Martin Šmutov, the editor-in-chief of evening newspaper Õhtuleht, one of the most influential media outlets in Estonia, has made an open apology for publishing propaganda after it agreed to print an article on Xinjiang by China’s Ambassador to Estonia Li Chao.
On April 15, Õhtuleht carried a full page of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda in its paid advertisement section written by Li, who tried to refute reports of concentration camps, forced labor, and genocide against Uyghurs and other minorities groups in Xinjiang as “lies and rumors.”
The article pushed the CCP-approved narrative on the situation in Xinjiang, igniting controversy in the former Soviet country in eastern Europe.
Šmutov, who immediately met with backlash over the article, apologized to the paper’s readers in an interview with ERR news, also known as Estonian Public Broadcasting in English.
He expressed that though the advertisement was legally admissible, the editorial staff had committed an error in violating the company’s values by agreeing to carry Li’s article in their newspaper. The editor-in-chief pledged to make organizational changes and avoid reoccurrence of such incidents.
This is not the first time the CCP’s influence operations have met with setbacks in Estonia.
In February this year, another Estonian newspaper, Eesti Päevaleht, inserted a similar article by Li on Xinjiang in its advertisement section. Afterwards, the advertisement director also apologized, saying Li’s article was against the publication’s content standards, it was published due to an “unfortunate organizational error.”
“We have categorically said that we will no longer publish such content and such stories have not been offered anymore,” Urmo Soonvald, editor-in-chief of Eesti Päevaleht, told ERR. “We make value-based decisions and do not want to contribute to propaganda that ignores and suppresses the most basic human rights.”
Postimees, a newspaper with a history of more than 150 years, also strongly resists pro-Beijing articles.
Mart Raudsaar, the editor-in-chief of Postimees, expressed that despite their love to Chinese culture, they would never run propaganda articles to defend the CCP’s repression and persecution policies on the issue of human rights.
“We do not publish such communist propaganda. As a country, we also have certain values,” he told ERR.
Raudsaar revealed that a CCP diplomacy agency once reached out to them for the same purpose but without success. That article was the one to appear in Eesti Päevaleht in February.
PM: Growing Challenge from China
Estonia’s Prime Minister and Reform Party chairman Kallas told ERR on April 15 that activities by the CCP’s organs were posing an increasing challenge for Estonia, like other small countries and democracies as a whole.
While she was leader of the opposition in July 2020, Kallas was accusing the CCP of human rights violations in Xinjiang. At the time, she called on the then Estonian government to take a hard stance against Beijing.
China’s repression of its Uyghur minority “reminds one of the horrors Nazi Germany inflicted upon the Jews,” Kallas said at the time.
She had stressed the importance of consistency in the country’s foreign policy, arguing that if Estonia rebukes Russia for its human rights abuses, it should treat China alike.
She also complained that the Estonian government had failed to officially acknowledge Taiwan out of fear of displeasing the CCP even after receiving medical supplies from the self-ruled island.
The EU was also criticized by Kallas for its failure to outline a coordinated strategy against China and for seeking investments from the communist regime.
Intelligence Agency: CCP a Major National Security Threat
For three consecutive years, communist China has been highlighted by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Agency as a major threat.
The agency’s annual report for 2021 (pdf), for example, gave particular mention to the CCP’s overseas influence operations, as well as threats from Russia. The report broke down Xi Jinping’s doctrine—creating a “community of common destiny”—the CCP’s spread of propaganda and disinformation, and the regime’s cyber espionage to steal foreign technologies.
In response, the Chinese Embassy to Estonia pushed back on the report with a statement on Feb. 14, expressing its strong protest while demanding that the report be revised.
However, Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, stood firm against the CCP’s criticism, according to Vision Times.