We, 5.10.2022

Annoyed the prosecutor’s office: the court fined two Eesti Ekspress journalists for article about money laundering

Andrus Karnau
, ajakirjanik
Annoyed the prosecutor’s office: the court fined two Eesti Ekspress journalists for article about money laundering
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Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler and their article on Swedbank's money laundering. In the background Robert Kitt and Priit Perens.
Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler and their article on Swedbank's money laundering. In the background Robert Kitt and Priit Perens. Photo: Kollaaž
  • Money laundering and the skiing holiday of the princess of Monaco are news of equal significance.
  • Eesti Ekspress appealed against the fine imposed on the newspaper and the journalists.
  • The prosecutor’s office claims the right to decide what the newspapers may write about.

Alari Möldre, Judge of the Harju Country Court, fined two journalists of the Eesti Ekspress weekly for releasing the information about former management of Swedbank being suspected of money laundering.

The text of the court ruling on the fine provides a scary picture from the viewpoint of press freedom as the prosecutor general’s office has twice already threatened the Eesti Ekspress editorial office for publishing news about pretrial investigations and has also required the establishment of preliminary censorship, meaning that the journalists should coordinate the publication of their articles with the government institution.

Möldre made the ruling concerning the fine on April 14, imposing a fine of 1,000 euros on both Eesti Ekspress journalist Tarmo Vahter and his colleague Sulev Vedler. Ekspress Meedia, the publisher of the newspaper, also received a fine of 1,000 euros. The journalists and the publisher appealed against the ruling last Friday.

Möldre admits in the ruling that while according to the code of ethics of the press, the duty of the press is to closely monitor the exercising of political and economic power, it is overruled by the section of the criminal process code, which prohibits the publication of news about criminal cases without the prosecution's permission.

The judge wrote that the experienced journalists should have known that pre-trial investigation documents marked “for internal use” could only be published with the permission of the prosecutor's office. Möldre writes in the ruling that the journalists did not have permission to publish this information, but what was worse – they did not even inform the prosecutor's office that they intended to disclose such information.

Office of the Prosecutor General demanded the highest possible fines for journalists and newspapers - 3,200 euros each. The judge agreed to one third of the amount or 1,000 euros.

According to the court ruling, the Office of the Prosecutor General is annoyed by the fact that the Eesti Ekspress article “The entire former management of Swedbank Estonia is suspected of money laundering related to a Russian oligarch” published the name of Mikhail Abyzov, a former member of the Russian government, who was allegedly related to the money laundering, and the volume of the sum of money transferred, to which the Swedbank management members might have contributed. They are suspected having participated in the laundering of more than 100 million euros in 2014-2016.

“The Prosecutor's Office cannot tolerate that the press discloses information about the pre-trial proceedings at its own discretion during the court proceedings, caring only about its own financial interests and doing it without the permission of the holder of the information,” Prosecutor Sigrid Nurm stated in her complaint to the court.

Ruling of the court: the article merely satisfied curiosity

The prosecutor's office was also irritated that Priit Perens had not been questioned as a suspect at the time the article was published, although Ekspress wrote that the businessman had already been officially declared a suspect in a money laundering crime.

The court imposed the fine for the article “The entire former management of Swedbank Estonia is suspected of money laundering related to a Russian oligarch”, which was published online on March 25. The article read that former members of Swedbank's management board were suspected of having breached money laundering regulations while serving on the management board of Swedbank, Estonia's largest bank. Altogether eight people and Swedbank as a legal entity were declared suspects. The best known of the eight suspects are Robert Kitt, presently a board member of the district heating company Utilitas, and Priit Perens, chairman of the board of the University of Tartu hospital. Ulla Ilisson, former head of the Education Board, is already on the list of suspects.

Both Kitt and Perens are still influential people in Estonia’s economic affairs and they were also very influential while working in Swedbank's management. Despite this, both the Prosecutor General Sigrid Nurm and Judge Alari Möldre, who agreed with her complaint, found that Eesti Ekspress has violated Kitt’s and Perens’ right to the privacy of their personal life.

Explaining her demand for fine, the prosecutor stated becoming a suspect of money laundering was not related to the performing of public duties and does not contribute to the public debate. Therefore the article of Eesti Ekspress only satisfied the readers’ curiosity about someone's private life. The judge confirmed this position in his ruling about the fine.

“The content of the article published in Eesti Ekspress is aimed at satisfying the public's curiosity, which is in no way related to the performing of public duties or any political aspect which would necessitate the publication of said article,” Möldre wrote in the court ruling.

In his ruling, the judge referred to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in which Princess Caroline von Hannover of Monaco and her husband Ernst complained that publishing pictures of their skiing holidays in the press was an unjustified violation of their privacy.

The editorial office of Eesti Ekspress has long been under pressure by the Prosecutor General's Office. According to the court ruling, in September 2020 the spokesperson of the Prosecutor's Office Kaarel Kallas sent a letter to the editorial office protesting against the publication of the materials of the Danske Bank money laundering criminal case. Among other things, Kallas wrote: “I will send you an urgent request from the prosecutor's office – if you receive information from the file of a pending criminal case, please coordinate the publication of this information with the prosecutor's office in advance.”

In February 2022, Eesti Ekspress wrote about bribery suspicions concerning former minister of the interior Ain Seppik and published an excerpt from the court dossier. This was followed by a threatening letter from the Prosecutor General's Office, stating that further publication of investigation materials without the permission of the prosecutor’s office would result in the prosecutor’s demand for fining the journalists

Nikkolo: this fine creates a dangerous precedent

Merili Nikkolo, the editor-in-chief of Eesti Ekspress, said that she had asked the court to cancel the fine or set it at 0 euros. “Imposing a fine on journalists for doing their work sets a dangerous precedent. This sends the message that articles should be written only with the prosecution’s permission, or the prosecutor’s office should be at least informed so that it could decide which subjects are important for the public or otherwise. Such decisions are made by the editors,” Nikkolo commented.

“If the fine remains in force, it raises the reasonable question as to whether it is now necessary to ask a permission of the prosecutor's office for each such story or otherwise one could be fined. This principle is incompatible with the freedom of the press. It is not about the facts of the article. Everything in the story is accurate and correct. The journalists are fined for doing their work well,” Nikkolo said.

Nikkolo said that the most amazing aspect had been the explanation of the fine, according to which the article had been about satisfying public curiosity rather than public interest. “We cannot agree with that. Investigating money laundering of such impact is definitely a subject of major public interest. It is about Estonia’s largest commercial bank, its credibility, about how it has been managed. It affects Estonia’s economy as well as Estonia’s international image. Criminal process of such impact cannot take place hidden from the public,” Nikkolo said.

Nikkolo added that the publisher had hired a lawyer for the journalists. “The enterprise stands firmly behind them. Nevertheless it is unpleasant and disturbing if one is being fined for doing their job,” Nikkolo said.

Sulev Vedler remarked that he and his colleague had been doing the regular work of a journalist. “After the information had been verified with several different sources, it no longer seemed necessary to ask confirmation from the prosecutor’s office. We did not reveal anything top secret. The prosecutor’s office now assured that the report was correct. This was clearly an article in public interest,” Vedler said.

Harju County Court press officer Viivika Siplane said that Judge Alari Möldre was in vacation and would not comment the ruling.