The head of the editorial section of the Postimees Foreign News, Evelyn Kaldoja answers questions from Propastop.
How is the Kremlin’s information war going in Estonia? Or would you prefer a more softer term such as confrontation?
I think the greatest success for Estonia in the current information war, paradoxically is the Bronze soldier night. We were able to change the crisis into a victory and become known as a leading cyber nation. Of course, we must be thankful to our allies, they kept on our side and practically no „wobbling“ took place. Russian information attacks take place across Europe and the Western world. The Kremlin collects materials of varying intensities and is cooking up things that we are not yet aware of or what may come of them. When a country interferes and influences the results of another countries elections, incites regional separation movements, when it gives information to the opposition of a nation, then it not a „confrontation,“ then you are fighting. I call this warfare.
Has Europe acknowledged the risk?
The Kremlin has similar views on Poland as with us. As well as the Nordic nations because Russia has worked hard to raise awareness in the area of threat to them. The Swedes had the submarine incident, A Russian ambassador threatened Denmark with a nuclear attack, and Norway has a common border. Finland has always had a very strong narrative with Russia, the Winter and Continuity wars, the military service tradition. The „Unknown soldier“ was just re- released, there is no question about who they are shooting at in the film.
Elsewhere in Europe, reporting of the information war is very different. France is historically a Russophile nation; Holland has strong economic ties with Russia. The fact that the Netherlands follows a similar line to the Kremlin when regarding Estonia is purely due to the MH17 catastrophe.
Many countries are just starting to discover the topic. In Germany, for example, RT’s propaganda channel has gotten a very strong following among Russian speaking Volga Germans who returned to Germany in the 1990’s but have not assimilated with the local population. The Britons have Scotland, whose until recently national head, Alex Salmond became the director of RT. Spain had its wake up call with Catalonia, they used to feel quite secure at the other end of Europe.
By contrast, very many Greeks take RT stories as very truthful to this day. Slovakians also believe Russian propaganda messages. I can talk about my own experience with conflicting Slovak journalists funnily at NATO Headquarters. They jumped at me with questions of longer waits for visas, why do we have an apartheid regime and why do we push at the Russian minority. They were completely convinced of theses accusations for some reason. It was shocking.
What can Estonia do to better promote its views to our allies?
We should approach countries one at a time and pay attention to small nuances. For example, monitor embassy level inclusions in the local media. The next step should be our own ambassador’s communication with the local media channels. Publications should bear in mind that if there is nonsense written about Estonia then the Estonian ambassador would definitely send a letter of protest asking for a retraction. We can use as an example how Israel is always out for its own interests worldwide. In addition, no one wants to step on their toes unless they want a huge backlash. If everybody knew that there will always be a reaction from Estonia to false information, it would change a lot.
We should also invite foreign journalist here. Let us show what is going on here, answer their questions honestly but at the same time tell them our story. The only thing that calmed the afore mentioned Slovaks was when I said that they should come to Estonia and talk to the Russians here: Come and see for yourselves, that we do not push at anyone here!“ They quite probably will not come here but maybe I succeeded in making them question their beliefs a little bit.
You work everyday at a newspaper at the front line of the information war. How do you see the role of the Estonian media in this war?
The role of the media is to explain the basic mechanisms by which the information war is conducted. At the same time, we must be able to check and see the sources of information. It is necessary to recognize the guarantees, political developments and the initial sources. For example if Interfax summarizes the of the book by Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defence and brings out rumors about what Gates has said, then we cannot release this information without controlling it first. If an USA think tank thinks that Estonia can be conquered in 24 hours, then we need not greatly amplify this. If something is said about Estonia abroad, it may not always be true. The media must be able to use their own heads when thinking about it.
However, I feel that the Estonian press has done quite well with this task. Sometimes we may be fished in but I would say no more than any of the major western publications. Of course, the press cannot go down that slippery slope where we start pumping up a topic too much. The reader is quite sensitive. Sometimes if you write about your own affairs too well, you are accused of propaganda. You must keep a balance here as well, hold the line.
How are we doing with holding the line? Does Estonian media write too much about war and tanks?
Thanks to online media, the press has a very good understanding of what people want to read. Security and Russia are undeniably topics that are closely monitored by the readers.
If Estonia contributes to security with human resources and money, the Estonian media must write about it. People want to know what is happening to their money, they must have explanations why one or the other thing is being done. It is good that we have access to all public information in the field of defence.
I find it positive that Estonians are so knowledgeable about security. Estonia has conscription and the Defence League. If a person thinks that Russia is a threat then they can actually do something about it and contribute. One does not have to be sad about it and console themselves with beer. Participation has a therapeutic effect; you can learn about national defence yourself. When you have close family member doing their mandatory military service or are in the reserves, the topic becomes familiar and close. The closer conscription time comes to an individual the more they want to be aware of defence issues.
By the way, I think female mandatory military service is just and fair, because it ties in well with our nation.
How much should the press reflect about the activities of the Estonian republic in the information war? Do you see omissions being made?
A large part of the information war should remain secret. It is as well done intelligence work, whose results are, that all is good.
However, I do see in my daily work that the state should pay more attention to public communication. For example in the Tomaso Clavarino incident. When this Italian journalist visited Estonia, the state agencies acted adequately, were open and shed information. However, when the story was finished and reached the media, there was no official reaction. Surely, the nation of Estonia should have responded more quickly and more specifically, stating loudly that we do not train child soldiers and that we comply with all conventions.
