The National Audit Office has confirmed the long-standing open secret that a lot of municipal newspapers serve the interests of ruling parties. Center-ruled Tallinn and Loksa stand out from the crowd.
The audit looked at 191 newspapers published using local government funds between January and October 2017. Problematic messages were found in 53 local governments, looking at borders before Estonia’s administrative-territorial reform.
The audit divided self-serving political information into three categories: calls by local government heads for people to vote for particular political forces or candidates, praise of particular election candidates and badmouthing of political competitors.
No fewer than 75 percent of all violations were committed by Tallinn municipal newspapers Pealinn and Stolitsa and city district papers. 12 percent of all violations were committed by Loksa city newspaper Loksa Elu.
The audit office asked heads of Tallinn and Loksa to express their opinion regarding the contents of their newspapers. Centrists parried criticism.
Mayor of Tallinn Taavi Aas wrote in his reply that the audit office has assumed the role of a national censor. “It would be a dangerous tendency where state agencies to take it upon themselves to evaluate the political correctness of journalists’ opinions and media messages and the suitability of mentality.”
Chairman of the Loksa city council Rein Heina also parried criticism from the audit office. “We have not changed our position in that we believe the city of Loksa has not campaigned on the pages of city newspaper Loksa Elu in 2017! Loksa Elu continued keeping area residents up to speed with local affairs, including coverage of political activity prior to the elections in connection with the administrative reform and strictly in the public interest,” Heina wrote in his reply to the National Audit Office.
Auditor General Janar Holm said that well-organized notification is an important precondition for compliance with the local government principle of openness. Holm said that nearly every local government has its information publication that is usually distributed to residents free of charge. It makes for an effective tool for notification as people tend to leaf through the local municipality paper if only out of curiosity.
“Unfortunately, some see in it the temptation to use it for political PR, and the audit revealed that things go beyond temptation as there are clear signs of illicit use of municipal papers in the service of party politics in different forms and different local governments,” Holm said. The auditor general added that the problem is real, fundamental and slow to be remedied.
The Estonian Newspaper Association (EALL) deems it necessary to pass an amendment to put an end to brainwashing and advertisement of ruling politicians in municipality papers. “We have been saying for years that the activities of some municipal publications have resulted in a problem for democracy and unfair competition in the advertising market,” said EALL Director Mart Raudsaar.
The association finds that the issue of unfair competition could be fixed with an amendment that would define publications paid for using taxpayer money as local information publications and ban paid advertising, including notices of purchase and sale. To avoid brainwashing, local government associations should create an organ of self-regulation that would hear complaints from readers of city or rural municipality newspapers.