Following the parliamentary elections on 3rd March 2019 and the formation of the coalition government including conservative and right-wing party members, the civic space has reportedly worsened. There have been attempts of political interference in media and verbal attacks against critical journalists. Several journalists quit their jobs citing censorship attempts; there have been also concerns that politically motivated smears against media will result in self-censorship. Protests and social media campaigns were launched to denounce the newly formed government coalition and the threat to basic freedoms.
Eestis juba ei sobi avalikult öelda, et rassistid on valitsuses. Välismeediat tsiteerides veel tohib. https://t.co/bWlhXchkmj— Vilja Kiisler (@ViljaKiisler) May 12, 2019
On 3rd March 2019, the Estonian parliamentary elections took place with election turnout just over 63 per cent. The centre-right Reform Party won the elections securing 28.8 percent of the vote, followed by the Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Center Party with 23.1 percent. The far-right Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) came third as it doubled its support with 17.8% of the vote, on the back of anti-immigration rhetoric as well as its views against same-sex partnerships and feminism.
According to the Executive Director of the Estonian NGO platform, Hea Kodanik (NENO), the organisation monitoring the respect of Good Election Practices (a set of practices to ensure fairness of the electoral campaign), the contesting parties kept “most of the debates very civil and content oriented”. NENO observed that parties largely respected the Good Election Practices.
Following the failure of the Reform Party’s leader Kaja Kallas, to secure parliamentary support to form a coalition government on 15th April, the party that came second - the Centre Party formed a coalition government with the nationalist Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and the conservative Fatherland party (Estonian: Isamaa). The inclusion of the far right EKRE party in the government, which also resulted in five ministries going to EKRE, have also raised concerns internationally and domestically.
According to a human rights analysis of the election programme of all parties, carried out by the Estonian Human Rights Centre, the programme of the Centre Party was found to be pro-human rights and civic freedoms as its pledges included: stricter regulation of incitement to hatred, paying greater attention to gender equality and to ratify Protocol 12 of the European Human Rights Convention, leading to implementation of a general prohibition of discrimination. In contrast, the programmes of EKRE and Isamaa, the parties that have formed the ruling coalition, threaten to roll back some important civil liberties and rights especially concerning the rights of migrants and refugees, LGBT and gender equality, as well as freedom of expression. The EKRE party has particularly advocated for abolishing the law recognising same-sex civil unions, demanded changes to the country's abortion law and fiercely opposed European Union quotas for taking in asylum-seekers.
President @KerstiKaljulaid made a speech Friday, at a joint meeting of European and Estonian journalists' federations, noting the importance of the role free speech and a free press played in Estonia's independence. The text is here.#Estoniahttps://t.co/zYDTtqqAg8— Estonian News (@errnews) May 13, 2019
Political interference and harassment of media: censorship and self-censorship
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, issued in April 2019, ranked Estonia 11th among 180 countries, which marks an improvement of one spot compared with its 2018 ranking. Although the Reporters Without Borders noted that journalists in Estonia are working in a "broadly favourable environment", its stated that "media ownership is still highly concentrated" and there are concerns that "the autonomy of journalists is in decline".
Since EKRE’s inclusion in the coalition government – by the invitation of the populist-leaning Centre Party, and with the support of the conservative Isamaa – the party’s offensive rhetoric has apparently intensified. The EKRE's party leaders, several of its MPs and the media outlet the party runs, have verbally attacked Estonian doctors in relation to abortions, journalists and officials, including the country’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid.
According to the European Federation of Journalists there is “rising pressure on press freedom and independent, critical journalists and journalism in Estonia”. In March 2019, EKRE's MP and deputy chair Martin Helme accused the public broadcaster ERR of unbalanced reporting and requested that journalists who "demonstrate bias in their coverage, should be taken off air”. Rein Veidemann, chair of the broadcasting supervisory council - made up of four independent experts, in addition to representatives from all the elected political parties - rejected these suggestions and said that Helme's "allegations could be seen as a characteristic pressure tactic".
In this political climate post-elections, several journalists have quit their jobs due to potential censorship and fears because of their critical reporting. In May 2019, journalist Vilja Kiisler, quit her job at the newspaper Postimees after the instruction of the editor to tone down a critical article on EKRE. The journalists also claimed that EKRE's media portals attacked her work and she received threats of violence and rape through email and Facebook. Other journalists supportive of Kiisler raised concerns that such actions "de facto means the first step of censorship”.
Reporters Without Borders also revealed that the owner of the daily newspaper Postimees, who is also a conservative Isamaa party member, "was criticised for direct interference in the editorial process. He had personally appointed leading staff and promoted a conservative worldview in a new newspaper section he opened before the parliamentary elections.”
President Kersti Kaljulaid defended free speech. In a response to the EKRE's actions against the media, during the swearing-in of the new government, the president wore a sweatshirt with the slogan ''Sõna on vaba'' which translates as ''speech is free''.
