A cross-border investigation in Estonia and Finland
Estonian journalists Mihkel Kärmas and Anna Pihl work on Pealtnägija (Eyewitness), an investigative programme on the Estonian national broadcaster, ERR. “We’re like the Estonian 60 minutes, meaning that we do investigative stories but human interest stories also. We’re on every Wednesday for 45 minutes,” explained Kärmas.
In 2018, after having been contacted by two journalists in Finland, Kärmas and Pihl began working on a new investigation. One part of their investigation focused on the alleged criminal activities of individuals linked to a Finnish non-profit agency in Estonia, particularly the transfer of hundreds of thousands of euro from an Estonian shell company. These individuals are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation in Finland. The case was also briefly investigated in Estonia before the materials were turned over the Finnish authorities. Another part of their investigation centred on the sale of a Tallinn property that had been owned by the Estonian Centre Party. One of the businessmen linked to the Youth Foundation was involved in the sale.
On 7 November 2018, ERR’s investigation was published in online articles and aired on Pealtnägija.
What happened after the investigation was published?
On 21 December 2018, the Friday before Christmas, the businessman who was allegedly linked to both the Estonian shell company and the sale of the Tallinn property filed a lawsuit against Kärmas, Pihl, and ERR claiming that the investigation had caused ‘injurious action’ and ‘spread false information’.
“We got very extensive court material where they had written up some 18 counts […] whereby we caused significant economic loss,” Kärmas told Index. “They write in their paper that the loss is up to 1 billion euros”.
“A lot of the material that we ended up publishing had already been published in Finland. It’s public knowledge in Finland, and actually a lot of it had been published in print here in Estonia,” Kärmas said. “But regardless of that, we ended up being sued.”
The lawsuit didn’t only name ERR as the defendant, it also named Kärmas and Pihl specifically. It was the first time that any of ERR’s employees were individually sued as a result of their reporting. “At the beginning I was kind of stressed – I was upset I would say,” Pihl said. “First of all I don’t have that kind of money, second of all it would mean that we can’t work as investigative journalists anymore.”
On 7 January 2019, Harju County Court ordered ERR to remove the investigation from its platforms. “It has been taken down and nobody can read it or watch it – both the written and video version. I think it’s concerning because it would be in the public interest that the story is up,” Pihl explained. “This businessman is under criminal investigation – it’s connected with a political party that’s in power, meaning that obviously the public should be able to Google it and go back to it. And also other journalists – if they write new stories – there is useful information for them.”
“Fortunately our TV station was very helpful – they said that they will protect us and that we don’t need to be personally responsible, whatever happens,” said Pihl. “I think that’s the main thing that helped me to be kind of alright with this case is that the public broadcaster said that they are going to pay our court fees and whatever other costs are connected with this case.”
What if she didn’t have that support? “I think I would be very, very stressed because then I would actually think that we might just lose because I wouldn’t have the money to hire a proper lawyer or I would have to use all my savings. That shouldn’t be the case for a journalist because then I would be afraid to publish new stories against businessmen – or anybody basically.”
“In a way, we’re in a lucky position that our media organisation, by Estonian standards, is quite a large one, actually the largest one in Estonia, at least by some standards. We feel quite secure in that respect,” Kärmas said.
“But if you’re a freelancer or working for a smaller media organisation then it’s definitely a headache for instance just to cover the running legal costs. But if this becomes a norm that different parties start bringing legal cases against journalists in Estonia, then we definitely need to think about some sort of security for the journalists involved,” Kärmas said. “I can easily see that this [legal strategy] will make journalists wonder what type of stories they want to take up.”
Dragging it out
Despite nearly two years having passed since the lawsuit was filed, little progress has been made. According to Kärmas and Pihl, one of the delays was due to a motion that was filed to the court in September 2019 requesting that a video file of the broadcast be submitted. “They obviously had the video to prepare this lawsuit,” Kärmas said. “Although they had it, we were fully prepared to give it to them. There’s no obstruction from our part, but for some reason we haggled over this for months and months”.
