Speech of President Ilves at the Estonian Newspaper Association Conference
My ladies and gentlemen.
I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas about the current state of Estonian journalism and democracy with the leaders of media enterprises and other decision-makers.
As an introduction, I want to be specific – these opinions and assessments should be construed as those expressed by a media consumer, slightly more demanding than the average individual, and not so much as those of the president or a public official.
It is clear that one does not need a higher scientific degree in the sphere of politology to understand the fact that the freedom of speech – including press freedom – represents one of the pre-requisites of democracy. And vice versa. Democracy and freedom of speech are pre-requisites for each other.
Should one suffer, the other is also under attack. There are, dynamically, in constant change. Governance, beleaguering freedom of speech, is undemocratic a priori, but will become even more beleaguering upon the absence of freedom of speech. Without any criticism, the twisted decisions of the government will become even more erroneous, which, in turn, will encourage the desire to mute criticism even more.
This is exactly what we see in totalitarian countries, where drawing attention to any problematic issue is construed as a criticism of the regime. Until we have North Korea, which is suffering from famine yet ignoring it intensely.
By wounding the other, one will wound itself. Should the freedom of speech attack democracy, freedom of speech shall ultimately suffer. This is a symbiotic co-existence, which is made even more complicated by the fact that at least one party – the freedom of speech – is expected to poke the other, democracy, on a constant basis to keep it awake.
With all of this, I want to say that democracy without the freedom of speech would be unthinkable. However, freedom of speech without democracy would also be unthinkable, except in extreme situations or situations of a trivial meaning – like a stone-age cave or anarchy. These are special conditions, where the institutionalised form of freedom of speech or journalism does not exist anyway.
Freedom of speech and democracy depend on each other for a number of reasons. It is self-evident that an undemocratic country would just not tolerate freedom of speech.
Yet, freedom of speech only has a point if the words have impact. Democracy is also in danger if demos or the people will not listen or do not hear the words spoken by the press, and it is also in danger if the words of journalists are treated as trivial, irrelevant, or even entertaining, as nobody writes about important things that matter.
I am only mentioning this fact because journalism without impact would be something quite feeble and difficult as a business. If the only objective would be to earn some money, it would be reasonable to opt for property development or the mediation of high-interest loans.
At a time when many countries share the understanding that journalism is possible, regardless of the issues and approaches that are construed as taboo, and that there are people whose actions can only be covered from a positive angle, this is something we should definitely keep in mind.
Unfortunately, today neither democracy nor freedom of press can enjoy the favourable situation that both myself and many others were looking forward to 20 years ago.
As I mentioned last year in Prague, only 18% or less than a fifth of people of those who lived in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union within the target regions of Radio Free Europe/Radio Freedom twenty years ago and who had neither freedom of speech nor democracy then are enjoying it today.
It must be admitted that Fukuyama’s liberal and optimistic vision of the end of history turned out to be a continuation of history for 80 per cent.
Only a couple of years ago, we would not have had to speak about censorship or the lack of democracy in Estonia, but I feel today – either because of the fact that the community of journalists is so much younger or because memory tends to erase bad things – that we need to remind ourselves again of some basics.
In totalitarian countries, journalism only serves an undemocratic government. Censorship is the law and those who break it will not be published, or in worse case they will be punished.
After the collapse of communism, however, we can see a different threat to press freedom. This is authoritarian and privatised lawlessness.
State-imposed initial censorship is not applicable here. Publications that make money under the market economy conditions of an authoritarian country themselves understand what can and what cannot be published. They know that a state based on the rule of law does not work.
It is understood that your company may run into difficulties if incorrect with the desired approach. The owner may find himself in a situation where he has to sell his company. Or some other method for putting on the screws may be used – such as the tax board, which will close firms that publish unpleasant truths or force them out of business.
And should some individual continue to publish facts that are uncongenial for the governing clique, other solutions will be found, as we have seen far too often in some countries over the past few years.
Therefore, we should stick to reality, regardless of the fact that “simplify and exaggerate” have become the slogans of journalism. Superficiality and mistakes are often hidden by this slogan, by saying that “this is how Edward Lucas once taught”.
