ECPMF and EFJ fact-finding mission to the Baltics: no fake news but blurring lines between journalism and advertising

(European Centre for Press and Media Freedom) Journalism is under tremendous economic pressure in the Baltics. This opens the door to political influence and PR. The governments of Estonia and Lithuania answer to this with very different approaches.

The European Federation of Journalists and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom investigated the media situation in Estonia and Lithuania from January 22d to 24th and interviewed almost 30 experts, among them representatives of the government, academia, press councils, public service media, journalists‘ organisations, investigative journalists, editors-in-chief and CEOs.

Good news first: concerning media freedom and pluralism, Estonia and Lithuania are doing respectively well. Considering the small populations – Estonia 1.3 million, Lithuania 2.8 million inhabitants – both media markets show a variety of opinions, outlets and media ownership though media concentration is rather high. In addition, both states provide strong public broadcasting that stands for quality journalism and enjoys broad acceptance.

“Journalism is journalism and media is media”

Partly due to special services of the public broadcaster the Russian speaking minorities of both countries seem to integrate more and more, experts claim that the younger generation up to an age of 25 to be already well integrated. According to the mission’s findings the biggest problem is neither fake news nor Russian propaganda but the economic pressure on media that opens the door to “paid articles”.

In Estonia, media policy is officially formulated as a liberal one and the mission lacked a vision of how to support professional journalism in a small country with immense commercially driven media. “Our regulation is deregulation”, said Audiovisual Adviser Mati Kaalep during a meeting with the delegation in the Ministry of Culture. From the governmental side media is regarded as an industry, not a culture or a good that needs protection.

The management of Eesti Media, the largest media group in Estonia, formerly owned by Schibsted, said that they run their daily “Postimee” as a journalistic flagship, which produces financial deficits while all other services follow a strict business model. “Our cross-ownership model allows real journalism to be financed. Journalism is journalism and media is media”, Eesti-CEO Sven Nuutmann said.

The lack of profitability of quality journalism has severe consequences when it comes to local and regional media. In particular in Estonia so called “municipal news” compete with what is left of local and regional media. This means more or less PR newspapers owned by local economic and political elites, which are disseminated for free. Nevertheless the Estonian government sees no reason to intervene.

In contrast, in Lithuania the new government coalition which includes the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, seems to seek more control over the media sector, in particular the Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT). Without prior reason the ruling party installed a parliamentary committee to investigate the financial transparency of the public broadcaster. The Ministry of Culture in Lithuania is launching a media council with all media stakeholders including academia, journalists‘ unions etc. to discuss media literacy, transparency of ownership, diversity of content, media concentration and fake news, something potentially very constructive and unheard in Estonia.

Concerns about the independence of LRT

While EFJ and ECPMF appreciate the efforts to create more transparency at the national broadcaster, both organisations warn the government not to misuse such a parliamentary committee for political purposes to harm the public service broadcaster. EFJ and ECPMF note that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) had already warned in December 2017 that  „the requirement to disclose confidential information raises concerns about the independence of LRT“.

Also in Lithuania, the delegation could not detect any dangers that the public sphere might be distorted by propaganda and fake news. The Russian minorities in both countries are divided into the younger, quite integrated  generation in Estonia or Lithuania while the older generation is still more focused on Russia and Russian media. EFJ and ECPMF do believe that Russian minority media and journalists in Estonia  should be more integrated and better supported.

Mission participants were Renate Schroeder, EFJ director, Nadezda Azhgikhina, EFJ Vice President and Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director of ECPMF. Local partners are Helle Tiikmaa, President of the Estonian Association of Journalists, and Dainius Radzevičius, President of the Lithuanian Journalists‘ Union (LŽS).

A detailed report about the findings of this fact-finding mission with a set of recommendations for each country will be published soon. This project is supported by the European Commission.

Original article by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

Featured image by Petras Malukas / AFP