Journalist: I was given a choice between self-censorship and leaving

Ahto Lobjakas.

PHOTO: Madis Sinivee

Journalist and politics analyst Ahto Lobjakas has denied claims that he was fired from his show on the Raadio 2 station of Estonian public broadcaster ERR, and said that he left of his own volition, primarily on the issue of self-censorship, the English-language news portal of ERR said.

''I was not fired. I was given a choice between self-censorship and leaving,'' Lobjakas wrote on his social media account on Saturday morning, pointing out that he has been one of the pair of hosts leading the "Olukorrast riigis" ("State of the Nation") politics show on Raadio 2 for more than four years.

"During the years that the Reform Party led the government I was never pressurized as a host no matter how sharp my criticism was. I can say the same about the Center Party government that followed," he said.

"Something changed after the election," Lobjakas continued, in his post. ''Less of an adversarial approach was requested, with more attention on the new coalition's program being preferred to talking about inappropriate persons or ideas. The importance of 'balance' was emphasized."

"Logically, the latter could only mean that either racists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis have to be found also in other parties or, in their absence, the topic of values not touched upon at all," Lobjakas said.

''No-one is exerting pressure directly out of ill-will, but nonetheless, the pressure is there and its clear subtext is that there is a nervy atmosphere of defenselessness before the power in the upper ranks, and those lower down are expected to cooperate and keep a low profile. This is a slippery slope in which many young democracies can start with self-censorship, and end up with something other than a free society," he added.

Lobjakas concluded that criticism of the government was thus now not tolerated at the public broadcaster.

"Why things have turned out like this at ERR, I cannot say. At the same time, I have to note that when I read into what the chairs of ERR's council and its board have stated in their longer texts over the last few weeks, the overriding desire is to heal tensions and mend the cracks in society. While this is fine, it has nothing to do with a free press as a value and as an institution that these people have been hired to defend. On the contrary, such statements can in the current circumstances only be read as an attempt to justify themselves and others in adapting to compromises -- to the benefit of those in power, and at the expense of the press," Lobjakas said.

Lobjakas also referred in his post to a statement made by Kristo Rajasaare, Raadio 2 editor-in-chief, which said that Lobjakas had been under attack in recent weeks.

"R2 has always been on my side, but ERR, as an institution represented by the board, has taken a neutral position against these attacks or has made concessions to the attackers. This last aspect is but a small problem for me -- someone who is not a journalist and, living by the sword, has always had to be prepared to die by the sword, as the saying has it. It is, however, very big of a problem for the broadcaster and all its journalists," Lobjakas said.

"In a twist of irony, I have gotten fatigued and bored over the past several months with the increasingly aggressive day-to-day politics. Four years is a long time to keep such a show fresh and I already had a plan to quit early on in June. However, before I could make that announcement, my position on the show had become untenable," he added.

Lobjakas said that the last broadcast of "Olukorrast riigis" with him as presenter  would be on June 2.

CEO says no danger to press freedom at ERR

There is no danger to the freedom of the media at the Estonian public-service broadcaster, Erik Roose, CEO of the public broadcaster ERR, said on Saturday. 

"The raising of the topic of media freedom in recent days requires that the work and the principles of ERR be explained once again," Roose said in a press release.

"The management board of ERR of course keeps itself informed about the activities of our programs, but the shaping of specific programs, including the selection of hosts, is within the competence of each individual editor-in-chief. The time after the elections has put pressure on many of our employees, but that doesn't diminish the importance of criticism or freedom of expression in day-to-day work. ERR continues to consider a critical analysis of topical issues as important and it will be possible to find relevant programs on Raadio 2 as well as on other programs in the future," the CEO said.

"The decision of Ahto Lobjakas to discontinue hosting arises from his personal will," Roose said. "The management board has kept itself informed about the inquiries and feedback that have been received after different broadcasts have been on the air, but discussion and analysis do constitute a part of journalism and the day-to-day work process. The advisor on journalistic ethics and the responsible editors have been dealing with it in the first place," he said. 

"Assessments of the activity of ERR must be made on the basis of all our broadcasts, not by reducing endangering of media freedom to the leaving or hiring of one person," Roose said, adding that freedom of the media was not up for bargains at ERR.

"And, once again -- there is no danger and there will be none to media freedom or journalistic independence when it comes to public-service broadcasting at least. While we do understand the stepped-up interest on the part of leaders of public life toward our work, as the chairman of the management board of ERR I can confirm that I trust the heads of our editorial offices and programs and am in now way questioning the editorial policy carried out by them," the CEO of ERR said. 

Hussar: Freedom of speech in Estonia at its lowest in 28 years

The past week has been the worst for Estonian journalism in the past 28 years, Lauri Hussar, former editor-in-chief of Postimees who is running for the European Parliament as the top candidate of the Estonia 200 party, said on social media.

"Under the pretext of journalistic tone and style, two top journalists who cannot be faulted by the media organizations for their professional skills and capacity for work have been forced to leave. At the beginning of the week, Postimees special correspondent Vilja Kiisler announced her leaving, and the end of the week brought the news that host Ahto Lobjakas is leaving ERR," Hussar said, adding that this may be just the tip of the iceberg.  

"Rumor has it that journalists at ERR already have had to explain also in writing their choices when making political broadcasts. Ahto Lobjakas himself has said that what was required from him was less combative coverage, greater attention to the new government's program instead of unworthy persons and ideas. The importance of 'being balanced' was emphasized, notably when it comes to a popular opinion broadcast," Hussar said.

"Putting the work of journalists under pressure in this way is direct interference in the freedom of the press, which is one of the cornerstones of democratic society. Unfortunately, neither the supervisory board nor the management board of ERR have in their positions taken a stance in defense of the freedom of expression, as was done by distinguished political journalist Andres Kuusk," Hussar said.

"We must stand up to the actions that restrict the freedom of expression. Today this problem embraces already the whole media landscape and there are two questions in the air. How to protect the journalist and how to protect the freedom of expression. Estonian democracy knows the popular assembly initiative, which helped make many a thing better in Estonian politics. Today we need the same kind of process in defense of the freedom of expression," Hussar said.

"Therefore I, as someone who has worked in Estonian media for more than two decades, am making the proposal to the president of the Republic of Estonia to convene a roundtable in defense of the freedom of expression, which would bring together managers and owners of media companies, but also active journalists, civil society representatives, media experts and representatives of political forces. There are several warning examples in Europe today what silencing of the free media has led to. Estonia must not repeat that mistake," the former journalist turned politician added.