Many significant events occurred 30 years ago: In August 1989, a human chain links Tallinn to Vilnius and in November, the Berlin Wall falls. Although Estonian journalists consider this year relatively free in the journalistic sense as censorship had become relatively weak because of perestroika, the question of how far we could start pushing the boundaries remains.
Two years later in 1991, the USSR military try to break into the TV towers in Vilnius and Tallinn. In Vilnius, they succeed. 14 people are killed there and around a thousand are injured. Films have been made, legends have been told and books have been written about the attack on the Tallinn TV tower. There are no deaths. And yet, these and many other events that occurred in the 1980s (e.g. banning the band Propeller from performing at the football match between Estonian TV and Estonian Radio in 1980) were a sign of the times: sometimes, lightning may strike twice in the same place.
Media researcher Roosmarii Kurvits notes that the roots of the changes lied in the perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the USSR, which gradually led to openness and transparency, also known as glasnost. You give a little, but lose a lot. “1989 was the time when this process was going strong and nothing could be done to reverse it,” she explains. “It was the year the CPSU weakened, and so their control began to weaken as well. There were increasingly more disputes on what could be brought out in the open and what not.”
Eva Kont (later Luts) discusses in her graduation thesis of 1991 entitled The Development of Journalism from 1989-1991 on the Examples of Eesti Ekspress and Postimees that adjusting to the freedom that had finally been won was difficult for journalists, as they were used to living in a situation where they were wary of expressing their opinions out loud and were in no rush to say what they really thought. The questions is: how free is free? At the end of the decade, journalists start looking for an answer to this question.
Slowly but surely, increasingly open-minded content, daring opinions and critical information is given to readers, viewers and listeners in the second half of the 1980s. Words that had been carefully chosen until then, euphemisms and opinions written between the lines remain in the background because the grip of the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press or Glavlit (in Russian: Главное управление по охране государственных тайн в печати) is weakening and punishments can no longer be imposed for speaking one’s mind. Enthusiastic journalists keep pushing the limits. They want to offer the best journalism in the world, bring new genres to their audiences and add colour to their lives. Taboos are also brought out in the open.
People pushed the boundaries of journalists
Journalists must certainly be gutsy. For example, Juhan Aare, who covers the phosphorite war in ETV and Noorte Hääl in 1986, receives threatening letters in response to his articles. This doesn’t faze him, as there is a bigger goal in sight: to finally get Estonia out of the Soviet Union. “This is what brought us journalists together and dispersed our fears; we had a goal that we all wanted to achieve,” says Aare. “Every journalist in their own way.” His interview with high-ranking Russian state official Yuri Yampol launches the phosphorite war, as a result of which the plans to establish mines in Estonia are put on hold. According to Aare, this event leads to a new way of thinking in Estonia. “The fear that you cannot object to whatever comes from Moscow started to disappear,” he explains.
The journalists are spurred on by the support of people. “It wasn’t just letters and calls,” says Erki Berends, who worked on Estonian Radio at the time, “but people came up to us in the streets, patted us on the back and told us we were doing the right thing, to keep going.” By 1989, he has been more daring than ever before on several occasions, one example of which is playing Alo Mattiisen’s patriotic song “Mingem üles mägedele (Peatage Lasnamäe)” (Let’s Go Up to the Hills (Stop Lasnamäe)) on the show Vikerkaja. Berends doesn’t have to wait too long for the repercussions and gets reprimanded by this superiors. However, Glavlit is not bothered by the song.
Although both Erki Berends and Juhan Aare admit that one could speak rather openly about the problems in society in the second half of the 1980s, especially in the last years of the decade, young historian Mart Laar still finds a topic that gets him in hot water. In November 1988 he writes an article called “Õuduste aeg” (The Era of Horrors) for the Vikerkaar magazine. The article describes the repressions organised by the Soviet authorities and their victims. The Prosecutor’s Office of the ESSR tries to declare Mark Laar a criminal for writing this article. However, public pressure is so strong by 1989 that the accusations disappear. This case shows that Glavlit, which operates officially until November 1990 (“101 ajakirjanduspala” (101 journalistic pieces) by Roosmarii Kurvits and Tiit Hennoste), lost its influence around a year ago.
According to Vahur Kalmre, who was the editor-in-chief of Edasi at the time, there wasn’t much to fear in 1989 anymore. “There were probably still some conflicts because it didn’t happen with a bang,” says Kalmre. “The papers weren’t free in their activities all of a sudden, it happened step by step.” For example, in March they omit the slogan of the Communist Party “Workers of the world, unite!” from the front page of the paper and the words “Voice of the Committee of the Tartu Region of the ECP, the Council of the People’s Deputies of Tartu City and the Council of the People’s Deputies of Tartu Region’ under the paper’s name disappear a little over six months later. The lengthy list is replaced by the simple ‘Tartu Daily’.
Boundaries of new publications
If you ask Estonian media businessman Hans H. Luik whether he was afraid of someone or something as a journalist in 1989, his answer is that the only people who were still afraid at the time were members of the Communist Party. In September of the same year, he launches the colourful Eesti Ekspress, which immediately wins over readers with its short and sharp stories.
