Fears of increased smear campaign against civil society in Estonia as elections approach
Protestors manhandled a rival politician during the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) rally which was mobilised to protest against the United Nation’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, held outside the Parliament of Estonia (Riigikogu) on 26th November 2018.
Member of the European Parliament, Indrek Tarand (Social Democrat Party-SDE) was physically abused after he attempted to take the microphone away from MP Martin Helme (EKRE) while speaking negatively about refugees. Tarand was present at the protest together with several other politicians of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) attempting to respond to concerns over the contested UN Global Compact for Migration but they were reportedly barred from the stage to speak.
A video of the incident shows Tarand being pushed off the stage and immediately surrounded by protesters who knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Following the scuffle, the politician did not report any serious injuries. Providing testimonies about the incident, Tarand said:
"I was a victim of physical violence, and as a law-abiding citizen I filed a police report after what happened [...] This kind of public attack seriously cannot be allowed."
As the police launched an investigation into the incident, EKRE representatives filed with the police a criminal case against Tarand under article 158 of the Penal Code related to “interference with or violent dispersion of lawfully organised public meeting”. After assessing the report submitted by EKRE, police did not find basis for launching a criminal investigation and stated that Tarand’s actions were not attempted to interfere with the conducting of a lawfully organised public meeting. The Central Tallinn Police Station chief Kaido Saarniit, reportedly stated: "Rather, with his statement, he [Tarand] became a participant in the public meeting. Interfering with a meeting and disrupting it are not the same thing. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, everyone has the right to express their opinion.”
The Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas condemned the incident and particularly the “use of any sort of violence in defending one's views and attacking opponents” and stressed the importance of expressing personal opinion in public as fundamental part of democracy.
There has been some progress on the Cultural Endowment for Media. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the Estonian Journalists’ Association and the Estonian Academic Journalists’ Association in February 2018 called on the Government to restore the fund to support high-quality journalism. According to local sources, despite an initial rejection from policy-makers, institutional representatives opened up to the idea of supporting one third of the fund if the rest of the fund comes from private sources. The CIVICUS Monitor will continue to document ongoing developments.
The above mentioned conservative right-wing party EKRE is also reportedly stepping up its radical actions and narratives ahead of the upcoming general elections due in March 2019. The CIVICUS Monitor had previously reported instances of a smear campaign by the EKRE and conservative media directed against CSOs.
According to CIVICUS Monitor regional research partner, European Civic Forum, and local sources as the elections are approaching the EKRE party is expanding its harmful rhetoric also to target other types of less controversial civic organisations, such as the Children Protection Union. A representative for Estonian Human Rights Centre said: “This smear campaign does not currently affect the civil society’s capacity to carry out its activities, but it needs to be monitored as elections are approaching.”
In a further development concerning funding for NGOs, the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations (NENO), a national platform for civic organisations, initiated a petition to stop political parties’ distribution of unallocated funds of the state’s budget. Every year, the parliament allocates funds for "local investments" known as "protection money" typically used by political parties to fund hand-picked projects. A significant amount of the political parties' protection money in 2019 appears to be allocated to nonprofits connected to party members. Civil society stressed that the process lacks transparency and fair competition and is mostly based on political decisions. NENO's petition managed to collect more than 1000 signatories, and the petition is now submitted to the Parliament. New developments on the issue are expected after the elections in March.