Sulev Vedler and Tarmo Vahter
Estonia journalists Sulev Vedler (left) and Tarmo Vahter were fined for publishing an article about alleged money laundering at Swedbank, since they disclosed confidential information without the prosecutor's approval. (Photo: Anu Hammer/Ekspress Meedia)

Two Estonian journalists fined over article on money laundering

On April 14, 2022, a court in Estonia fined journalists Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler, of the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, 1,000 euros (US$1,040) each for an article about alleged money laundering at one of the country’s largest banks, Swedbank, according to a report by Estonian public broadcaster ERR News and the journalists, who communicated with CPJ via email. According to these reports, the court’s decision was made public on May 5, 2022.

The journalists told CPJ that their March 25 article, which was based on confidential information from sources close the prosecution, revealed that the Office of the Prosecutor General had named several former board members of the bank as official suspects in their investigation into alleged money laundering.

The journalists said that following the publication of the article, the prosecution filed a complaint. The court, which did not hold a hearing, ruled that based on section 214 of Estonia’s Law on Criminal Procedure, they had violated the rules prohibiting anyone from publishing information about a pre-trial criminal investigation without the prosecution’s prior approval.

Chief Public Prosecutor Taavi Pern told ERR News that the prosecutor’s office decided to seek fines because it had repeatedly warned the journalists not to disclose any information on the criminal investigation without their approval.

The two journalists told CPJ that they had appealed the verdict, since the court did not recognize that they acted in the public interest.

In a statement published in Eesti Ekspress following the court verdict, Vedler stood by their reporting and said they had acted in the public interest. “Until now, the principle has been valid in Estonia that the word is free and the published information must be true. Neither the journalist nor the publication had to ask anyone for permission to broadcast important news to the public,” he wrote.

CPJ emailed questions to the Office of the Prosecutor General but received no reply.

On June 14, 2022, an appeals court overturned the journalists’ fines, saying authorities had not demonstrated that the article’s publication had harmed the administration of justice, according to news reports, which said the journalists accepted that verdict.

According to those reports, the court also ruled that journalists in general, as people not party to the legal proceedings they are covering, need to seek permission from the prosecutor’s office if they wish to publish pretrial information.

[Editors’ note: This article has been updated to include the June 14 verdict reversing their fines.]