Coming back to Estonia, we can assert with confidence that there is no censor in Estonia. Freedom of speech and press freedom can be exercised in full in Estonia.
Although I am always sceptical when I consider the meaning of the fourth or sixth or seventh place in some ranking or other – something of which Estonian newspapers suffering from chronic ranking neurosis are so very fond – we definitely belong in the top ten in the world when it comes to press freedom.
I am aware that I was invited here today to speak about the crisis of democracy within the framework of the economic recession. I am not sure whether Estonian democracy is suffering from a crisis. Naturally, we do have problems; democracy can sometimes wear a weary face, and sometimes we drift dangerously away from the principles of democracy.
I have been discussing these problems and issues in practically all the speeches I have delivered over the past three years. This is why I will not be focusing on these topics too closely today. All the more so because, as I said, democracy, freedom of speech, and press freedom are all linked by the same umbilical cord.
Compared to some other countries, the situation in the Estonian press is above average. The menu offered is more on the rich than the lean side, when one considers the number of consumers of media in the Estonian language.
We have independent public broadcasting, professional cultural journalism, local papers with a mission, radio stations that consider the interests of their audience and, despite all the difficulties, we also have several national daily papers competing with each other.
This is definitely a lot.
But I do argue that the situation in the media landscape has been better in the recent past, and some changes in the quality and assortment of what is available makes me feel worried as a media consumer.
I have attempted, repeatedly, to disprove one rather common misunderstanding in Estonia’s journalistic self-awareness; namely, the definition of “fourth estate” has nothing to do with Montesquieu’s definition of three estates.
The incorrect interpretation of the original term, the fourth estate or the “fourth rank” in the Estonian language, which describes the ranks present in a French parliament, has established itself rather steadfastly and refuses to let go.
And the very same incorrect interpretation is often used to justify all of one’s acts and choices, as if journalism would have a ranking, equal to executive, judicial, and legislative authorities.
Such a wrong interpretation is erroneous not just etymologically and etiologically, but also by its very nature.
Because it is only journalism, which is removed from power and keeps its distance and is neither an authority nor a status, that can watch over the health and well-being of democracy. It also has some other roles, such as that of an entity that describes the reality, so that citizens can have the chance to form their own opinions.
If the reality only receives the coverage that is prescribed by the authorities, we will end up in a situation where a large number of people in a certain country will assume that a revanchist Nazi-regime with territorial claims is governing in Estonia.
In a democratic country where the government does not interfere with the substance of journalistic work, the press will be fully responsible for matching the described and the reality.
Things are a bit more complicated, however, with the role of a watchman. Juvenalis, who wrote satiric stage plays some 2,000 years ago, and who gave us a number of well-known sentences, such as Mens sana in corpore sano or “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and panem et circenses or “bread and circus”, also asked:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes or “who will watch over the watchmen?”
What are the mechanisms that could also be used by the press for self-regulation purposes?
Should the authorities cross over the limits, the press of a free society will tell us. But what is allowed for the press? Everything? Are there any limits? And where are the limits?
I do believe that such limits are rather difficult to identify; however, I would still suggest some principles. For example, I suggest that ethical rules be applicable to both politicians and the fourth estate.
Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi – or: what is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the ox – is a rather cynical Roman proverb, which should have no place within a democratic state based on the rule of law. This means that journalism should not be afforded things, which cannot be afforded to democracy. Whether it is ignoring the laws, the presumption of innocence, or an out-of-court punishment.
Some sort of responsibility should be taken for everything that belongs to a media group and is published in any channels. The childish attitude of “I’m not responsible; I’m only offering others the opportunity for irresponsible self-expression” – is not enough.
I am not talking of legal but ethical principles here.
What would the optimum limits be? These are difficult to identify; however, I would say in general that everything can be said or written, provided that they do not result in unreasonable damages or suffering.
Yet, my gut feeling tells me that should the press, which construes itself as independent, suddenly become actively involved in politics, meaning that they are no longer limiting themselves to mere criticism but are initiating political campaigns and participating therein, it should certainly be permissible in a democratic country. But then on the same grounds as everybody else, meaning politicians and political parties.
More specifically, I would like to draw reference to last year’s “Stop!” campaign, which involved one publication collecting signatures to stop the pay rise of the members of parliament.