According to Kärmas and Pihl, efforts were also made to prevent their employer from covering their legal fees. “This resulted in a short, separate litigation,” they said, during which ERR was forced to provide details of the contract Pihl and Kärmas had with their defence lawyers. “We were wondering what [they] would do with this information and in the end of July 2020 they sent a letter to the Parliament’s Culture Commission, the Finance Ministry, the Estonian Broadcasting’s governing body, and the State Audit Office asking whether they regard it appropriate use of public funds if the public broadcaster pays for our individual attorneys,” they said.
“From a personal, emotional point of view, it’s very annoying and very difficult. Each step in this litigation takes like three months,” Kärmas said. “So you refresh your memory about all the details, then you answer something, two or three months nothing happens, then there’s another turn, another letter and you have to read up on this again.”
“I realise that it’s going to take… I don’t know how many more years and we haven’t even had any hearings in the court,” Pihl said. “If the other party is angry enough, funded well enough, then they can really make your life difficult,” Kärmas said.
While the litigation continues, their investigation remains unavailable to viewers and readers. “The story is down from online meaning that every day they manage to postpone the case they win a day without the story being up. Even if in the end there would be a decision that we can put it up again. It means they would still win, because for such a long time it wasn’t available,” Pihl explained. The lawsuit is ongoing, pending a final decision from the court.
Freelance journalist Jarno Liski and his colleague Jyri Hänninen, who works for the Finnish national broadcaster YLE, began reporting on the Youth Foundation in mid-2016. “[The story] is highly significant,” Hänninen replied when asked about the case. “It’s one of the biggest financial crimes investigations in Finland.”
It was their reporting that prompted Finnish authorities to start investigating the financial affairs of senior members of the Youth Foundation in 2018. “There’s almost 20 people who are suspected of crimes and the financial harm that these guys have caused is at least 100 million euro,” Hänninen explained.
Liski and Hänninen contacted Pihl and Kärmas, after it came to light that an Estonian shell company had been used in the money transfers. “And we’ve been exchanging information every now and then and trying to help each other out,” Liski said.
Both Liski and Hänninen were shocked when they heard that the reports by their Estonian colleagues had to be removed as a result of a lawsuit. “I was shocked and I was highly surprised that it’s even legally possible in Estonia,” Hänninen said. “I don’t know how the legal system works in Estonia but I was really surprised when I heard about the court decision to censor [the story],” Liski said.
But neither was surprised that a lawsuit had been filed. The same businessman who is suing Pihl and Kärmas filed in Finland a criminal complaint for defamation against Hänninen and Liski in late 2018 for their reporting. In January 2019, the police and the district prosecutor issued its decision not to bring charges against the journalists. “I never had to be officially interviewed or anything,” Liski said.
Another businessman linked to the same investigations repeatedly tried to threaten Liski with legal action. “There was this one businessman who three or four times over two or three years contacted my editors or other superiors and made threats usually about civil lawsuits, where he would demand really big compensation – one million euro. But he never went through with those threats”.
“He was threatening that he would sue me, not the company, but me as a freelance journalist for one million euro for these stories that I’ve written,” Liski explained. “We basically laughed but the threat is real theoretically…”
“His lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to me but that never went anywhere. I think I answered something like ‘the stories are correct and if they are not then I will of course correct them if you tell me what I got wrong’ but that was left there. It’s been like two or three years since I last heard from them,” Liski said. “I’ve hoped and so far I’ve been right, that they don’t want to sue me because they don’t want the publicity. But in Estonia they did what they did and it’s still a mystery to me.”
As a freelance journalist, Liski feels that investigating and reporting on the affairs of wealthy and powerful people puts him in an especially precarious position. Despite reporting on the Youth Foundation story alongside Liski, Hänninen was not subject to the same level of intimidation. Why?
“It’s easier to target a freelance journalist than it is someone who is working – as in my case – for the Finnish national broadcasting company, which is really big with 3,000 employees, and lawyers, and all the other people who can help me out,” said Hänninen.
Liski believes that the news organisations that contract him would support him if he were sued as a freelancer. “But that wouldn’t really solve the problem,” he said. “Because the case would still require me to do so much work: to tell the lawyer what the case is about and write all sorts of answers and go to my archives and find all the documents – the evidence for the stories. And even if all the legal costs were covered, no one would still pay for the hours [it takes] to do that.”
“That would pretty much destroy my career in journalism if for one year I couldn’t write anything that someone could pay me [for],” Liski said.