Media execs lose nerve as politicians score one

PHOTO: Andriy Popov / PantherMedia / Scanpix

Journalists critical of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) Ahto Lobjakas and Vilja Kiisler have been hit by a wave of threats and their bosses an avalanche of orchestrated complaints. How did it come to heads of two media houses losing their nerve, journalists leaving their publications and the EKRE wing scoring a point?

Morning of Tuesday, April 16. Postimees’ political news expert Vilja Kiisler publishes an online op-ed titled “It’s not About Rhetoric, the Contents is Appalling”.

The piece is inspired by Kiisler’s live interview with EKRE politician and European Parliament candidate Jaak Madison from the previous day.

Kiisler writes that while Madison and (now chairman of the Riigikogu – editor) Henn Põlluuaas might be more courteous than Mart and Martin Helme on the face of things, the roots of their rhetoric seem to lead to the same source: the information flow of EKRE’s European counterparts, spreading “alternative facts” and pure fiction.

Kiisler has a distinctive image for party media: “A dog lifting its leg to pee has more respect for the tree its peeing on than EKRE’s portal (Uued Uudised – editor) has for journalism,” she finds. There are few journalists who would disagree. Kiisler thinks it over, but publishes the piece anyway.

The next day, she is summoned by Postimees’ new editor-in-chief Peeter Helme. He does not demand Kiisler change the op-ed or threaten to leave her out of a job. On his desk lies Kiisler’s text with some paragraphs the style of which Helme is critical of underlined.

Helme’s point is simple: it would have been possible to convey the message using milder language. The style of the piece might suit an outside author, while such expressions are not fitting of one working for Postimees that aims for objectivity.

Differences between the liberal journalist and conservative editor-in-chief quickly graduate into a debate over freedom of the press. Kiisler is most bothered by the editor-in-chief’s criticism fitting into the pattern sought by EKRE leaders and their army of trolls: to force journalists to reign in criticism, walk the line, give up.

That is precisely why phrasing must not become conformist, Kiisler finds. “If we take away the keenness of the press, what is left?”

Helme sports a different view. “Journalists should not meddle in politics. They have other tools – they get to choose what’s news. It is not always a case of pointing fingers,” Helme says on Kuku radio’s “Olukorrast ajakirjanduses” show.

Kiisler finds that writing a letter of resignation is the only way to keep her dignity. The staff at Postimees is shocked. A letter is written in support of their colleague, the board is summoned to explain matters. Most journalists remain undecided. Kiisler could have swallowed the criticism and moved on undeterred, they find. “It is impossible as it would constitute self-censorship,” is Kiisler’s position.

The whole affair is ripe with undercurrents. Kiisler has come under an unprecedented avalanche of threats that include physical abuse and even rape. Letters from EKRE supporters who suddenly feel emboldened – now often sent under people’s real names – have required police intervention. Kiisler claims the threats are not the reason she has decided to leave. Political pressure seems to be making headway. One argument of the daily’s board is that politicians have refused appearing on Kiisler’s online program “Postimees Live”. Her style has gotten in the way of journalism and must change. Her letter of resignation is accepted.

Those fatal “Nazis”

Ahto Lobjakas utters a sentence that starts a chain of events on the March 10 “Olukorrast riigis” radio show of public broadcaster ERR.

“And now, 19 neo-Nazis or semi-Nazis or crypto-Nazis or whatever they are will walk those halls (of the Riigikogu – editor) and do whatever they want,” the opinion show host says, pointing to the new and bigger group of EKRE MPs in the parliament. A week later, hosts Andrus Karnau and Lobjakas use the Nazi word again, now for a total of 18 times.

“We were told we can’t use such a term. They said we are hurting our boss (Raadio 2 editor-in-chief Kristo Rajasaare – editor). Someone was very-very cross over the use of the Nazi-word because it was used in the context of EKRE. That was when the pressure spiked and remained spiked,” Lobjakas recalls.

A while later, he receives a call from ERR board member Riina Rõõmus who suggests the show should tone down emotion and adopt a more analytical outlook. Lobjakas rather agrees.

Troll factory shifts into overdrive

Show after show, the hosts start hinting that they cannot talk about everything. Ever since the election, they can feel the weight of the troll factory on their shoulders.

