Estonia: coronavirus crisis hits a polarised media landscape

All Estonia’s media companies have been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis and the resulting drop in advertising revenues. Many publishers have reacted with pay cuts of up to 20 percent for their journalists and even layoffs.

Estonia's Interior Minister Mart Helme, a member and former leader of the far-right Ekre party. In 2019, he called for all journalists at public broadcasters who displayed "prejudices" against his party to be sacked.
Estonia's Interior Minister Mart Helme, a member and former leader of the far-right Ekre party. In 2019, he called for all journalists at public broadcasters who displayed "prejudices" against his party to be sacked.
Reader numbers have increased during the crisis. Estonia’s Russian-language media, in particular, have experienced enormous growth - some have even seen their readership figures double in the last months. Media researchers suspect that Russian-speakers in Estonia (who account for around a quarter of the population) do not consider the Moscow-based channels to be a useful source of information for daily life during the crisis and are turning to Estonian media instead. Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen.

Õhtuleht, the largest Estonian daily newspaper, is trying out a new strategy against hate speech in the polarised atmosphere of recent times: since the beginning of March 2020 only subscribers are allowed to write online comments. Experiments with personal identification, such as those of Postimees or the public broadcaster ERR, have apparently failed to deter readers from writing hate comments.

Insults and dismissals

Even before the coronavirus crisis Estonian society had become starkly divided after the far-right Ekre party joined the governing coalition in April 2019 - and this has had repercussions for the media. Journalists have been described as a “paramilitary unit of the opposition” and as “radical left-wing activists” by government ministers.
Postimees, the flagship publication of the Postimees Group, one of the country’s two leading media companies, has become a "beacon of conservative values" (Õhtuleht, 7.02.2020) under the influence of its conservative owner Margus Linnamäe. Dozens of investigative journalists working for the paper have either been dismissed or have left the paper of their own accord since the spring of 2019, including the entire staff of the opinion, business, sports and investigative journalism sections. Before the first wave of dismissals, editor-in-chief Peeter Helme (nephew of the Ekre Minister of the Interior) had been forced by an ultimatum from journalists working for the paper to resign. In the first week of the coronavirus crisis, the newspaper's new editor-in-chief announced that it was not the time to criticise the government.

Ekspress Meedia, Estonia’s other major media group, has taken on many of the former Postimees journalists who are critical of the government, with the result that it has increasingly become the target of attacks by right-wing politicians.

Several critical journalists from the public broadcaster ERR have also been attacked by government politicians in the last 12 months. Parliamentary parties wield influence in the TV and radio segment through the Broadcasting Council, and calls for dismissals from within this body have become increasingly frequent in recent months. Radio talk show host Ahto Lobjakas had to give up his popular programme because he refused to exercise self-censorship. For the most part, however, ERR has retained the role of an independent media outlet.

The Estonians are reading more again

In the last two years, the business models of all the publishing groups have changed significantly. Print media circulation figures continue to decline, but an increase in digital subscriptions is driving up overall readership figures. The data from Eesti Ekspress, for example, shows an increase from 28,000 readers in 2018 to 40,000 in 2019, when its print and digital media are combined. Äripäev recorded a 46 percent increase in readers over the same period (to 15,000), so that income from subscriptions now plays a greater role than advertising for this paper.

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders): Rank 14 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020
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