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Press says ‘no’ to source disclosure in libel cases.
TALLINN - Estonia’s leading newspapers printed blank front pages on March 18 to protest what they call a threat to freedom of speech and the ability of the press to hold in check powerful interests. The explanation for the protest is that this is going to be the future of Estonian press if the government approves the Source Protection Act 656 SE, which would make it possible to punish, with imprisonment, journalists in the field of investigating journalism.
Estonia’s three largest daily newspapers, Aripaev, Ohtuleht and Postimees, printed blank front pages in protest of the proposed law that would force investigative journalists to disclose the names of their anonymous sources. If passed, the law would allow the arrest of journalists and force them to disclose their sources, in the case of libel. Courts would also be able to fine publishers that publish harmful information with the intent of malice. The draft of the Source Protection Act was initiated by Minister of Justice Rein Lang of the Reform Party.
In Estonia, free press has been taken for granted for years. According to the international organization ‘Reporters Without Borders,’ Estonia was in sixth place on the list, worldwide, for press freedom, while for the same ranking put out by ‘Freedom House,’ the country placed in 14th – 17th place.
Mart Laar, the chairman of Isamaa and Res Publica Union, doubts that the act is going to be approved by the government. “The attorney general Rein Lang has the opinion that the act, above all, protects the press. However, if those who the act should protect find that it restrains them, a major problem exists,” said Laar on the Kuku radio morning program Arataja.
He said that he had not seen the blank pages, but said that “It is very good to live in a country where the press can show its [position] towards one or another act of law.”
The ministers, from their side, denounced the protest in the government’s press conference and are preparing for debate on the topic instead. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Marko Pomerants, said that in his opinion, the Estonian newspapers overestimate themselves. “The cases they describe do not exist. I cannot remember any cases from recent history where a danger would lie in this context,” he said, adding that he thinks papers are playing politics.
Finance Minister Jurgen Ligi added that he likes the blank front pages. If a politician is judged because of one’s slogans, then today’s papers even have no slogans. “It is not about the freedom of the word. It is [being done] so that the court could acquire information from the press in case of a difficult crime,” Ligi said. He also added that the debate is about a very specific topic, and not because the media is being constantly attacked. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that the white pages do not represent the readiness of the press to debate. He says that this is a European act, and if someone wants to specify anything, it can be done through a discussion. “By excluding yourself from the debate with white pages, we cannot do that. Retreating from the debate does not increase the trust,” he said.
Ansip added that, at the moment, the amendment does not yet exist and a court can question a journalist, and one must answer. “There is no muzzling; you muzzle yourselves with the white page,” said the prime minister.