Member of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) Kalle Grünthal on Monday entered into Riigikogu proceedings draft legislation to amend the Public Broadcasting Act aimed at creating and ensuring political balance so that programs would not prefer certain political parties and movements to others. Chairman of public broadcaster ERR’s supervisory board Rein Veidemann describes the bill as a direct attempt to subject ERR to government control.
Head of supervisory board: It is an attack on ERR independence
Chairman of the Riigikogu Cultural Affairs Committee that is set to discuss the bill Aadu Must (Center) remains more diplomatic when commenting on the bill and says that it will very likely be merged with existing draft legislation to amend the Public Broadcasting Act.
Grünthal says that one does not need to look back far to prove the bill is needed. “The ‘Ringvaade’ program hosted by Marko Reikop recently spent a lot of time discussing gay marriage, while I have not observed ETV paying as much attention to traditional marriage that is between a man and a woman,” the conservative MP said.
Grünthal added that he also feels ERR has paid more attention to the Democrats’ election campaign in USA than that of the Republicans. “Different approaches and conclusions regarding Donald Trump have not always been the most positive at ERR,” he said.
He admitted that it is his opinion as a viewer and that gauging the balance of [radio or television] shows is very difficult.
Grünthal’s bill is hardly anything new as EKRE have been accusing ERR of bias for some time. Urmas Reitelmann (EKRE), who was recently forced to resign from ERR’s supervisory board after publishing a derogatory social media post, said he was prompted by what he described as unbalanced coverage on ETV. The national conservatives’ new representative on the supervisory board Anti Poolamets has said he sees longstanding bias at ERR. EKRE leaders Martin and Mart Helme have also been critical of the public broadcaster.
Grünthal says he wants to make sure all views are represented on ERR. “If a party or political movement is given a platform, the other side must be given a chance to voice its position in the same program. Similarly, if someone feels they have been mistreated by the public broadcaster, it needs to be possible to file a protest inside a sensible time period,” Grünthal said.
Executive editors to replace ethics adviser
The EKRE MP said that these principles existed in the Public Broadcasting Act until 2006. “The position of executive editors filled by editorial heads should be restored. They would be appointed by ERR, tasked with monitoring balanced coverage and report to the supervisory board. The position of ethics advisor would be abolished and the tasks distributed between executive editors,” the MP said.
He added that the Public Broadcasting Act laconically provides that social topics need to be covered in a balanced manner. “The clause was added when Eesti Televisioon and Eesti Raadio were merged to form ERR and the editors at that time knew to observe these principles despite their laconic phrasing. We have clearly seen a new generation that has not observed the principle of balance as keenly, which is why I believe some things have run away,” Grünthal explained.
The MP maintains that the changes would not introduce stricter rules but simply reaffirm the foundations of public television and radio, as well as that the aim is not to muzzle ERR in any way.
Grünthal said that this balance is very difficult to pinpoint – starting where a show can be characterized as balanced. “I do not know exactly as I have not pondered the matter in detail, but the idea is to ensure balanced coverage and give the other side a chance to present their arguments. It could be solved inside the same show or by airing balancing programs. However, I would not like to rob ERR of its creative freedom. The final say in terms of whether a show is balanced would need to come from the organization’s management and supervisory boards.”
Veidemann decimates the bill
Chairman of the supervisory board of ERR Rein Veidemann was very critical of the bill. “Should the Riigikogu discuss the bill in its current form, it is nothing short of restoring state television and subjecting the public broadcaster to government control. We would like to look at this bill closer and order a legal analysis, but it is rather clear where it aims,” Veidemann said.
The supervisory board chair said that claiming the same principles were included in the previous version of the Public Broadcast Act does not stand up to criticism.
“If their rhetoric is that these principles existed in the 2006 law and that they are seeking to restore what was, we could just as well go further back in time. We also had the Soviet period. Perhaps we should go and find some motions to amend from there. This bill is quite obviously an attempt to shut down public-law broadcasting as an institution,” Veidemann said.
He highlighted an item of Grünthal’s bill that would see the government provide a list of events held to be important for the public that ERR would be obligated to cover.
“Having the government put together a list of mandatory events for ERR equals direct subordination. It is reflected everywhere in the bill. However, I am talking about the general spirit of the bill. A deeper assessment could be provided after the legal analysis,” Veidemann said.
Chairman of the Riigikogu Cultural Affairs Committee Aadu Must said that Grünthal’s bill has not landed on his desk yet, while he will very likely propose merging it with amendments to the Public Broadcasting Act already in proceedings once it does.
“The committee feels that we will not be processing two amendments simultaneously. The chairman will propose merging the bills. Past experience suggests it is quite impossible to amend a single section of the law, especially if we are dealing with a matter as important as public broadcasting,” Must said.
The committee chairman said he cannot comment on the details of Grünthal’s bill as the committee’s collective brain trust has not read it and neither has he. “Even if I had an opinion of the bill, I could not express it lest it is said the chairman is making proposals. We will try to make sure that things not only are democratic but also appear as such,” Must said.
Overregulation at ERR will not fly
Asked whether he feels the public broadcaster needs additional rules to ensure balanced coverage, Must suggested the committee would likely not support overregulation.
“The structure of the state has different levels of regulation. Some political ideologies want everything to be regulated down to the last detail. I believe that the committee will rather lean toward creating a body with its own tasks and responsibility, while the legislator will not be picking executive editors or who knows what else. The bill will be discussed, while I do not hold it probable that we will see an overregulated public broadcaster,” he said.
The politician emphasized that the committee can only comment in more detail once it has discussed the bill for the first time. “Do not pull me onto a slippery slope here as it is not proper for the chairman to say what will or will not happen. To try and answer your question diplomatically, we will try to have the public broadcaster comply with its tasks and serve the Estonian people in the best possible way. One party is aiming for a particular direction and the other is aiming elsewhere, but we will try to reach a sensible compromise. Which is not to say that those in the coalition are convinced only their singers can hold a note.”
The bill will be discussed by the Cultural Affairs Committee next Thursday at the earliest.