If recently the “Olukorrast riigis” program merited around a dozen reactions per show through ERR’s ethics adviser, feedback now becomes constant. Complaints concern word choice, fact checks etc. The letters have a common trait – they all demand a reply.

The tactic is familiar, perfected by Varro Vooglaid’s alternative media portal Objektiiv: make it personal. Demand answers, wear down, nitpick – they will eventually pull back.

The hosts are unclear about whose side ERR is on. At one point, irritated, Karnau asks ethics adviser Tarmu Tammerk for a list of words he is not allowed to use – it would be faster that way.

The next boiling point follows soon after. On April 14, Lobjakas says on air that President Kaljulaid should refuse to appoint some EKRE ministers to keep “racists, anti-Semites and other such trash” out of the government.

Tammerk is cross. Lobjakas apologizes on the show but is forced to do it again next week.

Tensions flare again after a week of silence on Tuesday last. “I was told that it would be best if I took a few months off in the summer, leave the show temporarily,” Lobjakas recalls his conversation with Rajasaare.

Lobjakas gets the impression Rajasaare, who has always supported his journalists, is not speaking his own mind, and the idea is from a conversation with Tammerk and Rõõmus.

“They said I need a vacation, and that it is for my own good. That’s when I said enough is enough, that I would leave. The subtext was that the situation on the “Olukorrast riigis” show needs to end.

ERR must rise above

Tarmu Tammerk claims Lobjakas was not forced to leave. Just as Peeter Helme told Kiisler, Tammerk told Lobjakas that his choice of words is unsuitable and that a media channel cannot stoop to the level of some politicians, lest it risk alienating listeners or violating the public broadcasting act.

“Because Lobjakas has a very colorful manner of speaking and a matching set of attitudes, some listeners are critical of the show,” Tammerk says. “We need to keep in mind that ERR is publicly funded and must therefore make greater efforts to offer a more diverse look at things.”

Tammerk does not deny that feedback has exploded since parliamentary elections in March. People leave messages on the answering machine, call and write in. It is a recent trend that while contents varies, motives seem repetitive, as if premeditated. People ask whether ERR is following the law and why they are subjected to Lobjakas’ views on the taxpayer’s dime.

Tammerk does not confirm the existence of a troll army. “It seems they are trying to make our mailbox overflow. It is out of the question we have been hoodwinked by EKRE trolls. We have been in this game long enough to be able to spot those kinds of things,” he parries.

Editor-in-Chief of Raadio 2 Kristo Rajasaare admits he has received feedback from the ethics adviser and Riina Rõõmus but says he has not been ordered to get rid of Lobjakas. “I suggested Ahto take time off in the summer. He has been hosting the show four over four years, and he has told me he is tired himself.”

Rajasaare fails to answer when asked why Lobjakas was not required to drop his other show “Achtung” Lobjakas” and whether he could have stayed on at “Olukorrast riigis” without changing his style.

Lobjakas repeats Kiisler’s question: “What is left of an opinion show when you cannot express your views there? If that is the case, there is no more room in there for classic Western journalism. There is only room for sycophancy or beating about the bush.”

He says that the brass at ERR have bent the knee to EKRE and failed to absorb pressure put on journalists. “Media executives should find their spines and take risks to keep their backs straight. That is what they get paid for. There is no need for them if everything is fine.”

ERR television journalists, led by Andres Kuuse and Marko Reikop, summoned the board for explanations on Tuesday afternoon. More than to discuss Lobjakas, the idea of the meeting was to have CEO Erik Roose assure employees that the board will fight for the independence of journalists, which it is currently perceived not to do.

“The board has been indecisive on several occasions. Failed to say that we are with you and that speech is free,” one participant of the meeting says. Roose acknowledges criticism. The board’s reaction to scandals that have hit ERR has come regrettably late. The brass promises not to meddle directly in the work of editorials and be clearer in its messages in the future.

A well-known journalist at ERR sums up their colleague’s concerns as follows. “We have a new reality – journalists whose field is daily politics have come to and will remain faced with abuse not only on social or trash media but also party channels. It is disgusting and painful. Journalists must not bend or break, and heads of media houses must not aim for complacency.”