TALLINN - A brief war of words swarmed over the mass media last week, as five major political parties accused the country's leading daily of favoring the Reform Party.
Eesti Paevaleht, the second-largest daily, claimed in a story published Feb. 10 that Mart Kadastik, publisher of the Postimees daily, could have political preferences influencing his paper. Eesti Paevaleht reported that Kadastik, who also currently manages the paper's editorial team, was present at a dinner last November with Prime Minister Juhan Parts and Olari Taal, a leading Res Publica member and sponsor, in the capacity as advisor to Reform Party Chairman Andrus Ansip.
While confirming meeting Ansip and other politicians, Kadastik denied providing preferential treatment to anyone in Postimees coverage. Both he and Ansip do not conceal the fact that they've met occasionally since graduating from the same high school.
They were unlikely to convince the skeptics. On Feb. 15, Eesti Paevaleht published an open letter to the management of Schibsted Group, a Norwegian media concern that owns Postimees publisher Eesti Meedia. It was signed by five leading political parties 's the Center Party, People's Union, Pro Patria Union, the Social Democratic Party and Res Publica 's and claimed that the Postimees has become a messenger of the Reform Party's political line.
The Postimees replied the next day, publishing an emotional editorial that accused Estonian media-mogul Hans H. Luik of using the political parties to blacken the competing newspaper. Luik, a self-made millionaire and former journalist, owns Ekspress Grupp, the largest Estonian-owned media concern in the country.
The mogul, in his turn, dismissed the allegations in an editorial published in Eesti Ekspress on Feb. 17. He wrote that his colleagues from the Postimees should learn to see party members behind party letters.
By the time The Baltic Times went to press, the last word came from Kadastik, who pointed to Luik's interests outside the media sector and suggested he might use his newspapers to win better positions in other businesses.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Eivind Thomsen, senior vice president of Schibsted and chairman of the council of Eesti Meedia, wrote in his reply to the five parties that the concern did not interfere in editorial work. "We are proud of our ownership interest in newspapers representing quite diverse political orientations 's the most noteworthy example being our two Swedish newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet, as they represent opposing political views 's one positioned rather to the left, the other more to the conservative right," he wrote.
Thomsen added that he was surprised by the letter and suggested it had been sent to the wrong address.
"Sometimes the newspaper's position may conflict with the views of one or more of the political parties or other powers-that-be. If it never did, the newspaper would hardly deserve to be called a representative of the 'fourth estate.' At the same time, Schibsted's non-interference in these aspects serves as a guarantee that political power through the media, in this case Postimees, can not be bought for money," wrote Thomsen.
The Postimees is one of the most successful newspapers in the country. In the first half of 2004, it topped the advertising turnover table with 34.7 million kroons (2.2 million euros) when the total advertising turnover of major Estonian newspapers amounted to 133 million kroons during the period.
Kristen Michal, secretary general of the Reform Party, said the letter was a misleading political trick that took advantage of Ansip and Kadastik's friendly relationship. "It looked like a political attack-trick. I do not know its reasons, nor whether it was a political attack against the Reform Party or a business attack against the Postimees," he said.
"This whole story is embarrassing. It reminds me of the time when one wrote letters to Moscow hoping to make a difference," Michal said, adding that the Postimees was objective and balanced toward all political forces. "Take the recent foreign affairs minister case. The paper had the same questions as everybody else."
The MP added that the letter to Schibsted would not have any effect on the Reform Party and suggested that there would be no effect for the newspaper either.
Describing the Estonian media in general, Michal said that in his personal opinion, the majority of publications handle the information objectively with professional journalists.
"The negative news is being preferred though. But people are smarter now, they need more serious issues [to be discussed in the media]. I agree the press must talk about problems, but I hope there will be fewer 'crucifixions' and more constructive discussion in the media," said Michal.
Media expert and lecturer Raul Rebane said the Postimees scandallooks mythological, and it would require a thorough analysis to prove a newspaper really favors any political force. "The objectivity of the media is a purely theoretical question. According to our recent tests, the media in Estonia is too negative-minded and does more to disenchant society than unite it," said Rebane.
He added that the Estonian press in general tries to be objective.
Rebane said that Estonia, as a transition economy, has been experiencing media specialization for the last two or three years, with channels deciding who would focus on entertainment and who would cover socially important matters. "For example, the SL Ohtuleht is clearly an entertainment newspaper. Other major papers tend to produce socially important materials. That niche now looks narrow, and we will see some changes in one to two years," Rebane explained, adding that the local media has recently become more professional.