Russian propaganda pouring into the brains of Estonian viewers

Raul Ranne
Television services providers keep Russian national networks in their standard packages.
Television services providers keep Russian national networks in their standard packages. Photo: Pm, Shutterstock

Unlike in neighboring countries, Estonia does nothing to contain Russian propaganda in the country as relevant legislation holds no effective levers. Television services providers keep Russian national networks in their standard packages.

Television executive, Duo Media CEO Jüri Pihel said: “Television sets the tone of conversation, nothing to be done. The effect is dwindling among young people but all the greater among the older generations.”

He admitted that Estonia has a few strong media houses with their own Russian news portals – they are increasingly offering an alternative to Russian television. “However, Russians in Estonia still tend to live to the beat of Russian networks. And are clearly under the influence of massively and professionally propagandist content,” Pihel said.

Factious information background

Watching Russian networks for extended periods of time requires nerves of steel. Estonia – and its Baltic neighbors – is treated as a small Nazi state where remaining fascists continue to organize marches unimpeded. The rhetoric still lingers.

Any attempt to suggest that Estonia is successful and sports better economic indicators per capita than Russia breaks on the wall of Nazi (marches) accusations.

Europe, embroiled in liberalism and gay rights, is a hopelessly degenerate nothingness the only role of which is to dance for USA as its puppet. The U.S. is a cynical tyrant bent on sowing global confusion to serve its own interests that it for some reasons calls democracy. In truth, America and Europe have less of the latter than Russia, star propagandists of Russian networks suggest. The same goes for freedom of speech, they say, conveniently overlooking Russia’s 151th place in the world press freedom index.

Poor relations between NATO and Russia are still blamed on the alliance’s decision to accept the annoying and quarrelsome Eastern European small countries, including the Baltics, into its ranks.

The Russian propaganda machine also makes copious use of the recent energy crisis caused by incompetent and downright stupid European leaders.

All of it is dressed in a rich gravy of singing the praises of the Russian president and painting Putin’s Russia as the savior and problem-solver of the struggling world. Each day, every day.

That is what people in Estonia live and breathe. Little wonder then that when mass vaccination started in Estonia in spring, a lot of Russian-speaking people demanded Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. People were just as confident in refusing vaccines offered in Estonia as they were deemed life-threatening, not least by Russian state networks.

“The fact Russian networks shape the minds of so many people in Estonia is nothing short of dangerous. Very dangerous in fact,” media expert Raul Rebane said. The vaccines make for the most obvious example. “The mere fact that the behavior and choices of so many people regarding such a serious matter are influenced or even orchestrated by a foreign country in Estonia is completely absurd.”

Looking at the ratings, Russian-speaking viewers in Estonia spend the most time with Russian state network Rossiya. Next come more entertainment-oriented but still state-controlled NTV+ and PBK the contents of which is a mix of Russia’s official Channel One Russia programming.

[ERR’s] ETV+ is the fourth most viewed network among Russian-speaking viewers, while the Estonian channel has gradually been poaching viewers from Russian networks for years.

Looking at individual programs, [ERR’s] Russian edition of “Aktuaalne kaamera” was the most popular in October, followed by NTV show “Weekly Summary.” Russians in Estonia also tune in to RTR evening news as often as ERR’s. NTV opinion show “Central Television” and (in terms of tonality) hatred and rage show “60 Minutes” on RTR are not far behind. RTR weekend show “Moscow.Kremlin.Putin” that is in no way modest about singing the praises of the Russian president is also among the favorites of Russian viewers in Estonia. The toxic evening talk show “Night with Vladimir Solovyov” that quite regularly hosts Estonian MEP Yana Toom is as popular as talk shows on Estonian ETV+.

Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) bureau chief Harrys Puusepp said that the agency is keeping an eye on various public sources of information that include Russian networks under the Kremlin’s control.

Asked whether their content poses a threat to national security, Puusepp said: “No single piece of media content has the potential to seriously jeopardize national security, while systematic information influence activity aimed at splitting societies, creating and deepening tensions in other countries is another matter.” He added that the Kremlin’s factious messages have had a negative effect on the pace of vaccination in Estonia.

Russian networks in standard packages

The first task of ISS is to prevent security threats – so that risks provoked or amplified by foreign countries’ influence activities would not jeopardize the constitutional order in Estonia. “Estonia is on top in the world in terms of media freedom. The important thing as a state and society is to protect this free media space from the Kremlin’s attacks.”

