Summaries of some cases 1993-1997

KGB list's case

One newspaper got hold of a Russian-language list which contained the names of well-known people who, according to the list, had been cooperating with the KGB. Before the newspaper published the list, they published several warnings to the people mentioned in the list, suggesting they turn themselves in. First the paper printed the list using the initials and nicknames of the people mentioned. Finally the list itself was published. Editorials were added to the lists.

The complaint was lodged both by the Ethics Commission of the Tartu University and EPC itself. The source of the list was not reliable. Later the list turned out to be a falsification.

The newspaper thought that printing the list would force society to solve the problems concerning KGB ex-agents in a civil and legal way. EPC considered that explanation to be cynical. According to EPC's decision, publishing documents is acceptable but the source needs to be reliable. The editorials to the list turned the newspaper into a judge, as the people were called KGB agents several times. EPC said that irresponsible manipulation in such sensible matters may cause assaults against press freedom.

(Adjudication made on 12 May 1993)

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Photo-case of five murdered people

In the second biggest city of Estonia a whole family (5 people) was murdered. A newspaper printed a photograph depicting the dead bodies (recognizably) and even mentioned the victims' names.

The newspaper claimed that the murder of five people influences society and society has the right to know more about the case. One of the victims had a criminal past. That photograph was chosen to shake the indifference towards high crime rates in Estonia.

EPC claimed that printing the photograph did not follow the good traditions of journalism because the picture of the victims in the mortuary did not add to the crime story, but it caused distress to the relatives and friends of the deceased. EPC was of the opinion that the identification of the deceased was unjustified.

(Adjudication made on 19 January 1994)

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EPC protecting press freedom (The case of Rahva Hääl)

Rahva Hääl was the last state-owned national daily newspaper in the Estonian language. The owner – the state – wanted to change the chief editor. For that purpose the post of chief editor was replaced with the post of responsible publisher. The accusations to the whole editorial board were as follows: "the newspaper is politically unbalanced" and "the newspaper is not modernized enough, the circulation and the position among the readers does not correspond to the owner's wishes".

The circulation of RH was the highest among Estonian dailies and the paper had a very well-determined niche. The changes were carried out because the government needed a newspaper for expressing the coalition parties' views. That could be gathered from an interview on Estonian Radio with the counselor of the Ministry of Culture. RH was a conservative newspaper.

The whole newspaper staff decided to answer the government's actions by founding a new daily newspaper Eesti Sõnumid, which they started to publish on the same premises where RH had been prepared. The Ministry of Culture authorized another daily paper to publish RH and for a week that "new" RH had identical contents with it (only the logos were different).

Although the RH owner had no employees to work on the old premises, the counselor of the Ministry ordered telephones to be switched off, the door locks to be changed and also sent security men (not the police) to keep former RH journalists away from the empty rooms.

EPC stated that it is not authorized to discuss the legal side of the case. But EPC stressed that the crisis of ethics had been caused by the owner of the newspaper, i.e. the state. EPC also stated that the accusations of unbalance had no theoretical basis as no content analysis on RH had been made. According to EPC's decision journalistic balance cannot be measured in square meters nor subjective observations. There was no evidence that RH had been violating the international code of practice or refusing to give any political party space to express their views before the state took measures against the chief editor.

EPC found that the real reasons for accusing RH of unbalance had been the need to change the chief editor but the owner had no proof against the chief editor.

EPC also mentioned that the act of preventing Eesti Sõnumid from being published, printed and disseminated was a direct assault on press freedom, democracy and ethics. According to EPC's opinion the behaviour of the state was not in accordance with the democratic traditions of the end of the 20th century.

(Adjudication made on 4 April 1994)

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Fighting against unfair accrediting of journalists

The Tallinn Police Department tried to introduce a new procedure for accrediting journalists who would receive direct police information. The list of these journalists (and media channels) would have depended on the police's choice. There was a fear that not all media channels would be in an equal position. Besides, according to the written order of the Tallinn police chief, a journalist (media channel) who lost his/her/its credibility with police could be deprived of the accreditation. According to EPC's opinion that could lead to avoiding criticism of the police authorities and cause unbalanced information that does not belong to the good journalistic traditions.

The police chief did not respond to EPC's memorandum until he was dismissed from his position for another reason. Before he left his job he canceled his order on accreditation.

(Adjudication made on 27 April 1994)

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EPC protecting journalist.

The Estonian Telegraph Agency disseminated news about lost bronze plates with the names of Soviet military officers on them. These plates were stolen from a monument commemorating the Soviet "liberation" of Tallinn in 1944. The news referred to well-informed but anonymous source who was likely to know the location of the plates and the people who had removed them.

The Police demanded that the journalist should inform the police of his source(s). The journalist refused and was kept in the police station for further inquiries. The police threatened him that he could be remanded in custody.

EPC was of the opinion that the journalist had behaved correctly, as according to the international practice in the field of media ethics journalists do not have to reveal their sources unless forced by a court decision. This position exists both in the British Code of Practice (paragraph 16) and the Norwegian Code (paragraph 3.1). Source protection has been recognized also by the Estonian Parliament (§ 7 of the Broadcasting Act).

(There was no Estonian Code at that time yet.)

