July 2, 2019

Editors abandon Estonia’s leading daily because of owner meddling

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Estonian businessman Margus Linnamäe to respect the editorial independence of his newspaper, Postimees, one of Estonia's two biggest, oldest and most respected dailies, where five section editors have resigned or have been forced to resign in the past year.

The editors of the news, business, investigations, sports and op-ed sections have left because Linnamäe's attempts to turn Postimees into a propaganda mouthpiece for his conservative and nationalist opinions. A member of the conservative party Isamaa, to which he donated 50,000 euros last year, Linnamäe made his fortune from pharmaceuticals before acquiring a vast media empire – controlled through his company UP Invest – with the aim of spreading his views, especially through the daily, as it increasingly seems. In this, he is unique in Estonia.

Not all opinions are worth repeating, only the good ones, he has told his staff. The newspaper’s motto, which appears at the top of page one every day, was changed by Linnamäe’s team in May to: “We stand for the preservation of the Estonian people, the Estonian language and the Estonian culture through the ages.”

When reached by RSF, Linnamäe’s spokesperson Merili Nikkolo described the editorial departures as a “natural development.” What counts, he said, is to “stress the national roots” and to “guarantee the existence of Estonian nation language and culture throughout the ages, as well as to be a positive pressure group and watchdog for this value.

We are concerned to see a media owner meddling so openly in a newspaper’s editorial content and threatening its independence like this, said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.“Must we remind Margus Linnamäe that the Munich Charter says that the journalist’s profession must never be confused with the advertiser’s or propagandist’s? Such behaviour could threaten Estonia’s 11th ranking in RSF's World Press Freedom Index and its favourable climate for journalists.

Although Linnamäe bought Postimees in 2015, his editors did not start leaving until 2018, when he began to impose his vision and ideas. They included Neeme Korv, one of the newspaper’s oldest journalists, who had worked with all of the editors-in-chief since 1991 and who had edited the op-ed pages for the past 11 years, until he left in December.

“I’d never before worked with an editor-in-chief who wasn’t able to control all aspects of the newspaper,” Korv told RSF. He said he saw press freedom being restricted within the newspaper and complained about it to Linnamäe himself several times, but never got a proper answer.

Recently, shortly before parliamentary elections, a new section, Meie Eesti, which is also described as “expert journalism”, was created under Linnamäe's direction. It is not controlled by the editor-in-chief and its “expert journalists,” were chosen by Linnamäe or his subordinates  without consulting the editorial staff. They provide content that reflects a conservative worldview, often mixing fact with opinion and offering a relatively narrow range of views. In response to complaints, Estonia’s Press Council twice pointed out that opinion was being mixed with fact. Postimees even had to refer to the new section as an opinion section in response to the criticism.

Ever since Linnamäe’s acquisition of Postimees, its staff has been pressured to cover his other business activities, which includes a chain of bookstores as well as his pharmaceutical business. For example, when a new book or CD is launched in one of his bookstores, Postimees’ photographers have to livestream the event, even if public interest is limited. Postimees journalists wrote the management a joint letter where they reprimand the blending of marketing and journalistic content.The previous head of news desk, Mirjam Mäekivi concludes: "It seems that the owner Linnamäe is not able to realise that there is a difference between running a pharmacy and a news-centered journalistic business."

Korv added: “I constantly had to field questions from readers, opinion leaders and colleagues from other outlets, who wanted to know why there was a section in the newspaper with articles that were not journalistically balanced. It was very uncomfortable for me.”

RSF spoke to many other former Postimees employees who requested anonymity because Estonia is a small country and the media market is very limited.