Let us leave the pay rise aside, which is not pleasing to anyone, yet let us be accurate – this was not initiated by the public. This was a political campaign of one specific newspaper, a commercial enterprise. And certainly, it was beneficial, business-wise, and increased the number of readers.
But if a newspaper will, figuratively speaking, kick open the door to the parliament’s speaker’s room and spill the collected signatures all over her desk, this is no longer criticism, but politics – loud and clear.
In such a situation, it would at least be honest – in my opinion – to follow the same rules observed by those the signatures were collected against: disclose your own income, declarations of economic interests and every other characteristic of a political process within a democratic and transparent country.
There is a fine distinction between whether one invites support for the initiative of someone else in an editorial, such as a non-profit organisation or even some political party, or begins to pursue politics personally.
I repeat – a newspaper can do that and we do have the newspapers of political parties, which occasionally do exactly these things, but here we must realise that an important line has been crossed and in this regard, different game rules must be observed.
One is no longer a watchman of society or a referee in the fields of sports but has rushed out on the field to take part in the game.
While our press freedom is among the most extensive in the world, there is a place where criticism is almost never welcome – criticism of the press. Above all, from those qualifying as one of the three estates.
Even the slightest remark regarding the “yellowish tinge”, journalist’s ethics, and anonymous or malicious comments sets off screams that attempts are being made to “bridle the press” or impose a censor. No, this is not the intention.
I have no intention today to speak about the “yellowish tinge” or other issues. However, this is an issue that requires the discussion of some rather philosophical and complicated topics.
Let us start with the role of press as a watchman, which is required for the reasons that I have already mentioned.
Indeed – how can we ensure the press is free of all the flaws and vices that they are invited to notice and mercilessly criticise if noticed in others.
In 2009, The New York Times sacked three journalists, the reason being corruption. A situation in which the person being interviewed paid for the reporter’s plane ticket was construed as corruption and deemed sufficient enough to give the journalist the boot.
The English press on three continents promotes good practice: anyone who expresses his or her opinion must also disclose his or her relation to the person criticised. This is usually done by giving Full Disclosure in brackets. For example: the politician I am calling names here stole my girlfriend twenty years ago, when I was attending the university.
I would really want the same principles to apply here.
As sometimes I get the impression that the issue of conflicts of interests has not been negotiated by our press.
Yes, we do have the habit of mentioning to which political party the author of an article who is expressing his or her opinion belongs, but this is usually it. But if a reportage, opinion, or “analysis” is published, without disclosing the author’s relations or his or her material interests, this can be described as throwing the readers off the scent, at best. If something like this would be done by a politician, we would describe it as a serious conflict of interests or even corruption.
Does an article that is written by a PR company or company manager hide a conflict of interests, if he/she promotes the interests of his or her clients implicitly or without disclosing the possible relations while at the same time demeaning the competitors?
Should he/she be required to mention his/her interests in the article? Will the editor of the article be responsible for identifying the author’s interests and giving Full Disclosure? And how?
And if he/she knows of the author’s hidden agenda, can we blame the editor for concealing the conflict of interests? And can the editor be labelled unprofessional, when he/she was not aware of the author’s relations or hidden agenda in relation to the issue discussed?
Now we are about to rise to another and, according to my opinion, more serious level, which can be described as immediate corruption.
If a politician travels to Moscow using a plane ticket and hotel accommodation that is paid for by the Kremlin and is given some money or a valuable gift there, I do believe that we all know what will happen. Especially, if he/she starts to praise the policies pursued by the Kremlin and demeans Estonian politics upon returning?
The question is – how should we feel about a journalist who does the same? And what are the responsibilities of the editor-in-chief, main publisher, or the executive board in situations like that? Do we have a mechanism to avoid it?
We can always say that this is press freedom. That even a journalist who has returned with a valuable gift from Moscow is still expressing his press freedom.
But should not the readers know about it? Would it be ethical to conceal one’s interests or conflict of interests like that?
Or, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
What are the obligations of a state? If we were to assume – like I do, by the way – that the state cannot or should not do anything, then who will? Nobody, I am afraid.
