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Estonia: Press Wrestling With Democratic Standards

Tallinn, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend's parliamentary elections in Estonia are focusing attention on the role of the press in the country, often considered the star reformer of the three Baltic nations.

While the media situation in Estonia today bears no comparison to the repressive days of the Soviet Union -- when all press was controlled by the Communist Party -- some newspapers and electronic media outlets appear to be having trouble adapting to western standards of balance, objectivity, fairness and straight reporting.

Unlike many other former Warsaw Pact states, Estonia had its first hesitant attempts at a free press in the 1980s, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. "Eesti Ekspress" -- the country's second-largest circulation tabloid newspaper (some 56,000) -- was born in 1989 as a result of the policies of glasnost and perestroika. It is still going strong today. The first newspaper to be privatized when the Soviet Union collapsed was the Tartu-published "Postimees." Today, with 60,000 readers, it is Estonia's largest.

Estonia has seven national daily newspapers, an astounding figure for a country of just 1.5 million people. Five of the national dailies are printed in Estonian, two in Russian. In addition, Estonians are exposed to a number of weekly national newspapers and magazines (12 in Estonian, six in Russian), as well as four TV stations and a host of domestic radio stations. There are also 22 regional newspapers (18 in Estonian and four in Russian).

Still, newspaper readership has dropped sharply in recent years. In 1990, 523 out of every 1,000 Estonians bought a newspaper on a daily basis, which made Estonians some of the most avid readers in the world. According to World Press Trends, that figure has now dropped to 171 out of every 1,000.

Most of Estonia's newspapers belong to the Estonian Newspaper Association, a watchdog group that has campaigned for higher press standards and objectivity in reporting. Our correspondent quotes the director of the association, Tarmu Tammerk, as saying "vigilance is always needed" in a country with a short history of democracy and a free press.

Vigilance is especially important since there are no press laws in Estonia. The press is regulated through the Copyright, Competition, Language and State Secrets Acts. Cases of libel are governed by the civil and criminal codes.

Observers say vigilance should not be confined to the printed press but should also be focused on television and radio stations. For example, TV-3 -- a private Estonian television station -- interrupted its usual programming last month to air footage of a political meeting. The station failed to tell viewers, however, that the program was a paid advertisement by the Center Party, one of 12 political groups contesting this weekend's elections. TV-3 later apologized, saying there had been a "mix-up."

Unfortunately, it wasn't the only case where Estonian broadcasters have failed to make a clear distinction between an advertisement and a news report. Some also sometimes seem to have difficulty distinguishing between hard facts and rumors, hearsay and allegations.

Russian-language and provincial newspapers are particularly at risk of presenting advertising as editorial content because public control over regional newspapers is not as great as in the capital, Tallinn. According to Allan Alakula, the opinion page editor at the "Sonumileht" daily, each newspaper in Estonia leans in a certain direction but none will openly admit it is supporting a political party. Several political parties have even tried publishing their own newspapers, but none has succeeded.

The Estonian Broadcasting Council sets rules for national electronic media, such as state-owned television and radio. Following such rules, all candidates for public office are receiving free air time to relay their campaign messages. Private radio and TV stations, however, are left to set their own rules. Two big private TV stations have said they are giving free air time only to candidates who have already gathered a significant amount of support.

The European Institute for the Media -- an international monitoring group -- observed the 1995 general elections in Estonia and criticized the press for such behavior. It decided, however, not to send observers to this Sunday's polls.

(Third of three features by our correspondent in Tallinn, reporting ahead of Sunday's Estonian general elections.)