All major Russian networks are included in the standard packages offered by ISPs and other television service providers. This means that by paying for the package, we also pay for the garbage poured into the heads of viewers. Whereas there are no warnings of incredibly toxic stuff in between pieces of entertainment.

Is it necessary to keep these networks in standard packages and why? Birjo Kiik, head of content for television and multimedia at leading internet and digital television services provider Telia, explained that it is the preference of viewers, while she did not disclose, pointing to confidentiality, how much viewers are paying for keeping Russian networks there.

Head of public broadcaster ERR Erik Roose said he does not understand why no one is bothered by the fact money collected from the customers of service providers is used to pay Russian networks hefty sums. “Make them available as additional options – let people who absolutely need them pay for them. Why should the customers of standard packages pay for this propaganda?” Roose asked.

“Evaluation of which networks are suitable for the Estonian television auditorium should come from the market regulator,” Birjo Kiik suggested. The latter task falls to the Technical Inspectorate (TTJA).

Legislation behind the situation

Head of the business department at TTJA Ulrika Paavle explained that many Russian networks shown in the Baltic countries are legally under another EU member state’s jurisdiction, while the EU audiovisual media services directive obligates member states to ensure free circulation of media content from other member states.

“Unfortunately, the Media Services Act that applies the directive in Estonia is still in Riigikogu proceedings. The updated version of the directive allows a precept to be issued to end retransmission if television programming from another member state incites hatred or violence on national, religious, gender or other grounds; urges acts of terror, regularly ignores rules for the protection of minors, jeopardizes national security, safety of people and social stability,” the TTJA representative said, adding that the law does not provide sufficient levers for containing propaganda until Estonia adopts the directive.

Example of Latvia and Lithuania

However, Latvia and Lithuania are reacting much more directly. They have stopped airing Russian networks following hostile rhetoric. PBK was taken off the air as recently as the week before last in Latvia. Both Latvia and Lithuania have previously limited transmission of RTR/Rossiya after programs violated the ban on inciting hatred or urged military action against other countries.

Paavle said that unlike in Latvia and Lithuania, the Estonian regulator does not have the right to make decisions regarding foreign channels offered by service providers. The selection of channels is likely decided based primarily on market demand. Paavle said she hopes passing the directive will give the TTJA more say in matters.

ERR head Erik Roose said that while the effects of Russian networks and possible restrictions have been discussed in the supervisory board of the public broadcaster, politicians suggested Estonia is a free and liberal country and that the state should not meddle in business.

“I find this approach somewhat primitive and mercantile,” Roose said.

Talking about business, Russian networks get roughly a third of the approximately €25 million that makes up the Estonian television advertising market. “The aspect of the source of hostile propaganda making money off it through advertising revenue is especially unfortunate,” Harrys Puusepp said. It needs to be said in the interests of full disclosure that Postimees Group is brokering advertising on PBK and NTV.

Communication consultant Raul Rebane recalled a terrible situation from the spring of last year when the Estonian state aimed to buy air time for a public information campaign on PBK. It was explained by suggesting information needs to go where the audience is.

“Whereas no serious problems were perceived. Literally going to Putin and admitting that ours is a country so inept that it cannot even handle sending its citizens crisis messages. An utterly impossible state of mind. Luckily, it sparked a storm of indignation.”

The situation has changed by today. The Government Office’s stratcom department said that while there is no regulation for this specific purpose, the recommendation is not to pursue state information campaigns on these networks.

The reason is that almost all Russian television channels are under state control, which is to say procuring advertising there would constitute supporting the Russian state budget. Secondly, it would legitimize Russian propaganda outlets and their often anti-Estonian content.

When it comes to COVID-19 information, a public opinion poll by the Government Office and the Ministry of Social Affairs found that the Russian portals of Estonian media companies like ERR, Delfi and Postimees make up the main source of information for Russian-speaking people, with 50-60 percent relying on their information. The relative importance of Russian networks fell noticeably in the first months of the emergency situation and is around 10 percent today.

In closing, while many are willing to admit the corrosive effect on Russian networks, Estonia lacks forces willing to take concrete steps to contain them. Or as put by Raul Rebane: “Unfortunately, we have lost all manner of vigilance for this absurdity. I believe a common Baltic position should be shaped to clearly communicate that these networks have a considerable effect on all three states. However, this first requires strong political will and courage.”