Undue harm to a journalist

23 April 2008

ASN discussed a complaint made by Priit Pullerits, the senior editor of daily newspaper Postimees, concerning the cover story in the cultural supplement Areen of weekly Eesti Ekspress “Eesti Vabariigi ajaloo 90 kõige kultuurivaenulikumat tegu” (The 90 most hostile acts against culture in the Republic of Estonia; by Veiko Märka, Kalev Kesküla, Harry Liirand ja Margit Tõnson, 21.2.08).

The complaint points out that the list includes the following alleged act, which on the cover has been classified as “piggish affairs” (in est. sigadused): “Priit Pullerits (1965)”. This inflicts undue harm, as the story includes no explanation whatsoever to reason adding that record to the list under question. As a person cannot be “an act”, the inclusion of the complainants name in the list does not conform to the claimed objective of the list. Even though it appears to be a critical material, the media organisation has not contacted him and not heard his position.

“I find that the journalists from Eesti Ekspress, along with not producing any argument to prove inclusion my name in the list, have neglected all my possible disagreements about being in the list: beginning with three textbooks on journalism (of which one is a joint work) and ending up with educating journalists in the University of Tartu for more than a decade,” claims Priit Pullerits in his complaint. According to his opinion listing facts cannot be considered as an opinion. Moreover, the article has not been published in the section of humour and satire.

Eesti Ekspress did not disclose its position to ASN. From public sources (Adjudication by Pressinõukogu in re Case 188; an article of Eesti Ekspress “Veidemann and Pullerits cannot take jokes”, 04.04.08) it can be learnt that the newspaper considers the story not to be factual information, but a “satiric opinion”. The newspaper holds a position that any public figure has to tolerate any kind of opinion towards him, even if it is ironical, satirical or otherwise negative. The newspaper found the complainant’s accusation of not being heard ungrounded, as the story did not bring forward any conflictous situation.

ASN took the view that Eesti Ekspress had breached good journalistic practice.

ASN cannot agree to the newspaper’s position that the story would rather qualify as a satiric opinion than factual information. A list systemizes and hierarchizes information, which in general is factual, and was factual also in Areen. Also the headline refers to the factual classification of the material (acts) and as to its genre it cannot be taken for opinion.

ASN also finds ungrounded the newspaper’s claim that the story would be a satire. The article appears as a cover story of the cultural supplement, not in the section of humour. Therefore the audience has no reason to believe that the text would contain satire. As to the text, not all items of the list can be considered satirical, e.g. evacuation of the artworks of the University of Tartu to Voronezh (in 1915), enabling exportation of art collections by Baltic Germans in the 1920s, repressions against the signers of the “letter of 40 intellectuals”, transforming churches to gyms, demolishing the ruins of the old town of Narva, fire of the helmet of the Holy Ghost Church, or even prohibiting the Kadri Kõusaar’s film Magnus. For the audience the items in the list have been left indistinguishable as to genre and style and neither the contents nor the format allows to uniformly consider the text as satirical, in particular when based on the classical definition of ‘satire’.

The fact, why the name and year of birth appear in the list of hostile acts against culture has in no way been motivated in the text. Indeed, Priit Pullerits can be considered as a public figure (within limited extent – as he is not in possession of political or economic power), because his everyday activities are being aimed to the general public and accordingly to the Code (clause 1.6) shall be subjected to closer scrutiny and criticism. Still, in the current case, no closer scrutiny has been applied to his activities, nor has he been reasonably criticized. His name has merely included in the list, the headline and preamble of which frame all the items as negative and condemnable. As a fact, Pullerits has simply been labelled in negative context.

According to the Code, the function of the right to reply would be to correct errors in re facts and quotations. Substantially, the reply does not enable to adjust undue value judgements (slander). Consequently, the complainant has suffered from flagitious assault during which he has been deprived of the possibility to publicly defend himself. The latter is utterly condemnable.

ASN disagrees with the argument by the newspaper that the public figure would have to tolerate any taunt and insult, irrespectively to its relevance and justification. Harm can be justified only in case it arises from the person’s own activities when the discussion about it in the media would serve the interests of the general public, as it impacts the community life. In the current case a person has been humiliated only for a reason that it might have been amusing for some people. Still this does not justify the caused harm.

ASN resolutely condemns the subsequent ridiculing of the complainant, as expressed in the news story “Veidemann and Pullerits cannot take jokes”, 04.04.08, for his courage to stand up for his rights filing a complaint to Pressinõukogu. This further aggravates the initial breach of the good conduct by Eesti Ekspress, which deprived Priit Pullerits of the opportunity to defend his dignity from the very beginning.

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