Use of Local Newsletters in Personal Political Interests of People in Power is Still Posing Problems

Toomas Mattson | 11/29/2018 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 29 November 2018 – The audit conducted by the National Audit Office has demonstrated that even though before the local elections in 2017 the majority of rural municipality and city newsletters had not been used to promote personal partisan interests, there were nevertheless quite a few signs pointing to local government funds being applied – in different forms and in several municipalities – towards election campaigns or other political image building.

In the reviewed period, from January till October 2017 local governments published a total of 202 newsletters. The review covers 191 of them (available in a digitally processable format). The National Audit Office found problematic messages in altogether 53 local governments (in their pre-reform borders). Some of these messages are clearly contrary to the principle set forth by law that funds of local governments may only be applied towards performance of local government duties and in public interest. Such messages are the following:

1) Appeals made from an official position to vote for a concrete person. Altogether in 6 local governments, in 6 newsletters published by a rural municipality or a city, and in 6 cases. Rather undisguised calls to vote for a certain election coalition or political party in articles written by a rural municipality mayor or a chair of the council, in some cases with their own candidate number included in the article.

2) Articles essentially giving merely blatant praise to a certain candidate. Altogether in 2 local governments, in 3 newsletters published by a rural municipality or a city, and in 9 cases. Either the article was focussed predominantly on unequivocally positive characterisation of the candidate (what a good person they are), or there was no other content at all. Such unequivocally positive characterisation was multi-faceted and was based on statements of different individuals.

3) Unbalanced criticism of political competitors. This was the most common problem. It occurred in altogether 9 local governments, in 14 newsletters published by a rural municipality or a city, and in 118 articles or caricatures. One-sided criticism targeting political opponents of those in power, which expressly vilifies them, shows them as being weak, or otherwise displays the opponents in a negative light, causing unfair competition.

Such messages cannot be substantiated by any needs arising from local government duties and there is no public interest behind them. In terms of frequency of such occasions, the most problematic in this category were the newsletters published by Tallinn and Loksa.

In addition to the above, the audit identified certain borderline cases that fell into a ‘grey zone’; these contained signs of political motivation, but one cannot rule out links with the needs of the municipality as such. For instance, an abnormal increase in the coverage of activities of the head of the local government before the elections (e.g. during the period leading up to the elections newsletters suddenly start publishing opinion pieces by local government leaders, which has not happened before, or publishing portrait photos next to opinion pieces, or showing actions of local government leaders on several photos in one and the same newspaper issue), summaries of achievements of those in power during their term in office, giving frequent praise to the head of the local government in the regular flow of information, giving praise to public policy positions of the political union exercising public power in the municipality.

The National Audit Office suggested that all local governments which finance newsletters create an internal set of rules to mitigate such risks. Among other suggestions the National Audit Office recommended arranging supervision, e.g. establishing an independent council for the newsletter to monitor its content. In some municipalities such body already exists. The council should also include members of the opposition, as well as independent experts.

42 of the 65 local governments that responded to the report of the National Audit Office (65 %) agreed to implement this suggestion in principle.

Tallinn and Loksa, where in the assessment of the National Audit Office the number of problematic articles was the largest, did not share the opinions of the National Audit Office pertaining to them in most cases. In his written response the Mayor of Tallinn found that the National Audit Office has assumed a position of a state censor. “It would create a dangerous trend if state authorities start assessing political correctness and appropriateness of views of journalists and the media,” the Mayor found.

The position of the National Audit Office coincides with the position of the Estonian Newspaper Association, according to which publications of local governments cannot be regarded as newspapers. Furthermore, the Code of Ethics of the Estonian Press also rules out considering individuals, working for such publications, journalists as a journalist could not be employed by an agency or institution which is the object of the reporting, as a principle underpinning independence.

Previously the National Audit Office has addressed reporting activities of municipalities in their audit of 2015 “Reklaami- ja kommunikatsiooniraha kasutamine valdades ja linnades” (Use of advertising and communication funds in rural municipalities and cities), which focussed on pre-election communication by local governments in TV channels, radio and outdoor media. At that time the audit found a number of TV commercials and posters where funds of the local government were used unjustifiably to promote concrete politicians or political parties. Then the National Audit Office found that the city of Tallinn had financed certain reporting activities from the city budget that – against the background of the local elections of 2013 – could have been regarded as election ads of certain politicians or political parties. According to the assessment of the National Audit Office, approximately 337,000 euros of the Tallinn city budget were spent in 2013 on communication that could be seen as election ads.

