The appointment of a high government official in the body that governs Estonia’s public broadcaster is opening a can of worms. He promises to keep his two hats apart – but some people don’t trust him.

On 3 May 2017, Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, appointed Paavo Nogene to the post of Chancellor of the Ministry of Culture, who is the second highest official in the ministry, in the council of the Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR). Mr Nogene was appointed thanks to his credentials as an “expert.” The reshuffling included the appointment of three new ERR council members. This was a regular move, given the fact that the terms of three former council members, all appointed because they qualify as experts, had expired.

The ERR council consists of ten members. They include a politician from every political group in the Estonian parliament. Currently, six such members come from this area. The other four are chosen “from among the acknowledged experts in the field of activity of Public Broadcasting.” Mr Nogene is among them.

ERR was created in 2007 as a broadcast organization comprising the Estonian Radio (Eesti Raadio) and Estonian Television (ETV), which used to operate as separate entities before. The Estonian Broadcasting Council is its main regulatory body.

The Man With Two Hats

The law says that a minister cannot be appointed to the ERR council, but does not ban lower-rank officials from taking the job. The purpose of that legal provision was to stave off interference by government in the affairs of the public service media, according to local media observers. When the Estonian Public Broadcasting Act, which regulates the operation of the public broadcaster, was written, nobody suspected that high government officials could be promoted to join the council disguised as experts.

According to European standards on public service media, executive power should be prevented from influencing the governing of the public media and legal provisions should help public service broadcasters decrease their dependence on the state authorities.

Ironically, before Mr Nogene was appointed to the post of chancellor in 2013, he was a member of the broadcasting council, the nation’s main broadcast regulator. He back then resigned from this post as it was incompatible with the new position in the ministry. Now, he sees no conflict of interests in joining the public service media governing body in spite of the fact that the culture ministry plays a certain role in the activity of the public media, according to the law.

For example, financing for the Estonian public broadcaster is secured by a contract between the station and the culture ministry. Thus, Mr Nogene would be the signatory of such an agreement on behalf of both parties.

The Curse of Politics

The appointment of government officials to the ERR council is highly controversial as there are already political members in the council. So far, the presence of political appointees in the ERR council has never presented a threat as they come from different parties. Moreover, the presence of experts counterbalances the political influence to a certain extent. However, the community of journalists, including those who work for the public broadcaster, would prefer the risk posed by political influence to be minimized as much as possible.

A group of media experts including several professors of journalism and communication wrote a letter to the parliamentary committee that proposed Mr Nogene should annul the nomination. In their opinion, his appointment by the parliament flouts commitments made by the Estonian government to various international rules such as guidelines from the Council of Europe to “positively contribute” to the independence of the public service media. They even asked the committee to scrap provisions allowing political parties to appoint members of the ERR council. This would put the kibosh on the overall politicization of the council.

Nobody has questioned Mr Nogene’s professional abilities as a manager; prior to his appointment to the post of chancellor, he was the director of the theatre Vanemuine in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia.

The head of the committee in parliament that chose Mr Nogene, Aadu Must, said that he didn’t find any conflict of interests in this case. Speaking in front of the parliament, he added that Mr Nogene promised to keep apart his two hats, of expert and political figure.

Experience, though, shows that they often end up on the same hanger.

Photo: ERR