word would not sway freedom of the press but added that he finds Wednesday’s vote to be a much more exciting prospect – as showcased by the failure to pass of the ownership reform act bill last week, Adams says the coalition’s steamroller has fallen apart and delegates are more independent in how they vote. “I would not dare forecast results,” he said.