But I will definitely wind up this part of my speech with the figure, given in The Guardian last month: 1.4 billion dollars. This is the amount that is earmarked for foreign PR in 2010 by the Kremlin. Approximately 15 billion Estonian kroons. If we assume that this will only be meant for Washington and Brussels and London, we are mistaken.
I promised to avoid any allegations of the “yellowish tinge” today. As this would be quite useless and would only invite ad hominem criticism à la “We don’t have the FAZ, and Ilves is not Obama” instead of a discussion and, quite honestly, I do not have anything to reply to that.
Also, I do not have anything to reply to the attitude where “too bad” is all the consumers of press will be told. An attitude such as “we don’t care as we don’t have to care” belongs to the vocabulary of a company that enjoys a monopoly status. Therefore, it is very strange to hear the attitude that if you do not like the online version, you can read the paper version of the newspaper tomorrow.
A discussion concerning the quality of press must be possible without being showered with accusations of attacking the press or restricting freedom of speech. Such a defence is not adequate, especially if we share the opinion that free press is a part of democracy.
I do believe that the quality of press is such an important part of democracy that it would be detrimental not to discuss it. Detrimental for the state, society and democracy. In exactly the same way, the taboos regarding the activities of the government are a hazard for the health of the society and democracy.
Lately, the main argument for limited discussion has been that no reproaches can be made to a press publication that uses online media, as supposedly online is something completely different from a high-quality paper publication.
Such an argument could even have some weight, if the online and paper version were not using the same trademark and did not share editorial offices on some occasions.
And in fact – why should a consumer even be aware of the internal task division of some newspaper?
According to the same principle – why should a consumer know about the form of ownership of a publication?
For a consumer, the product has just one name and should the consumer conclude that one publication has better quality than the other, then why would it be out of bounds, in a way, to prefer one to another solely because of a different form of ownership?
As I now leave this subject, I still do have one plea to you, solely as a family man.
Please do keep in mind that newspapers have a rather wide audience, children included. I learnt how to read by reading a newspaper with my father. Newspapers were only available on paper then.
Today, my seven year old daughter is also learning to read by reading newspapers, yet using a computer. Therefore, do exercise some caution, please. A photo that is downloaded from Scanpix and featuring a knife, bloody to the hilt, to illustrate some murder story should be kept away from online-media that is intended for the public. But this is a question of taste.
A story that was jumping out of the front page of an online issue of a quality publication, when I sat down at the computer with my daughter on Christmas Day, to read the newspaper at my daughter’s request, was also matter of taste. The headline of the article was “´Gabriel from the Farm’ received a vagina as a Christmas present”. This is not a joke.
It is not my intention in any way to “bridle” the press. It is just my opinion that it will not be of any benefit to Estonia, if people are forced to use the Parental Controls restrictions in their web browser for a publication that defines itself as quality media.
The press has fulfilled its role as a watchman and initiator of a discussion, if people are well informed; if the issues discussed by the press more or less match the things done by the people in reality.
Officials and politicians realise that they cannot trick and cheat people. They at least understand that this would be highly complicated within the conditions of free press.
Twelve years ago, I finished one of my presentations on Estonia’s foreign policy by expressing my concern that if the press does not offer sufficient coverage of events that take place abroad and focuses on issues of little importance, this would create favourable grounds for the arrogance of those who shape foreign policy.
In other words, responsibility comes with the role of a watchman. The responsibility to do right things.
I do know that foreign trainers have explained for years that foreign news “won’t sell”. Or it will only sell when accompanied with loads of pictures of catastrophes.
In this regard, browsing the book by Eero Medijainen, “The World in the Mirror of a Provincial Uncle”, published approximately ten years ago, which sets out a number of Estonian foreign policy caricatures between the wars, this represents a rather interesting and intellectual activity. It is interesting to pay attention to the topics – the Abyssinian War, the French and British relations, and so on.
A caricature is a comment that gives meaning to the news. And this allows us to conclude that such news was given good coverage back then.
But is there anyone who is capable of recalling the foreign policy caricature of the current Estonian press that features characters other than Estonians wearing a little hat and knee-length shorts and a bear that is wearing a field cap with a pentagon? Figuring some question not related directly to Estonia?