Commenting on the audit results the Auditor General Janar Holm noted: “Well organised reporting is a key premise for the compliance with one of the core principles of a municipality, i.e. openness of activities. In the most general terms, this also constitutes the legal basis of reporting, which is one of the duties of a municipality: a municipality must share information about their activities, act as transparently as possible, explain their decisions and choices, etc. Sharing certain information is prescribed by laws (e.g. Local Government Organisation Act, Waste Act, Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, Planning Act), but alongside with this information municipalities also publish information that is not directly prescribed by law (e.g. additional information about services, promotion of events, showcasing the municipality as an appealing place to live). This is completely appropriate.

Nearly every municipality has had and has a newsletter, which is generally distributed to our mailboxes free of charge and is funded by the municipality. This is an effective tool for bringing information to the attention of the intended recipient. People always flip through it, if not for other reason than mere curiosity. Regrettably some also see it as an enticement for using the newsletter for their political image building and – as the audit has demonstrated – this idea is not merely played with but there are clear signs that newsletters are unlawfully used for partisan purposes, which happens in different forms and in different municipalities.

As such, it is not uncommon that public funds in Estonia are misused to attain personal political aims. This has been highlighted before, inter alia, by the National Audit Office. The audit shows the extent to which local newsletters are affected by this phenomenon, and also reveals that the problem is real, fundamental, and persistent.

Although the audit has identified several manifestations of problems, the practice in most of the Estonian municipalities shows that it is indeed possible to produce in a municipality newsletter information that is not constrained by party-political interests. This depends, above all, on the political will and culture. The National Audit Office does not believe that elimination of the problem requires amendment of laws. It would be difficult to devise new norms that work in a similar fashion in all municipalities. This problem needs to be addressed first and foremost through more efficient controls, including external supervision as well as internal self-control measures.”

Background

  • Nearly all municipalities have a rural municipality or city newsletter. In 2017 there were altogether 202 newsletters that were co-funded by 195 local governments (92 %). After the administrative reform the number of remaining newsletters is 96, which are co-funded by 74 local governments (94%).
  • In most cases the local government was involved in funding one to two newsletters. The exception being Tallinn that had 10 newsletters (currently 8).
  • Newsletters are generally published once a month or less frequently. There were 6 weekly newsletters.
  • The print-run sizes varied considerably: there were 57 newsletters with the print-run of up to 500 copies, while 4 newsletters had a print-run of over 50,000 copies.

The audit analysed the newsletters to establish how candidates, who participated in the elections and their political unions, were covered by these newsletters during the period from January till October 2017. The analysis was based on the media monitoring report commissioned form Balti Meediamonitooringu Grupp. It identified the mentions, titles of articles, numbers of pages, volumes in terms of numbers of characters, added photos, candidates on the photos, etc. The audit reviewed the reports that mentioned the top officials (rural municipality or city mayor, deputy rural municipality or city mayor, chair of the local government council) of the local government financing the newsletter in question, and the first three candidates in the electoral lists participating in the region where the newsletter was published. A total of ca 6000 articles was analysed.

The audit was based on the principle stemming from the Local Government Organisation Act and the General Part of the Civil Code Act, according to which any spending of a local government can only be driven by public interest.

Use of public funds (incl. municipal media channels) for personal political purposes is condemnable for many reasons. For taxpayers this is likely to constitute a waste of resources that could have applied towards something useful. For political opponents this represents an unsubstantiated advantage that distorts honest competition. In terms of the society as a whole this undermines the integrity of the public authority, fosters disillusionment with authorities, indifference towards democratic processes, etc. Such misbehaviour has also been seen as one of the forms of political corruption.

 

Toomas Mattson
National Audit Office, Head of Communications
+372 640 0777
+372 513 4900
toomas.mattson@riigikontroll.ee
press@riigikontroll.ee
http://www.riigikontroll.ee/

  • Posted: 11/29/2018 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 11/29/2018 2:38 PM
  • Last Review: 11/29/2018 2:38 PM

According to Tallinn City Government, the capital’s newspapers Pealinn and Stolitsa are part of free press

Heiki Rebane / Ekspress Meedia / Scanpix

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