Development in the Estonian public sphere during the past half-century

At the beginning of the 1990s, the principal value sought by the Estonian public was spiritual freedom and independence. The total silence of the Soviet state had already been breached by the end of the 1980s when debate on the general problems of society and its individual members re-emerged. This constituted the manifestation, expansion and institutionalisation of the public sphere in Estonia.

Proceeding from a political and ideological basis, it is possible to distinguish three different stages in the formation of the Estonian public sphere over the last fifty years.

1. First, there was the closed society from 1940 to the 1980s, in which the public sphere was divided into strongly antagonistic, official and unofficial poles, (see Fig. 2). The official and unofficial texts were differentiated on the basis of critical, social criteria. Official texts had to adhere to ideologically prescriptive formulations and appeared in party and government publications, including the press. The authors had to satisfy appropriate scrutiny and the structure of the texts was canonised. In this way, the formal public sphere operated as a control system vis-à-vis the texts.

Soviet public sphere in the 1980s: official and semi-official, unofficial text

Official public text Semi- and unofficial public text
Publishing channels Party channels (press, television, radio) Clubs, meetings of small groups, art; 'side-line' of radio and television, newspapers of small circulation, etc.
Authors Persons representing social and political structures, part of journalists, specialists, artists, writers, intellectuals, etc. Part of journalists, specialists, intellectuals, artists, writers, etc.
Texts Institutionalised texts representing social myths (from party documents and their interpretation to humour and satire) Diverse ambiguous text in various genres, with its contents selectively canonised (art, music, poetry, etc.)
Control AField of public texts acts as control; additional party control, pre- and post-censorship Partial pre- and post-censorship

The hierarchical structure of the public sphere which then prevailed, encompassed party documents which directed the public processes as well as interpretations of the documents by representatives of the political structure. Journalistic texts included many genres extending from literature and art to humour and satire. (At the journalistic ‘periphery’ were cultural and literary journals which also included the so-called ‘semi-official’ or ‘unofficial’ texts).

The closed system of the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by a particularly high level of control, in which the ‘living word’ passed through as many as five levels of censorship, yet had to retain apparent spontaneity and be linguistically perfect.

2.This was followed by the transitional years, from 1987 to 1993, when the open and generally resonant public sphere was characterised by wide participation in public events, and when reflexive and conceptual public texts appeared which carried an organising function. Texts representing ‘forbidden’ topics and perspectives began to be published and the dominant political system of conceptualisation and interpretation was re-shaped. The opened and liberated media of the so-called ‘transition time’ were the central channel for the structural, political changes of the 1980s and early 1990s.

After the collapse of the Soviet system, the public sphere, and the press which effectively organised it, became particularly powerful, remaining independent both from political and from market forces. In that era of independence, the media were a force that truly participated actively in the public sphere.

3. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the public sphere became increasingly fragmented and segmented. In a situation where discussions of matters of secondary importance prevailed, few resonant events and problems entered the public sphere.

In the political and economic structures of the 1990s, the media became part of the new system and a branch of the economy. In principle, the freedom of expression was retained, but it lost its edge. Few of the topics discussed were as important as those which were the subject of fevered debates a decade before.

The contemporary, Estonian public field is expressed and mediated to the public at large through the Estonian printed media and through radio and television, (see Fig.3). In recent years, public confidence in the media has fluctuated between 41 and 48%, (BMF 2002, SaarPoll), on a par with the level of confidence in the judicial system and the police, exceeding the level of confidence in parliament, yet falling behind the level of public trust in the President, the government and the defence forces.


Time spent on TV and radio


1980s 1990s Early 2000s
Radio 3 hrs. 41 min. 4 hrs. 23 min. 3 hrs. 32 min.
Television 1 hr. 52 min. 3 hrs. 17 min. 4 hrs. 10 min.

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