(Adjudication made on 22 September 1994)

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Memorandum concerning relations between newspapers

Two years ago EPC had several cases where newspapers lodged complaints against each other. The reasons were different but the main concern was that one newspaper had printed something unfriendly about the other. Some newspapers accused others for paying the government sources for reserving "hot inf." only for them. Local papers had their local intrigues.

EPC established its attitudes in a memorandum delivered publicly to all newspapers: newspapers damaging each other's reputation has been, is and shall be against good journalistic traditions. All further cases would be rejected. EPC welcomed constructive discussions about journalism in the media.

(Adjudication made on 7 June 1995)

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Hidden ads

EPC has dealt with the matter of hidden ads several times. A newspaper article was published on the matter, a year later a memorandum was delivered to the mass media. EPC pointed out that more and more unmarked ads appear in the mass media. These hidden ads in the form of news stories are not newsworthy, they depict one company without any comparison with others, one-source positive attitudes towards some companies or goods. Unmarked ads are dangerous to the media's economic independence and reduce its reliability. Besides, they cause financial damage to the media channels themselves and to their competitors. Journalists have to resist PR-officers' pressure and the temptation to enjoy temporary wealth (a trip, a car, a meal, a pen, etc.)

The matter has been discussed at a seminar held by the members of the Estonian Newspaper Association.

(Memorandum launched on 10 January 1996)

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Case of Vodka smuggling

The Police caught a large cargo of smuggled vodka on the border. The liquid was confiscated, the smugglers were arrested. According to the defendants, they intended to sell this alcohol. They also admitted that the alcohol was illegal. In the court they changed their testimony.

According to the law the restrictions regarding vodka import concern only companies. The carriers in the mentioned case were private persons. Thus, the judge of Viljandi city court returned 1,200 liters of vodka to the carriers and dismissed the case that according to the local paper meant leaving the smugglers without punishment.

The judge of a city court lodged a complaint against the newspaper and the magazine that, to her mind, calumniated the Estonian court system and herself personally. According to the complaint, the articles misled the reader, especially the headline of the newspaper article "Judge returned smuggled vodka".

Both the newspaper and the magazine said that they had not intended to offend the judge. They had intended to highlight the "crazy" situation where the smuggler gets his cargo back and smuggling is not considered to be a crime at all.

The decision of EPC was that the judge, making the decisions on behalf of the Republic of Estonia, is a public person. He/she has to bear the criticism addressed to the state as he/she represents it. As a judge he/she has the legal means to draw the authorities' attention to the incompleteness of laws.

EPC found that the stories did not damage the reputation of the judge. The decision of the court (the same as the opinion of the judge) had been printed in the magazine. The stories were multiply-sourced and the reporter did not express his personal negative opinion towards the judge. According to EPC, the reputation of the judge was not damaged, reporters had highlighted a highly important topic. As to the headline, EPC considered this to be a metaphor rather than misleading.

(Adjudication made on 8 May 1996)

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Reportage at Home

A weekly printed a reportage from a household the owner of which had printed a classified ad to sell her farm. The journalists chose the locations from the classified ad's page and visited the home as possible buyers. They talked to the owner and took photographs without explaining the real reason for their visit.

The owner lodged a complaint to EPC as she considered that her privacy had been violated. The journalists even covered some details regarding her personal life and described the household in detail. Also the address was mentioned in the story and the location of the house could be easily recognized from the photographs.

The newspaper described their work as an experimental observation, as the paper had done similar reportages before, e.g. crossing Estonian-Latvian border with an undeclared rifle. The aim was to describe the situation on the real estate market. According to the newspaper the owner had made herself "public" by buying a classified ad. Everything the journalists heard from the owner was told voluntarily.

According to EPC the story violates a person's privacy and the sanctity of the home and thus represents bad journalism. By buying a classified ad a person does not become a public person. Not all the potential ad-readers were potential visitors of the home mentioned. But the newspaper had circulated the details of the household and its owner to 269,000 readers. According to the EPC's decision the difference between a reporter and a reader is that the reader does not disseminate his/her impressions in the press.

EPC considered the comparison with other experiments inappropriate as all the other experiments had been made on public territory.

EPC said that there was no need to enter private territory on the pretext of buying the household, as there could have been owners who would have been delighted to be interviewed by journalists.

(Adjudication made on 26 June 1996)

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Traffic police complainsabout Radiostations

The Traffic Bureau of the State Police Department made a complaint, asking EPC to decide whether the messages concerning the exact location of police patrols broadcasted by two radio stations are in accordance with the good tradition of journalism. According to the police, the messages upset police work and enabled the people wanted by the police to avoid the patrols. The information, announced by the radio stations, was acquired from drivers calling the station.

The broadcasters found the complaint to be ungrounded. They claimed that these announcements promoted legal behavior and safety in traffic. Criminals obtain their information from other sources than radio, the broadcasters said.

EPC stated that deciding whether a message corresponds with media ethics cannot be done on the basis of the formal general characteristics. This leads to the situation where certain kinds of messages (e.g. weather reports!) would be prohibited irrespective of their contents. The police reported on no certain messages that would have affected their work.

EPC welcomed the public discussion initiated by the Police's complaint. EPC also observed some improvement both in the police work and editorial work. EPC pointed out that the main criterion for broadcasting those messages must be the public interest that should be weighed in case of every single message.

(Adjudication made on 27 August 1997)

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