We will obtain a slightly more objective overview of the approach taken by our press to foreign policy issues when comparing the newspapers to the “Foreign Press Review”, circulated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs every working day.
It sets out the most important articles published in the French, German and English language space newspapers and the largest Finnish newspapers. It is also interesting to observe how much all these features overlap. The same issues are covered by Finnish, Irish, US, Belgian, French and Austrian newspapers.
It is also interesting to observe how the headline news overlaps with the coverage given by Estonian publications. Such a comparison does not do us credit.
Should we want to understand why one or other government of an European Union member state is responding the way it is, we also need to know in which information field it is operating.
While we have heard, for years how the Russians living in Estonia inhabit an information field completely different from the one inhabited by the Estonians, as they mostly use the channels controlled in Russia at a national level, has any one of us thought for a moment that we may suffer from the same problem?
Not because someone is controlling the channels, but because no one is interested in the stories, which are read in Helsinki, Vienna and Dublin.
At a certain moment, the mutterings about the role of a watchman will obtain a hollow sound, especially if important issues are given no coverage. If the public is not interested in the real ambition of the foreign and security policy decision makers.
Should some relatively marginal member of the Duma who made some rather offensive remarks about Estonia be highlighted, while more important developments in Russia go uncovered? Are the Taman division and units of OMON lined up ready for battle on Red Square to avoid the outbreak of a civil war on Estonian issues, when I read a headline such as “The Estonian issue is splitting up Russia”?
Is the question of whether the Estonian President will go to Moscow on 9th May or not really the most urgent issue when we consider everything that is going on around us?
I am giving examples from the spheres in which I feel at home. But what if this is an exception and everything is perfectly fine in all the other spheres.
However, it would be worth the trouble to talk with business people, for example. The Estonian economy, which we rate highly – and for a reason – as one of the most open and export-orientated economies in the world, does obviously not live in a closed world.
But what about the publications that describe the world economy in Estonia? What are the businesspeople reading and discussing? They are discussing the articles that are published in the Financial Times, Kauppalehti and the Wall St. Journal.
I am not in a position to comment on any other sphere, but undoubtedly, this is not a problem of online issue vs. hard copy published the next day. People involved in economic, foreign and security policy in Estonia are no longer waiting for the printed newspaper to be placed on their desks.
Here the question arises – do Estonian readers get an adequate picture of the world?
Yes, indeed, we may ask what is reality and adequacy and whether there are any differences between Nastya’s and Nasdaq’s forecasts in the first place?
It is important to answer this question, but every now and then it is worth the trouble to think about whether we can do such things as thoroughly as they are done elsewhere in the world, despite the fact that Ilves is not Obama.
Certainly, someone will say now that making such a newspaper is rather expensive and readers do not really want it – that readers want the “soft”, as they call it.
Maybe this is true. Maybe the economic recession, the great diversity of news, the spread of the Internet, and several other reasons do not allow us to do things differently to how they are currently being done in Estonia.
The quality of journalism is subject to economic logics is often the pretext that is given by publishers who justify their trade-off for quality.
However, such a way of thinking involves two fundamental errors.
First of all, all the participants cannot be fitted into the same, yellow market niche, and even if such an assertion were true, we should have been able to see the growing number of circulations of publications.
But this is not so, and to assume that consumers have been maintained by offering them media that is worse by the day makes one ask: could it not have been done by offering them better and better media?
Secondly: one gets a cheap product in exchange for a cheap product. And if the number of consumers does not increase, what is the logic behind such an approach? Maybe we should consider some other ways of thinking? Going for a more expensive approach, hiring wise people to increase productivity?
This is why I dare to borrow a couple of ideas from a US Professor of Journalism, Mr. Phillip Meyer, who thinks that the demand for a classic newspaper will never disappear.
Although it is not apparent whether consumers of news will prefer paper or monitor in the future, Mr. Meyer points out the fact that the decision-makers in society will need adequate information to adopt these decisions.
Such services will be purchased and expected from an editor or editor-in-chief of a newspaper, who has made a choice between the substantial and the trivial. The decision-makers will definitely be interested in the fun and the weird, but money will only be paid for what is important.
Here we can obviously say that we are living in a market economy and such issues of little importance should be published to get more clicks and for publications to make the ends meet. This is an important issue, and it is not a problem faced only by Estonia.
