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TALLINN - Estonia’s parliament adopted a law that would allow the authorities to seek damages from media outlets to prevent them from publishing compromising material, reports Bloomberg. Lawmakers voted 51-12 on Nov. 25, with one abstention, to back measures allowing courts to seek compensation from the media in case a published article is deemed libelous or to have infringed privacy “by considering the need to prevent the person who caused damage from causing further damage, while accounting for the wealth of this person,” according to the parliament Web site.
The bill fills a legal void on source protection and establishes checks and balances on media freedom, according to the Justice Ministry. It can still be vetoed by President Toomas Ilves within two weeks.
“We are deeply concerned that this law poses a serious threat to freedom of the press and would, in particular, have a significant negative impact on investigative journalism,” the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association said in a letter to parliamentary speaker Ene Ergma on Nov. 23. “We fear that the law could be misused to inflict financial damage on newspapers.”
The parliament’s Justice Committee amended the bill before the final vote to apply the preventive intent of the bill only to moral damage, having earlier sought to also include material damages, according to the parliament Web site. “The preventive goal of compensating damages is not fully unknown to the Civil Law of continental Europe,” the Justice Ministry said in an explanatory letter accompanying the bill.
Estonia’s largest newspapers left their front pages blank on March 18 to protest the draft, which was also criticized by the World Association of Newspapers.
Estonia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, ranked sixth globally last year, ahead of other eastern European countries in the annual Press Freedom Index published by the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
The draft initially also allowed for journalists who refuse to disclose sources in police investigations to be jailed. The ruling coalition later agreed to limit the jail threat only to investigations of the most severe crimes.
Newspapers, including Estonia’s largest daily by circulation, Postimees, which is owned by Norway’s Schibsted, and Aripaev, a financial newspaper owned by Sweden’s Bonnier Group, carried editorials on Nov. 26 urging Ilves to reject the bill and said they would ask Justice Chancellor Indrek Teder to see if it breached the constitution.