Luik says that he had the best editorial staff in Estonia at the time and standing out was the key to success. “We were the peacocks of innovation or perestroika, we had an acute sense of the future and an infallible political instinct,” he says. “The papers of communist editors-in-chief were very grey.”
Another new publication hits the stands only a couple of weeks after Eesti Ekspress – the business newspaper Äripäev. Its first issues, designed and printed in Sweden, immediately catch the eye: pink pages, colourful and clear print and big pictures.
Anvar Samost, student of the Department of Journalism of the University of Tartu, describes the birth of Äripäev as ‘a new phenomenon in Estonian journalism’ in his course paper of 1992, in which the paper’s first editor-in-chief Hallar Lind recalls that the first issue was certainly hard work.
One of the problems is that the quality of the films prepared for printing in Estonia is not good enough – something that only becomes evident after they arrive in Sweden. The paper is finalised after all, but there is another obstacle: you cannot simply bring this kind of material across the border. In Russian customs, the editor-in-chief has to prove that he’s not carrying anything that contains anti-USSR agitation and propaganda because this section of the law is still effective. In the end, the first paper with pink pages reaches 20,000 Estonian people, free of charge.
Printing and layout is moved to Estonia in 1990, but this leads to a significant deterioration in quality when compared with the first issues, concedes Samost in his paper.
Äripäev is a success. Readers cannot get enough of the paper with a Western approach and look. The economy as a topic is also interesting. “People didn’t have much money before, but this was the time when the first companies appeared and people started earning,” says Igor Rõtov, who became the paper’s editor-in-chief in 1992. He believes that the founders of Äripäev were lucky to spot the right moment in 1989 when the time was right for such a publication.
Long-time teacher of journalism at the University of Tartu Sulev Uus and media researcher Roosmarii Kurvits say that there was an explosion of new papers in the late 1980s, especially in 1989, and many other publications were launched in addition to Äripäev and Eesti Ekspress, which people couldn’t have even imagined in earlier years. The publications that reach the readers for the first time include Nelli Teataja, Esmaspäev, Pilk and Sõnumitooja, the publication of the Estonian Academic Oriental Society. Kurvits says that their popularity is boosted by traits that were very characteristic of the publications of that era: they cover topics that were not spoken about before.
The first issue of Sõnumitooja publishes extracts from the Indian textbook of the art of love, the Kama Sutra, whilst Pilk covers a mishmash of topics such as previously concealed historical events and aliens.
In 1989, Noorus magazine publishes discussions and readers’ letters on homosexuality - talking about it and admitting it had not only been taboo, but an offence punishable by law.
The old-timers don’t lag behind the newcomers and also broaden the circle of their topics as a result of the changes. Edasi works had to cover the gaps in history as well as a wide array of other facets of life. For example, in summer 1989, the paper adorns its pages with the rather sensual and revealing photos of the Suvenaine (Women of Summer) competition. Only a couple of years earlier, Edasi had a fight with Glavlit about a photo on its front page, which depicted people on Elva beach, all dressed in appropriate swimwear. Being a prim and proper citizen of the Soviet Union is no longer necessary.
These women of summer weren’t wearing many clothes, if at all, but this competition shows that the circle of topics was becoming broader and broader. Looking back, it may have become a bit too broad, but we were constantly searching, looking for topics that could make the paper more interesting.”
He adds that the competition photos are published wherever they can be fit: sometimes next to political commentary, sometimes next to economic analysis. “There were some pages that didn’t change, such as culture and history, but the rest of the material was published where room was found for them. Since these photos were published next to very serious articles, people probably read these articles a lot more because of the photos, as a photo is the thing that usually attracts the reader’s attention and if the photo depicts a woman of summer, it will definitely attract the reader’s attention, especially in 1989,” he admits.
Stamp of the censor
How can such experimentation be possible in Estonia? There are only a couple of Glavlit employees, sometimes no more than one, in Tartu, where the editorial staff of Edasi is based. According to lecturer of journalism and assistant editor of Edasi Sulev Uus, most of the censors in Tartu are smart people who don’t think it necessary to demonstrate their power. Sometimes there is no censor at all because they had to go away somewhere. “It seems rather incredible right now, as we keep emphasising how each and every one of our words was followed,” says Uus. He explains that content is first and foremost the responsibility of the editor. Uus says that in Tallinn, censors demand more often that editors remove something from the paper because the Central Committee and Propaganda Department of the Party are based in Tallinn and this makes the censors more diligent.
This is illustrated well by a story from the early days of Eesti Ekspress. “We had to get two stamps for the first issue from Glavlit,” says Hans H. Luik, “but we had a story about the Committee of Citizens, the freedom of Estonia and all that. We had finalised the paper almost a week before, but we didn’t get the stamp!” The solution wasn’t far away: never mind the stamp, the paper will be printed by the book printing company.
