Does crisis at leading daily mean end to investigative journalism in Estonia?
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is extremely concerned for the future of independent journalism in Estonia, where almost all of the investigative reporters and the opinion desk editors have left Postimees, the country’s leading daily newspaper, in the past few weeks, saying they no longer trust its management.
The latest to leave include Eva-Lotta Kivi and Karl-Eduard Salumäe, two members of its editorial section, who announced their departure on 2 January. The crisis at Postimees seems to be the culmination of a series of disagreements between its journalists and management that began in 2015, when Margus Linnamäe, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in pharmaceutical retail, became the sole owner of the newspaper. Founded in 1857, Postimees has until recently been Estonia’s most respected newspaper.
The most senior journalist to have departed is Merili Nikkolo, the executive publisher, who was fired on 23 December because of “differences about implementation of the newspaper’s vision,” according to the president of the board of governors. The head of investigative reporting Holger Roonemaa and five other journalists then decided to leave of their own accord. One of them, Martin Laine, said: “Nikkolo’s dismissal is a clear sign that the journalists and the board of governors are at loggerheads and cannot move forward together.”
Members of the investigation desk had previously discovered that the management board had launched two investigations without telling them. One was based on data analysis in a money-laundering case. The other was an investigation into the investigative journalists themselves.
“We are concerned that the exodus from Postimees could mark the end of strong investigative journalism in a country that has until now been seen as a model of press freedom,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk. “Its owner must prevent any interference by the board in the newspaper’s editorial content.”
Laine is very pessimistic about the newspaper’s future. “The quality of journalism at Postimees has been completely destroyed,” he said. “If the board lets the investigative and opinion sections leave, it means it doesn’t understand what journalism is about. Postimees is now being run like a business and not a news organization.”
Mari Mets, another of the departing reporters, shares his view: “I didn’t want to continue working for an outlet that could one day stab me in the back. You’re not free to do journalism properly if the board is working against its own journalists.”
With only one person left in the opinion section, and two in-house journalists left in the investigative section (and no permanent editor), two of the newspaper’s most important sections are now just idling. How will Postimees survive without all of this talent? What will become of the departing journalists as investigative reporting becomes scarcer in this small country with just 1.3 million inhabitants? This possible disappearance of this independent newspaper could prove disastrous for a country this size, one in which the media are already very polarized between the state-funded public radio and TV broadcaster and a major private-sector media company, Ekspress Grupp.
RSF already voiced concern about Linnamäe’s control of Postimees in April 2019, when its journalists said they had been under various forms of pressure to cover events linked to his other long list of business interests, which include a news agency, chains of restaurants, cinemas, bookstores, Estonia's biggest chain of pharmacies, a TV channel and radio stations. The Postimees website often refers to these other activities, blurring the distinction between journalism and advertising.
Estonia is ranked 11th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.