Positive developments improve funding outlook for Estonian CSOs

Association

On 25th February 2018, the Estonian Human Rights Centre gave a positive overview of the respect for freedom of association in the country between 2016 and 2017. The Centre found that: 

"Even though the world is looking on with worry at the shrinking of Civic Space right here in Europe as well, to the point of predictions that free democracy and human rights might have been a passing phase in global history, there has been no tangible regression in Estonia. The new Government that assumed office in November of 2016 rather continued liberal and even more social policies, making several promises in their action programme, which the third sector has asked for years".

Measures to create an enabling environment for civil society organisations (CSOs) included the government's attempts to diversify funding sources for the sector. A high level of dependency on the public budget has been an ongoing issue for Estonian civil society. As a result of the government’s efforts, however, some improvements have been noted, including an increase in annual donations to organisations from private citizens. Other positive initiatives include the Impact Fund launched by the Good Deed Foundation at the end of February 2018. The idea is to match constructive projects by CSOs with private donors. At its launch, the Fund had already attracted 300,000 EUR and announced its goal to reach half a million EUR by the end of this year.

Currently, the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for supporting civil society development, is also leading a feasibility study on the possibility of introducing public Social Impact Bonds (SIB) to strengthen the link between NGOs and private investors on specific social issues. According to the Good Deed Foundation, 

"The issue will then be tackled by a capable NGO that can provide an innovative and effective approach. If the proposed solution yields better results than the existing public service during an agreed period of time, the government shall reimburse the investment to the investor with interest".

The Foundation, together with the Estonian Social Enterprise Network and the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies, released a study in 2015 underlining the positive impact that the measure could have. The study found that "the Estonian state, investors and NGOs are ready for testing social impact bonds as a novel performance-based financing model".  The government also accepted a proposal by civil society to create a mechanism for people to donate their tax return to NGOs of their choosing.

Though critics within the NGO sector believe that the government is attempting to avoid reforming the tax system to allow donors to exceed a limit of 1,200 EUR in donations, such initiatives do show that funding for civil society is on the government’s agenda. Both the Impact Fund and the Social Impact Bonds are positive measures which would incentivise private support for CSOs. 

A major drawback of many of these models, however, is that they tend to be directed mostly to charities providing services, rather than NGOs working on advocacy. As a result, advocacy-oriented CSOs must often rely on voluntary work and contributions. A lack of funds hinders the level of impact their activities could have. This obstacle could be reduced by a new Active Citizens Fund supported by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein and managed by the Open Estonia Foundation and the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. Four million EUR will be allocated to the development of civil society, active citizenship and human rights, including related advocacy activities.

In the last update, the CIVICUS Monitor and its research partner reported that instances of vilification and attacks against some civil society organisations involved in advocacy had occurred at the end of last year. Such instances and cases had a chilling effect on some NGOs specifically working on LGBT and human rights. In response, the Human Rights Centre noted that it has become increasingly wary, fearing that such attacks could occur again, especially ahead of elections in March 2019 and given the potential for more antagonistic parties to be voted into power. For example, civil society noted how relations with the Minister of Justice detiorated after a representative of a minority right-wing party was appointed to that position. 

This perception is not universal, however, as other CSOs enjoy strong cooperation with both the Minister of Justice and the government at large. The tensions that do exist between civil society and the government at times seem to be connected to trends within society where more sensitive topics - such as gender equality and LGBT rights - are considered more controversial. While several civil society organisations do work on these issues, they tend to integrate these into other aspects of their work.

Expression

According to the Estonian Journalists’ Association, while freedom of expression is strong in Estonia, political deregulation and economic pressure are exacerbating the effects of a concentration of media ownership. Along with global trends, journalism in Estonia is becoming increasingly less profitable. The sector is also weakened by the fact that the government does not have policies in place to support professional journalism.

These views are in line with the findings of the Mission to Estonia by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) on 22nd to 23rd January 2018 that found that:

"In Estonia, media policy is officially formulated as a liberal one and the mission lacked a vision of how to support professional journalism in a small country with immense commercially driven media. “Our regulation is deregulation”, said Audiovisual Adviser Mati Kaalep during a meeting with the delegation in the Ministry of Culture. From the governmental side, media is regarded as an industry, not a culture or a good that needs protection".

Currently, two private media groups and the public broadcasting company hold the majority share of local, regional and national news outlets. While this situation creates a problem of diversity in media sources, some level of concentration is needed to help local newspapers be financially sustainable and able to compete with new agencies connected to local authorities, content from which is distributed for free.

These trends put growing pressure on journalists. EFJ Vice President Nadezda Azgikhina commented that: 

"Due to strong competition and high media concentration and lack of state support, journalists’ integrity is greatly challenged in Estonia and the lack of solidarity or union activism an additional challenge".

While political or commercial influence appears not to be an issue, the threat of self-censorship is rising as the number of jobs available in the sector shrinks. At the beginning of March, the newspaper Postimees was forced to fire several experienced members of its staff. 

In reaction to this situation, in February the Estonian Journalists’ Association and the Estonian Academic Journalists’ Association called on the government to restore the Cultural Endowment for Media to support high-quality journalism. Helle Tiikmaa, Head of the Estonian Journalists' Union, stated that:

"Today it seems to be forgotten that the press is also part of the cultural field, not just a tool for popularising culture. Therefore, the restoration of the media is essential. As the press itself is a mirror of society, its health reflects the mental health of society".

Another trend emerging from the latest defamation cases brought to court is that the judiciary is progressively adopting a more rigid approach to defining the blurred line between facts and opinions in editorials. 

For example, in February the Supreme Court of Estonia rejected the appeal of paper Äripäev accused of publishing false statements about Reform Party MP Eerik-Niiles Kross. In an editorial, the paper questioned Kross' business links to people convicted of tax offences. Nevertheless, the court case addressed the Äripäev editorial approach to the fact. Äripäev's lawyer Karmen Turk commented that:

"We're talking about an editorial in which the editors' office expressed a joint opinion, and where everything was stated through questions".

The paper is now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling has potentially serious implications for press freedom in Estonia in that it has drawn a very fine line between the need to be accountable for claims made based on fact, and the freedom of expressing an opinion. There are strong views on both sides, with the newspaper's editor-in-chief Aivar Hundimägi saying that:

"If the court says that even an editorial can only state facts and can't include a judgment, then that seriously hampers the freedom of opinion".

On the other hand, Kross' lawyer, Oliver Nääs said that 

"if claims are published about facts there is no difference where in a publication they are placed".