Journalist Juhan Aare recalls that Noorte Hääl could be pretty unrestrained in the 1980s. The paper also published a bit of red propaganda and there are some journalists who deal with this, but the majority of the Noorte Hääl journalists wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. They are also free to select their topics.
However, the editorial staff of Rahva Hääl cannot enjoy this kind of freedom: the atmosphere is a lot more conservative and strict. Whilst Rahva Hääl is the paper of the Communist Party, Noorte Hääl is the voice of the communist youth organisation, sort of like a little brother who is forgiven for being naughty.
Aare’s articles about the phosphorite war could never have been published in Rahva Hääl. “They went after me and wrote critical articles about me,” he says. Aare finds that Estonian Television was probably one of the most liberal places at the time. Although slogans like ‘Freedom to Estonia!’ cannot be used, people try to make the most of the opportunities that exist. “I believe that the course of the Singing Revolution and the phosphorite war would have been completely different if the level of our journalism hadn’t been so high,” thinks Aare.
Technology without borders
At the time when topics can be rather freely chosen and covered, technology is like a ball and chain that keeps great ideas firmly on the ground. Despite this, Erki Berends says that 1989 was to some extent a technologically revolutionary period for Estonian journalism. Although a pen and a notebook are still the main tools alongside a couple of dictaphones or a computer of prehistoric proportions, this is the time when the fax machine makes an appearance and brings the rest of the world considerably closer. For example, it can be used to send photos from one country to another. Edasi receives many typewriters from Sweden. “Each of our journalists who visited the Uppsala paper returned with a typewriter – these things were difficult to get!” says Vahur Kalmre.
The poor conditions force journalists to look for inventive solutions. “Everything is so easy now, but think about the time when a telephone was the only tool you had... an ordinary telephone,” says Erki Berends. “It was like the Stone Age.” It also happens that this tool, the only one you have, stops working and the journalist must come up with a solution on their feet. For example, if you need to talk to someone, you have to go to the reception of the Philharmonic Society, leave them a note and wait for them to get back to you. This is followed by lengthy correspondence, which Berends jokingly refers to as the Internet of the time.
Hans H. Luik recalls how the entire editorial staff was queuing to use a computer with a 286 processor in the room they occupied in Hotel Olümpia. “We uploaded the layout, the photos, did the proofreading, but sometimes lost some text because we didn’t really know what we were doing... It was like waiting in a field because the horse is sweaty and has to rest.”
The equipment and the volume of newspapers dictate the speed of work. Igor Rõtpv recalls that there are many employees in Rahva Hääl, but not a lot of work gets done. Vahur Kalmre helps explain this situation a little with his experience. Edasi has eight pages and no one’s even head of online media. There are times when the papers seem to write themselves because something is happening all the time, which means that there is something to write about. Many people who don’t belong to the editorial staff (politicians, founders of societies, etc.) also want to have a say. The information gets to the paper and the journalists have time to sit in the Humal beer restaurant and discuss the development of the paper and have a good chat about life.
From student to top journalist
The main question now, when the borders have almost disappeared, is how to make most of this situation. Both Igor Rõtov and Roosmarii Kurvits were students in 1989 and their memories are therefore similar: they wanted to bring the excellent journalism that existed elsewhere in the world to Estonia and create it here as well. “I didn’t think about earning lots of money, but I wanted to do something really cool,” recalls Rõtov. “Pullerits and Hennoste managed to pass on the Western standards to our youngsters very well. The people who worked there at the time, like Jüri Luik, Tiit Pruuli and the others, created this atmosphere of alertness.”
When Rõtov starts working for Rahva Hääl, it seems to him that it’s difficult for him to really get a chance, but then he and some young colleagues realise that the old ones cannot really be bothered to write much and they seize the opportunity with both hands. “It was a unique time, fact-based investigative journalism developed extremely fast and the fact that we were witnessing this massive change gave us so much strength and enthusiasm,” he says.
Erki Berends recalls that simply being in the midst of things and observing everything is like a shot of adrenaline. These developments are not occurring over months or years, but in weeks and days, sometimes even hours. “1987 to 1991 were great years, which really made me want to go to work again every morning,” he says.
Berends says how he finally understands his foreign acquaintances who came to Estonia in the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s to write only one story but didn’t want to leave again. Some don’t leave, but extend their business trips. “They said it’s crazy what’s going on here. This is the life I want to live, this is the environment in which I want to be a reporter. But I have to go back to boring old Sweden where nothing ever happens.” Berends didn’t understand it then, but he does now. “We’ve reached an equally boring era,” he says, “where sometimes you have to make things up to have something interesting. But it was great back then.”
Media researcher Roosmarii Kurvits says that the media landscape of 1989 is characterised by contradiction: on the one hand, the old system, the Soviet Union, is collapsing, censorship is disappearing and the economic system is falling apart. On the other hand, people are looking for something new, creating and building. “It was certainly new at the time, that we are Estonians. In 1989, the media didn’t explicitly say that we wanted our own state, but people were certainly thinking about it.”