pühapäev, juuni 01, 2008

a critique

On Friday I tried to access the Estonian Foreign Ministry's webpage, but it returned an error. The page simply could not be accessed. "Is this another cyber attack?" I thought to myself, scratching my head. But, fortunately, it seems to have been just a temporary outage.

Not that it would have done me any good to visit. The Estonian Foreign Ministry's website is available in Estonian and English, which is nice, but it typically takes days for the English-language updates to be posted after the Estonian ones. In the Estonian-language version, it's already May 31, but in the English-language version, it's still May 27.

This communication problem is, sadly, exemplary of a larger inability of the Estonian government, or indeed, other actors within Estonia, to communicate efficiently outside of the domestic market. Do a search in Google news on "Estonia" at anytime and you are likely to produce material from three sources: American or British press, which relies heavily on news services, like Reuters or AP; more analytical journalism or editorials, typically from the Jamestown Foundation or The Economist; and Russian-state owned propaganda, which covers only two themes: a) Estonian glorification of fascism; b) abuse of the rights of Russophone Estonians.

What is lacking is an Estonian voice in that information space. Other countries that wish to be heard, like Georgia or Poland, have official "news wires" that post information that gets recycled internationally. Estonia has instead decided not to participate in publicly funded information campaigns, and I understand why. Why should Estonia fund state propaganda to tune out Russian state-owned propaganda networks? By acting like them, doesn't that make us just as awful?

I have never believed that counter-propaganda is the answer to the inaccurate nonsense that spews forth from paid hands like Russia Today, who somehow can turn an Estonian communist who died in 1938 into a "Soviet war hero" and not blush. Instead, the only proper avenue in an information war is to saturate the market with more diverse opinions that swamp the primitive messages of the state-owned propaganda dealers.

The problem here can be solved both by creating a more prolific information environment that is geared towards the external media market as well as towards the domestic market, and by some non-governmental actors, especially the press, to do the same.

Perhaps it would sully the liberal reputation of Estonia to release the statements of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on English-language news wires. But it would not discredit the reputations of partially government-funded think tanks, like the International Center for Defense Studies, to do the same. ICDS publishes a quality journal called Diplomaatia and regularly publishes insightful English-language material. Yet this information is not being disseminated to the extent that it could be.

And what of the Estonian press, that great love-in between the interests of Norway's Schibsted and Hans Hansapoeg Luik? Postimees debuted a Russian-language edition, but couldn't Postimees, Eesti Päevaleht, Äripaev, or Eesti Ekspress, at least circulate on a weekly basis some of their most prescient editorials in the English language? And by no means do they have to stop at English. If the Estonians could penetrate the Francophone, Germanophone, or Swedophone readerships, then the more the merrier.

Look at the Helsingin Sanomat. It has full, English-language international editions with archives going back to 1999. If you want to know about the Finnish position on the cluster bomb ban, go and read, it's all there. Shouldn't Estonia also have something like that? Shouldn't tech-savvy Estonia, with its Skype development office and its Second Life embassy, also have at least one of its newspapers available in an international format?

What do you think?

24 kommentaari:

Andres ütles ...

ETV24 could really have an English section. It wouldn't have to cover everything, just some more important news. It would probably cost the Rahvusringhääling only one or two journalists fluent in English. Maybe you should send a proposal to the ERR. (btw, it seems they finally finished their web page which has been non-existent since the merger)

Martin-Éric ütles ...

I second that. You should volunteer to become ETV24's first anglophone journalist. Try the same at Postimees and Äripäev, while you're at it.

Kristopher ütles ...

The Foreign Ministry has had a tradition of native English speakers in Press and Information, but the people go on to bigger and better things, sometimes within the Ministry. I think non-diplomatic personnel (speechwriters, translators) get paid too little?

There is resistance there to outsourcing English language services, even though apparently they could do so without holding a procurement each time. I don't know if it is stubbornness or thriftiness. It is a more than a little mystifying.

Kristopher ütles ...

The post of native speaker (responsible for web and the Review) might still be open, you should apply and be the first to telecommute from Tartu.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

And look from the German perspectice. I have to run through the late English version of Estonian news that sometimes bases on Russian sources. Then you have to find the Estonian pieces on it. Trying to translate it.The result for the German language information space: The Bronze Soldier is located somewhere in an unkown cemetary in the outskirts of Tallinn.

We tried to correct it to: To one of the most important military cemetaries of Estonia. It's too late.

That is the result of not providing enough information.

ARK ütles ...

Okay, so, as you point out, the channels and technology are in place.

Then, could the problem be one of perception, self-perception and attitude?

plasma-jack ütles ...

What do you think?

I think that Estonian foreign policy has no teeth, no balls, no brains, nothing. Paet would make a decision only if Condy Rice told him to do so, otherwise he would be merrily sucking lollipops and watching CNN all day.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Virtual Finland is quite cool too. I would think that the state has an impotant role in participating in these information battles. We should not forget that facts actually are on Estonia's side, so it would not really be propaganda - and should not be: the truth can be a pretty powerful weapon.

Instructor ütles ...

Giustino,

Your critique is spot-on.

Since I was caught out in Old Town on Bronze Night and watched (and participated in) the propaganda wars on the Internet over the next few weeks, I brought this very topic up with several current members of the Riigikogu that I met over the next couple months.

