The shaping of a new media system

During the 1990s, the number of media channels increased, development of the channels having occurred along three separate paths involving the public media, the commercial media, and the more specialised channels operating on the same public sphere. Four periods of this development may be identified: that leading to the end of totalitarianism, (up to 1987); the period of political change, (1988-1992); that in which was formed a new media landscape and in which regulation of the media changed, (1992-1996); and the period of economic difficulties for media channels, programme changes and a new stability in the media landscape (from 1996 onwards).

In 1990, the electronic media still operated under a government-run structure, and consisted of one TV channel and three radio channels. As the totalitarian regime restrictions were lifted and censorship eliminated, the vast and complex structure, employing a large number of people,  established journalistic autonomy. Attention was rapidly re-focused on forming joint action, analysis of the social environment and on the protection of common interests within the public arena. This ‘opening up’ was made possible by the journalists’ high level of professionalism, elements of the so-called ‘quality press’ having already existed previously under the totalitarian system.

At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, the structure of the liberated electronic media, the quality of programmes and the social attitude pursued were close to that of the Nordic model for a public media system. This reflected structural stability, the professionalism of its journalists and the breadth of programming. The similarity was reinforced by the media’s socially responsible agenda.

Reshaping of the Estonian media structure at the beginning of the 90s also led to the restructuring of the Estonian public sphere. The number of media channels increased and the time devoted to watching or listening to those channels doubled. Whilst many channels concentrated on providing predominantly commercial entertainment, the newspapers Eesti Päevaleht and Postimees, the radio station Eesti Raadio, the TV channel Eesti Televisioon, the internet portals Delfi and others defined themselves as channels operating as the public sphere, or as part of the so-called ‘general media’.

Most influential Estonian papers in early 2002

Newspaper Number of copies Readership
SL Õhtuleht 68 000 247 000
Postimees 68 000 260 000
Eesti Päevaleht 42 000 193 000
Äripäev 19 000 86 000
Estonija 7000 62 000
Molodjozh Estonii 7000 71 000
Eesti Ekspress 48 000 165 000
Maaleht 40 000 149 000
Vesti Nedelja Pljus 21 000 93 000
Kuldne Börs 15 000 146 000

Although radio and television journalists contributed substantially to the structural changes in society at the end of the 80s, paradoxically, the reform of the media’s own institutions was proven to be very problematical. With the transformation of the media to private ownership, the journalistic and professional level of its output suffered. Of greatest apparent importance to the new proprietors was the consolidation of ownership and the generation of profit, with the content and quality of output being of secondary concern.

Some programme managers even stated that the span of continuous speech on their stations should not exceed 15 minutes. More serious journalism and issues tackling social problems were deliberately shunned. Personal and other narrow interests, combined with an inability to view matters in a wider context, became more apparent. Owners of some private stations also shaped the debate over certain topics, including, for example, on political and social matters. 

Another problem was the covert or overt politicisation of the media. This was reflected in the attitudes of some channels towards public texts or proposals, as well as in their reluctance to mirror public opinion. In the Spring of 2002, some media channels adopted a negative attitude towards the proposal to increase child benefits, claiming that this view reflected ‘public opinion’, whereas the idea had considerable public support. Before elections, those politicians who enjoy media support, also benefit from widespread media exposure. Many political parties even have their own papers, examples being Kesknädal, (the Centre Party), Rahva Hääl, (the Moderate Party), and Tribüün, (Pro Patria).

The radio station Eesti Raadio and the TV channel Eesti Televisioon, are the public media channels whose independence is regulated by law. Their task is to promote the social, political and cultural engagement of their audiences, and to draw the attention of the public to issues of general concern. These public channels are considered to be the journalistic mediators of Estonian quality culture.

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