The public field in the open Estonian society

In the 1990s, the Estonian public field concerned itself with several political, economic and cultural issues of general importance. There have been public debates on the Estonian presidential elections, on administrative reform, and on problems relating to the restitution of property to legal owners and their descendants. Other debates have 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 have also extended to the public field itself, with a debate on the operating principles of the public broadcasting bodies.

More recently, there has been much public discourse on the general direction of Estonia’s overall development. One of the most prominent matters was prompted by the intervention of 26 social scientists in April 2001 which evolved into an argument that impacted on the wider, socio-political debate. Their intervention was triggered by concern over the processes underpinning the structural changes which are causing much anxiety for the Estonian public, and which undermine satisfaction with the activities of central, social institutions. To date, more than 100 texts relating to different aspects of the ‘two Estonians’ topic have appeared, these dealing with the gap which has emerged between the winners and losers in Estonian society.

Too often, account has not been taken of Estonian public interest during decision making. For example, in 2001, public debate on the suspension of passenger traffic on several railway routes testified to the public’s clear opposition, but the suspensions went ahead. The general pattern of development shows that analysis and dialogue, characteristic of the public field in the early 1990s, has been replaced at the end of the decade by more normative texts. The number of ‘spontaneous’ texts has dwindled. An on-going battle is now even being fought for access to the public field, and for clarification of existing procedures. Some asocial and subcultural groups no longer participate in the public field.

Such narrowing of the public field inevitably reduces its quality and functionality, paradoxically leading to ghettoisation of the whole field. In such a situation, the topics raised also have the purpose of diverting attention from basic and contentious issues. When vital domains are defined as ghettos, the common mental field is itself ghettoised. It is also 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 new and predominantly foreign owners are disinterested in the media’s assuming the role of an open discussion channel, 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 at the functional levels, as well as on the plane of the actor role. Initially, texts contained facts, analyses and conclusions. Gradually, the analyses disappeared as shorter and simpler genres were preferred, before even the generalisations and the significant facts and topics themselves disappeared from public view.

The roles and characters of those acting in the public field have been almost totally changed or replaced, few of the charismatic, cultural figures and intellectuals who shaped the face of the Estonian media in the early 1990s now remaining. For lay members of the public, it has become increasingly difficult to gain access to press coverage, the only option being to assume the subsidiary role of interviewee or contributor of opinion. In part this is explicable as part of the current stage of development of Estonian society, which is undergoing a period of stabilisation accompanied by the re-building of its social structure. Nevertheless, this ‘construction project’ is being conducted primarily according to the vision of existing economic and political powers, and in the absence of extensive public participation.

In a parliamentary-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, (Riigikogu, 2002).

It may be concluded that developments in the public field during the 1990s have been highly controversial. Whilst a democratic society exists, with its foundations in the 1992 Constitution, it is clear that some interest groups have better access to the public field and media channels than do others. The current Estonian public field also differs from the public field which characterises many democratic states in terms of its parliamentary practices. Thus, the process of assessment and interpretation which precedes decision-making is conducted primarily by politicians, the views and concerns of the general public not being taken into serious consideration. This is not the normal practice for developed democracies.

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