I would describe the general reaction to this topic as smugness. That Russia, although it always will have built-in advantages, will find ways to fumble them away. At the minimum, I find that to be short-sighted.

There is nothing wrong with getting out one's point of view. You use propaganda as a dirty word, but there are many flavors. The bus-stop signs telling us to wear reflective dangly things in winter can be considered propaganda as well. It's not all "Russia Today". Simple statements of factual, true information would go a long way in helping Estonia.

But even Edward Lucas of the Economist, as big a Eesti lover that you will find outside this country, said during that period that sometimes Estonians can be their worst enemy.

As for the English-language news websites, I think that can be explained by the fact that Finnish newspapers are subsidized by the State, and Estonian ones are not. With advertising revenue collapsing, I don't see it happening in Estonia's commercial market to serve a "greater good."

stockholm slender ütles ...

No, Hesari certainly doesn't get a penny from the state - Aatos Erkko would get a heart attack from the mere thought of state subsidies. It is a completely private enterprise and so are all the other big newspapers. YLE is state owned and also the (small) party political print media gets state money (I think if you are represented in the parliament you are entitled to some subsidies).

Jim Hass ütles ...

I hate to state the obvious, but justin, you and your cohort of bloggers are the real public face of estonians to the Internet readership.

Aleks ütles ...

Hang on. There is Baltic Business News, which is the English-language version of Latvia's Dienas Bizness and Estonia's Aripaev. Then, there's of course Baltic News Service, which is available to subscribers in English.

Giustino ütles ...

But subscription-only sites are not going to get picked up and recycled the same way that news from RIA Novosti or Reuters will be. German newspapers will take one of those stories, translate it, and publish it. That never happens with Baltic Business News.

AndresS ütles ...

BBN is a welcome addition to the landscape but it's translations are terribly and usually just a summary of a longer article in Estonian. Instead of hoping for estonian dailies (or govt) to change perhaps more emphasis can be put into foreign produced news such as Baltlantis, Citypaper, jne.

nipi ütles ...

Good points. What can be the funding source for such media? Should it have printed media form or just web-based? Can it be that for the beginning, just translation of Estonian papers web-released stories, selected by - as example - this blog's readers.

Giustino ütles ...

Good points. What can be the funding source for such media? Should it have printed media form or just web-based?

Some Postimees and Päevaleht comment has, in the past, been translated and put on the news wires. I am saying that that should, at least, be done all the time.

Kristopher ütles ...

There should be an Estonian English-language weekly (not Baltic). It could receive a little money from the Cultural Endowment for Estonia but be editorially independent.

plasma-jack ütles ...

Some Postimees and Päevaleht comment has, in the past, been translated and put on the news wires.

that can only be done by volunteering enthusiasts, since the newspapers wouldn't hire a translator, especially during the recession (we already have too few correctors for editing existing articles). Would be a full-time job. I believe that foreign embassies have people who read EPL and PM to their ambassadors, no?

Marta Mustik ütles ...

I have always had an impression that information is accessible in English in Estonia and that all Estonians speak English. And I am so wrong there, I just have not realized it...

I had a phone call and e-mail (to get both - sign of desperation) one day in the office from a Spanish guy who was compiling a document in English on Estonian fisheries and trailers. He was desperate because he could not find any information on that in the Internet. Everything was in Estonian only.
I did not believe it and was willing to help him, stressing that I don't know anything about fisheries, trailers and policies on fish, all I do is to speak Estonian. One always helps people, especially if it concerns your country.

There was nothing in English. All the websites of any organization (governmental or NGO) I managed to find were in Estonian. As I do not know much about fish, not even in Estonian (except common fish), and many organizations had a similar name, I did my best, but could not help him a lot.

This was a Background Paper on Estonian fisheries.

Sorry, fishermen around Peipsi, I tried, but it is difficult to help people who do not want to be helped.
At the same time we are asking special treatment and subsidies from the EU for fisheries, and fish is politically important topic for Estonia.

A note on ETV24 - their videos were not accessible on Mac even with the Player they suggest a year ago (now they are). Asking to have some news in English is clearly too much...

The idea circling some time ago to have English as a second official language in Estonia seems ridiculous in this light. Though, it would help with the translation of public information.

Andres ütles ...

That wasn't really an idea. Some stupid guy who regrettably is also ambitious like Jüri Mõis or someone proposed that. And it really is a short-sighted and stupid idea.

Blanka ütles ...

Coucou, I could contribute to that. I'm Estonian, and I speak perfect Finnish and am very fluent in English and French (I'm a translator).

Blanka ütles ...

I mean I could contribute if there were Estonian news etc. in English and French... In Finnish we have Sofi Oksanen for some things, but I think she doesn't speak Estonian...

oHpuu ütles ...

Baltic Business News probably does not do quite the trick but they live here: http://bbn.ee/Default2.aspx

and The Economist's columnist on Eastern European affairs, Edward Lucas, used to live in Estonia and edit a local English-language newspaper in the 1990s. but these days, his writing seldom focuses specifically on Estonia. see here: http://edwardlucas.blogspot.com

oHpuu ütles ...

(oh, other people have made both the points already. sorry for not reading all the comments at once.)