In Clavarino, type situations the state should ensure that all material appraising his work is connected to his name when searching Google. Without doubt, this person is malicious and may be biased; he has received money from Sputnik and should not be trusted. In the case of this story, along with a colleague we wrote about dismissing his allegations but our country could have assisted a lot more in quenching and helping clear up this false information.
Exactly whose work role, should it be in Estonia?
Perhaps a bit from the Foreign Ministry but mostly the Government Communications office. The Government Communications should have a public face, a speaker who communicates on the subject constantly and who can respond to all questions. He should also be able to react to all kinds of emerging incidents, new information fragments and stories. The more you allow harmful information to circulate the more it starts to take hold.
Our jagged toothed information defenders should be working 24/7, reacting during weekends and at night. In another case, that of Antonia Sanchez the Prime Minister’s office press rep luckily did. The initial information fragment could be put up with the understanding that the country is a gigantic conservative being that takes time to react. Of course, this is an awful lot of work, so there should be people in the office who cannot only keep an eye on the Russian media but also the media of all other important countries as well as social media.
How good do you consider the work done by the Russian language press in Estonia?
The work done by people in such media as Radio 4 or the Russian language Postimees is very thorough. Although their resources are much smaller but colleagues in the European Union and NATO are in many cases better read on these subjects than some Estonian-speaking journalist. I have great respect for journalists from Russia; the majority of them are very good and professional. The biggest gap is ETV+, which was promoted as the answer to Russia’s information attacks. It seems to me that this project was started in the wrong direction. They did not try to reach the Russian speaking audience, instead they tried to show the outside world how we are now intensely dealing with the Russian issue.
A foreigner working in Estonia told a conference about how there was not any Russian language media there, but then came ETV+! I arose and said that Radio4 has always been in Estonia, we have Russian language Postimees, and there are many Russian language publications in Narva. Now you talk about this marginal audience channel as something amazing (excuse please to my colleagues who certainly are good, but the ETV+ audience is really marginal). It is great that the foreign embassies fund it but I think this project still exists because we do not want to acknowledge failure to our partners. I would give the money for more grants for the training of Russian speaking journalists, fund news trips. Alternatively, contribute to Estonian language media translations.
Propaganda channels Sputnik and Baltnews: to you consider them as press?
Definitely not. It is of note that the names of those that work there are not public? In fact, it clearly shows what an honest media channel looks like. In most media outlets, the list of employees is public, the ownership is also public knowledge, and they are subordinated to the Press Council.
Our social ecosystem has treated these propaganda channels fairly. Their market share is very small, Estonian guard against them is correct. They are an awful phenomenon in our society. If you admit reading Sputnik – it is like telling, your neighbour you eat from his trash can… Russian journalists find it hard to find work in Estonia but many unemployed journalists who have received offers from propaganda channels have declined their offers. It is about their honour and dignity.
Estonia’s image in media has fascinated you from the beginning of your career in journalism. Where did you get your interest in these topics?
Purely from communicating with people from other parts of the world. The more friends you have elsewhere the more you discover that their perception of things may not coincide with yours. They come up with limited information and they perceive questions differently than ours. I consider myself quite patriotic and have a duty to stand up for the positions taken by our nation and explain them. For example, I remember a conversation after the Warsaw Security Forum, when I went to have a beer with a couple of Polish colleagues and we talked about ethnic relations in Estonia. At one point, they asked why did I refer to Estonian Russian speaking residents as Russians? For them a Russian is someone that lives in Russia. When I talked about Russians in Estonia, they considered that racism.
We are often the same. At the time of the Spanish elections, we were in a group where there were a couple of Spaniards and a couple of Estonians. The Socialists won the elections. Then one of the Estonians started to complain that did they not know that Socialists are bad, look what was done to us during the Soviet Union era. If this person knew a little about Spanish history, he would have understood what the conservatives did with the Spaniards during Franco’s regime. Why do you expect the Spaniard to know your history when you do not know about the history of a large country like Spain?
What do you thinks of Propastop? What ideas do you suggest for the future of our blog, what do you suggest we keep away from?
Propastop is a super initiative that I really like. The blog is a kind of zeitgeist’s reflection; similar groups have started to emerge in several European countries. For example at an EU level, we have EU Disinfo, which is more institutionally backed. Propastop is acting on citizen’s initiatives and consequently is even more interesting.
It seems that the blog has become quite authoritative in your niche; you are a source of trust. A place that explains the propaganda mechanisms, that is both a watchdog and an inspiration to the media.
The blog’s Achilles heel could be if under the Propastop name starts actual propaganda. I have not noticed it now but such a possible development would be bad.
As far as content is concerned, I would like to see even more simplistic even pictogram-like posts that would briefly show what propaganda cases you have found. In addition, activities in social media could be expanded, as well as a scope in English and Russian. Perhaps the most important thing would be to even try to speak to the Russian speaking population of Estonia, this part seems to be the most critical in the nation and in the case of our Eastern neighbour it can be played with the most.
Picture 1: Evelyn Kaldoja October 2017. From a private collection with permission from Evelyn Kaldoja.
Picture 2: Screen shot from De Correspondent website