President Kaljulaid told the media she wore the sweater to highlight the climate of increasing verbal attacks on Estonian journalists, saying: “This can lead to self-censorship, in the sense that you don’t talk any more to avoid this kind of shitstorm, and I don’t want this to happen.”
Private company threatens NGO with a lawsuit
In January 2019, the store Prisma threatened to sue the animal protection NGO, Invisible Animals who have started an active campaign calling on the store to ban ‘cage eggs’ by 2025. Prisma accused the NGO for misusing their trademark. The campaign started in December 2018 to inform customers of the living conditions of the animals. The NGO distributed leaflets in front of the stores and gathered almost 2,000 signatures on the petition.
Birgit Nurmela, head of the Invisible Animal Chicken Welfare Campaign stated: "We are surprised by Prisma's threats because it is a company that promotes itself as a socially responsible company. Consumers have the right to know the conditions under which the chickens, whose eggs Prisma sells, live. Against this background, it seems strange that Prisma is trying to silence activities that increase corporate transparency.” (translated from Estonian). Invisible Animals have decided to continue the campaign, regardless of the threats of a lawsuit.
Protests and social media campaigns denounced newly formed government coalition as a threat to basic freedoms
Since March and through April 2019, hundreds of people marched through Tallin and Tartou to protest against the inclusion of the far-right EKRE party into the country’s coalition government and in what people said was a threat to people’s freedoms and constitutional rights.
The movement demanding respect of freedoms have also expanded through social media. A separate grassroot movement called “Kõigi Eesti”, or “Estonia for All”, started a social media action in March 2019 using the hashtag #myestoniatoo. The movement quickly galvanised nearly 30,000 followers on its Facebook page in addition to about 30 core members. The movement states in its mission that it stands for “democratic values, the rule of law and respect for all our people” and urges supporters to” “Call on everyone to clearly denounce the offensive, frightening and angry speeches. It is important at the moment that we come together and say that inciting hatred, playing values and principles is not okay. We call for a polite dialogue.”
The initiative spread and grew spontaneously and it led to a popular concert which gathered 10,000 Estonian residents from various different backgrounds.
The participation to this movement is seen as an important achievement for Estonian activism and as an example of how to protest in a positive way, campaigning for shared Estonian values.
Newly formed conservative government coalition threatens to cut funding to CSOs
In March 2019, representatives of the new coalition government stated that funding to NGOs should be reduced for budgetary reasons.
Mart Helme, the chairman of the EKRE party and later appointed the Minister of the Interior on 29th April 2019, suggested that support for NGOs should be cut as he views it as “unnecessary” and added that NGOs should deal with their own finances.
Civil society fears these cuts would likely target NGOs working on human rights, women’s rights and equality. For example, during a program "First Studio" on the public TV station, Eesti Televisioon (ETV) (Estonian Television), Henn Põlluaas, member of EKRE and elected the speaker of parliament, said the funding for the Estonia Human Rights Center should be reconsidered as he argued that the funding would be used to support refugees. In a follow up message on Facebook, Põlluaas questioned whether state funding should be provided to the Estonia Human Rights Center saying they “help same-sex couples and asylum seekers to sue” the state (Translated from Estonian). The Estonian Center for Human Rights opposed Põlluaas’s claims and published on its social media page a statement saying that the state does not finance their activities. As previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor, EKRE has a record of using smears to undermine CSOs.
Changes to the income tax incentive reduces bureaucratic burden for CSOs
In January 2019, a change in the income tax incentive was approved, which will make the process for CSOs to access the list of organisations benefiting from tax incentives less bureaucratic. According to the new rules, if an organisation meets the criteria, it will automatically be included in the beneficiaries list, without having to go through the approval of a committee as previously done.
Court rules in favour of LGBTI Film Festival's cut funding case
At the end of January 2019, the City Council of Rakvere decided to provide only 20% of the financial support that was approved by the city’s Committee on Culture for the 2019 Festheart, the local LGBT film festival. According to the organisation, the Council did not provide sufficient justification for this decision.
In a response, the spokesperson of the NGO SevenBow, the organizers of Festheart LGBTI film festival, said: “Politicians are once again interfering in the funding of culture based on their own prejudices.”
Similar arbitrary action by the Council was taken on 28th February 2018 when the City Council decided again not to financially support the LGBTI Film Festival, organised by the NGO SevenBow.
Subsequently, the Estonian Human Rights Center assisted Festheart to take the complaint to court arguing Rakvere's Council had ignored the rule of law and the rules established by the council itself. In May 2019, the Administrative Court ruled that the decision of the Council was unlawful and that festival organisers should have received the maximum amount of requested funding.
Kelly Grossthal, Equal Treatment Expert at the Estonian Center for Human Rights, stated:
“The Estonian Human Rights Center is pleased with the judgement because in a democratic and respectful state, decisions by public authorities must respect the law and be free from personal prejudice.”