288. Ethnic Minorities and Access to Mass Media: The Case of Estonia

By
Liisi Keedus

Liisi Keedus is an OSI-EES Junior Public Policy Fellow, who was in residence at the Wilson Center from September to December, 2003. She spoke at an EES noon discussion on December 2, 2003. The following is an edited summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 288.

Approximately one-third of Estonian residents are not ethnic Estonians, and an overwhelming majority of that proportion of the population are Russian-speakers. Probably the most telling fact about Estonia's ethnic minorities is that only 38 percent of them hold Estonian citizenship, despite of having been residents for decades. The remaining are either stateless persons or citizens of the Russian Federation. Since 1998, the government has made efforts to encourage these residents to apply for Estonian citizenship. The major obstacle to obtaining the blue Estonian passport for many is passing the Estonian language proficiency examination.

One of the difficulties arising from the fact that the majority of Russian-speakers are still not fluent in the official language is that there is very little communicative space that the titular nation and the minority share. The integration policies, including those related to mass media and other information distribution channels, are based on the assumption that, since the Estonian language dominates the public sphere, anyone who wishes to be informed and participate in the public sphere should first learn Estonian. Thus, the government's efforts have been directed mainly at facilitating Estonian language education.

As a result of these government policies, people who are not fluent in Estonian often have insufficient access to information about the Estonian state and society. The situation is particularly problematic in the northeastern part of the country, where the proportion of ethnic Estonians in some cities is as low as 3 percent. In these cases either the state must provide information to these permanent residents in Russian or those residents must rely on the information obtained from the media of the Russian Federation or through informal sources. As a result, there are at least two viable public spheres in Estonia, one dominated by Estonian-language media and another by Russian-language media. I argue that the processes of Estonian language education ought to be coordinated with increasing accessibility to the Estonian-language public sphere. Language training and information transfer should complement one another and be simultaneous. The former approach of ‘integration for communication' should be replaced with efforts to enhance ‘integration through communication.'

This conclusion is based on data that suggest that Russian-speakers recognize that they are poorly informed about Estonian society and state institutions and that they have expressed willingness to become better informed about the Estonian public sphere. Although Russian-speakers watch Russian Federation television extensively, their trust in its objectivity is low. They express a much higher level of trust towards Estonian sources of information, and particularly the Estonian public service television (ETV). Although there is a willingness among Russian speakers to increase their exposure to national information sources, their media consumption habits do not bear this out and cannot be expected to change rapidly.

The Estonian government has been critical of its own efforts to enhance integration into the national public sphere through the media. In its report on the implementation of the Integration Programme in 2000, the government observed that "the potential of the Russian-language media in integration of non-Estonians remains largely unused, due to the low viewership of programs. The reason for this is the lack of financing for Russian-language television and isolation from its audience." Hence, the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, Russian-speakers who prefer to get information from television (more so than for ethnic Estonians), have very few Russian-language telecasts available to them, and therefore turn to the media of the Russian Federation. Except for ETV, which airs a daily news brief in Russian and one weekly bilingual program, there are no television channels broadcasting languages other than Estonian. These few and irregular programs have extremely low ratings among Russian-speakers. Moreover, ETV's daily news in Russian reaches less than 5 percent of its target group. Since the ratings for these programs are low, the management of ETV is not willing to increase the volume of programs and has also ceased subtitling of some of its original-language productions. Some editors, however, argue that the cause of the low ratings is the annual decrease in the available broadcasting time, as well as decreased funding for Russian-language programs.

Why must this issue be addressed?
The issue of integrating Russian-speaking residents into mainstream Estonian culture has been a low-level issue for years. Although there has been international pressure on Estonia to change its citizenship requirements, the divisions between ethnic groups in Estonia have never escalated to the proportions witnessed in the former Yugoslavia. Given the choice between having no citizenship or settling for Russian citizenship, Russian-speaking residents have largely chosen the former. So why must the issue of integration be addressed?

First, the right to freedom of expression as well as access to information is one of the basic human rights guaranteed by national legislation and international legal instruments, such as the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Second, improved access to information is one of the key elements in making the most of a society's human resources. Increasingly, the fundamental questions of society—including those concerning the distribution and exercise of power and the process of integration and change—all turn on communication. Hence, equal access to the mainstream media is important. In this regard, there are some essential changes that must be introduced into the policies of integration and mass media, particularly concerning public service broadcasting. Priority should be given to the inclusion of minorities in the decision-making processes and improved access to education for high school graduates with non-Estonian ethnic backgrounds.

Therefore, I believe that certain government institutions are obliged to address this problem. For example, the Broadcasting Council, which is charged with monitoring the implementation of all regulations regarding public broadcasting, should keep on its agenda ethnic minorities' access to information. The fulfilment of the informational needs of Russian-speakers should be regularly assessed. Moreover, the Parliament should appoint among the nine members of the Broadcasting Council at least two people with a non-Estonian ethnic background who are familiar with the problems and expectations of non-Estonians. The Broadcasting Council should ensure the presence of ethnic non-Estonians in the Managing Board of ETV, as well as on the Programing Board.

The Minister of Population Affairs, who is also responsible for issues concerning social integration of minorities, should consider advocating for increasing the funding of public service broadcasters in order to improve service to non-Estonians. Creating a shared public sphere should become a priority when planning the Integration Program. Moreover, a staff position should be created for a media monitoring expert in this Bureau, who would regularly address the coverage of ethnic minorities and integration processes in the mass media. Ensuring the presence of proportional representation of non-Estonians in all boards and steering committees related to the implementation and budgeting of the Integration Program would help to achieve the aims of the program more efficiently.

Russian-speakers do not always have equal access to institutions of higher education, since one of the requirements for enrollment exams is writing an essay in Estonian. This requirement is particularly difficult for students from the northeastern part of the country, who cannot be expected to have achieved a level of fluency in Estonian comparable to that of ethnic Estonian high-school graduates. In addition to lowering the bar on the language requirement, the government should strive towards proportional enrollment of ethnic non-Estonians among the students in journalism, television and radio production studies departments in state universities. It should develop ways to encourage Russian-speakers to study journalism within Estonian-language programs and establish regular training programs for minority members working for the local Russian-language press in order to increase their professional skills and competitiveness in the national mainstream media industry.

There are also ways in which ETV as an institution can address the segregation of the mass media in society. First, it could increase the amount of broadcasting time in Russian, specifically for news and informative programs as well as airing Russian or bilingual programs on a regular basis at prime time. Second, ETV could place more editors with minority background on screen. Finally, it should aim to improve marketing towards the Russian-speaking resident community on Russian-language programing.

None of these proposals require much in terms of financial resources. They do, however, require an increased willingness from both the government and media to work together to integrate the Estonian and Russian public spheres, as well as to coordinate between different initiatives. This will require patience due to the differences in practices as well as the relatively long-term commitment. After all, an inclusive and functioning public sphere is a pre-condition for and an indicator of a viable democracy.
 

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