Auditor General Janar Holm replied to the interpellation concerning the information activities of local governments in pre-election period (No. 459), submitted by members of the Riigikogu Andres Herkel, Jüri Adams, Ain Lutsepp, Enn Meri, Krista Aru and Külliki Kübarsepp on 3 December.
The interpellators noted that the audit “Information activities of local governments in information papers of rural municipalities and cities” (2018) by the National Audit Office drew attention to an important problem – the use of public funds in private political interests. Such activity infringes the interests and sense of justice of taxpayers, political competitors as well as society as a whole. Earlier, the audit “Use of the funds for advertising and communication in rural municipalities and cities” (2015) has pointed to the same problem.
The interpellators wished to know what the specific recommendations for avoiding abuse of public funds in private political interests were, and to what extent local governments were ready to use the measures readily.
Holm explained that the audit by the National Audit Office set out several recommendations that everyone could read in the report. “The main thing is that local governments themselves should think about managing the risks, and that the rules of the game should be agreed on locally. For example, as one ‘self-checking’ option, our audit recommends formation of an independent and balanced panel at the information papers who would assess compliance with the rules with a certain regularity,” Holm said. He added that that possibility was in fact used in a number of local governments already. The Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee continues to carry out external checking, and increasingly more practice is collected there, including court decisions, which serves as help and a code of conduct.
Holm said that the Estonian Newspaper Association had also expressed its unease about the competition between municipal publications and private media within the context of the advertising market. The auditing by the National Audit Office showed that, in 2017, about a half of the information papers of rural municipalities and cities sold advertising space, but their advertising incomes were not large, in most cases remaining within the limits of 100 euro per issue. The advertising income exceeded 2000 euro per issue in two papers: in the papers of Viimsi municipality and Rae municipality. “If we look at the total income of the year, it indeed exceeded 40,000 euro in a few papers, which is a sizeable amount in terms of a county newspaper,” Holm assessed the situation. He referred to the opinion of the Estonian Newspaper Association that the problem of unfair competition would be solved by a legislative amendment defining a publication issued for taxpayers’ money as a local information paper, and prohibiting publication of paid advertising, including wanted and for sale ads, in such papers. “The Riigikogu has not considered this kind of restrictions necessary so far,” Holm noted.
Holm said that, in the audit, the National Audit Office had not discussed the specific information expenses of the city of Tallinn in the TV channel “Tallinna Televisioon”, or whether the commissioning of programmes from the TV channel “Pervõi Baltiiski Kanal” was in conformity with the security policy interests. “As I also stressed earlier, the National Audit Office discusses the issue of possible use of public funds in private interests. And the principle that public money can be used only in public interests applies regardless of local government or the field of activity,” Holm noted. “I have no reason to think that the message of the National Audit Office should not have been understandable to the persons and organisations concerned.”
Holm stressed that, in order to manage risks, every local government should create its rules, and they had also set out practical ideas for giving content to such rules in their audit. “I believe that the most reasonable way to develop the political culture in this issue is for society, the press as well as politicians to pay attention to the problem,” Holm said.
The Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson replied to the interpellation concerning the abandonment of the planning of Tallinn orbital railway (No. 460).
During the open microphone, Peeter Ernits took the floor.
Video recordings of the sittings of the Riigikogu can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/riigikogu
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