The public sphere in the open Estonian society

In the 1990s, the Estonian public sphere organised itself in the face of several political, economic and cultural issues of general importance. There were public debates on the Estonian presidential elections, on administrative reform, and on problems relating to the restitution of property to lawful owners and their descendants. Other debates concerned the issue of privatisation, including the privatisation of the Estonian energy system and of Estonian Railways, as well as pricing policies, particularly those impacting on power and telecommunications. Discussions also extended to the public sphere itself, with a debate on the operating principles of the public broadcasting bodies.

There was much public discussion on the general direction of Estonia’s overall development in the early 2000s. One of the essential issues was prompted by the public address by 26 social scientists in April 2001 which evolved into a discussion with a strong impact on the wider socio-political debate. Their intervention was triggered by concern over the processes underpinning the structural changes causing much anxiety for the Estonian public, and which undermine satisfaction with the activities of central societal institutions. To date, more than 100 texts relating to different aspects of the topic of ‘two Estonias’ have been published,  dealing with the gap which has emerged between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in Estonian society.

At the same time, the opinions and interest of the Estonian public have often been disregarded in the decision-making process. For example, in 2001, the public debate on the suspension of passenger traffic on several railway routes prompted fierce opposition from the public, but the suspensions went ahead regardless. The general pattern of development shows that analyses and dialogue characteristic of the public sphere in the early 1990s was replaced at the end of the decade by more normative texts. The focal point of public life as such turned to securing easy access to the public sphere and to the prerogative of defining the existing phenomena and processes. At the same time, some asocial and subcultural groups are pushed to the periphery of the public sphere or no longer participate in public debate at all.

This narrowing of the public sphere inevitably reduces its quality and functionality, paradoxically leading to ghettoisation of the whole sphere. In such situations, the raised topics divert attention from fundamental and contentious issues. When vital domains are defined as ghettos, the common mental domain itself becomes ghettoised. This, in effect, is a matter which reflects on the fundamental quality of the culture involved.

The role of the media companies themselves also raises questions. Many of their owners are foreign and disinterested in the media assuming the role of an open discussion channel, with most of the new channels offering only a utilitarian or escapist entertainment function, which serves as a time-filler.

The gradual contraction in the number of texts has occurred both at the structural and functional level, as well as in the actor role. In the initial phases of forming the public sphere of Estonia, texts contained facts, analyses and conclusions. Gradually, the analyses disappeared as shorter and simpler genres were preferred, after which generalisations and significant facts and topics themselves disappeared.

The roles and characters of those acting in the public sphere almost totally changed or were replaced, and only a few of the charismatic, cultural figures and intellectuals who shaped the face of the Estonian media in the early 1990s remained. For lay members of the public, it became increasingly difficult to gain access to the press, at best settling for the subsidiary role of interviewee or contributor of opinion. This can partially be explained by the stage of development of Estonian society, which in the early 2000s was undergoing a period of stabilisation accompanied by the re-building of its social structure. Nevertheless, this ‘construction project’ was conducted primarily according to the visions of the existing economic and political powers, and in the absence of extensive public participation.

In a parliament-commissioned questionnaire in 2002, 42% of respondents considered the opportunity for popular views to be represented in the press to be fair and reasonable, whilst 45% considered the opportunities to be limited. Moreover, 44% believed that published information was politically controlled, whilst 45% believed there to be no such political constraint. Of all the respondents, 51% considered the information on government-directed activities which was published in the press to be objective, whilst 38% deemed it not to be so.

It may be concluded that developments in the public sphere during the 1990s were highly controversial. Whilst a democratic society was formed, with its foundations in the 1992 Constitution, some interest groups forged better channels of access to the public sphere and media than others. The Estonian public sphere of the noughties also differs from the public sphere which characterises many democratic states in terms of its parliamentary practices. The process of assessment and interpretation which precedes decision-making had been conducted primarily by politicians, with the views and concerns of the general public not being seriously considered. This cannot be regarded as normal practice for developed democracies.

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