Some services, while very important in adopting decisions, are just too expensive to be offered by today’s press that feed on clicks and advertising. It will simply not work out. Not for us, not for anyone else.
The Financial Times has opted for a paid service, as has the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times announced on Wednesday that it will be doing the same, as quality can no longer be offered for free.
By the way, yesterday, quite probably inspired by the resolution of the New York Times, the Media and Business Editor of the Financial Times, Mr. John Gapper, published a rather interesting feature on the fact that quite obviously, high-quality newspapers can no longer be published for free.
The idea of a paid network newspaper is not very widely accepted in Estonia. More specifically – no serious attempts have been made in this sphere. The question is, more likely, whether and which business model would allow for developing a high-quality, reliable online-newspaper?
How many people are there in Estonia who are willing to pay either 100 or 200 Estonian kroons, 10 or 20 Euros per month, for a newspaper that ensures quality and the insurance being the editor-in-chief?
I do not know. Maybe you do. However, here we can notice the attitude that because such quality cannot be offered in the Estonian language readers can go on reading foreign newspapers.
I am not going to argue here; however, I do admit that any invitation by editors to maintain our expensive Estonian-language university education seems rather hypocritical within the given context.
In conclusion, I would like to discuss the most sensitive issue, this being the proposal that the press should tread more carefully when covering certain issues.
In other words, I am now going to take off my newspaper reader’s hat and address you as a civil servant, as the president.
I can do it because actually this only serves your own interest: defending democracy.
I do realise that to a certain extent, populism sells. I do understand that calling the Riigikogu names has become as popular here as cursing the European Union in the United Kingdom.
Yes, indeed, those representing our people do make mistakes sometimes. Some members of the Riigikogu have abused the taxi receipts and reimbursement of expenses and deserve criticism and condemnations by name for such behaviour. Criticism by names.
Yet no one will benefit by calling them names, impersonally, and also questioning our institution of representative democracy in the process. Neither the citizens of Estonia, parliamentarism, democracy nor, finally, the free press.
All this has already happened – the demeaning and reorganisation of the Riigikogu in the beginning of the 1930s ended in resetting the press.
The “Vapses” (members of the League of Veterans of the Estonian War of Independence) and Mr. Päts’s countermove, which restricted the democratic institutions, including the freedom of speech, did not come out of the blue. This was preceded by the reviling of the parliament and the democratic process of decision-making.
And when I read the general reviling addressed against the Riigikogu – the whole institution – in the morning papers and listen to even more exaggerated and simplified name-calling on radio broadcasts that are referring to newspapers, day to day and week to week, I am sincerely worried and must ask: where will this take us?
Let us remember, press freedom will be dependent on democracy for exactly as long as democracy will be dependent on press freedom. One will not last long without the other.
The same goes for our constitution, which is the last defence of us all, the democracy of the republic, and the people of Estonia. If a member of the Riigikogu says that a law is clearly violating the constitution – and I quote – “so what, this is what people want” – as happened some years ago, this is quite clearly wrong.
But when media criticises the Chairman of the Supreme Court of Estonia and the president for defending the constitution – should this be treated as something else?
What will happen if the chairman of the supreme court and the president will decide that they no longer want to be unpopular but wish to act in compliance with the wishes of their people, even if this would mean being in conflict with the constitution? And what would their message to the consecutive chairmen of the supreme court and future presidents be?
If we read that the president and the chairman of the supreme court, or more specifically, Toomas and Märt, should be ashamed for standing up for the constitution and against populism, then the individuals who take the office after them, will conclude, and with good reason, that it is better to be popular than to stand by the constitution.
Having sent several laws back to the Riigikogu that were in conflict with the constitution, (without anyone even noticing), I am even more worried, as a selective approach is being taken to the constitution.
I do believe that our democratic institutions are worth protecting, above all, by the press. The people who form these institutions are human in their faults and will definitely make some mistakes. And they deserve to be disciplined for their mistakes.
But if we are about to start demolishing the institutions that ensure our fundamental rights, the Riigikogu, the supreme court, and the constitution, let us not be surprised if someone will stand up and speak out loud: “ME”, when asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Thank you for your attention.