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Finnish businessman sues Estonian journalists – broadcaster pulls articles

Investor Arto Autio got Estonian Public Broadcasting to withdraw articles written about his alleged criminal enterprises.

Anna Pihl, Arto Autio ja Mihkel Kärmas
Finnish businessman Arto Autio (pictured in the middle) has sued two Estonian reporters, Anna Pihl (left) and Mihkel Kärmas (right). Image: ERR / Rauno Volmar / Ekspress Meedia

Expatriate Finnish businessman Arto Autio has sued Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) and its current affairs programme Pealtnägija, allegedly for injurious action and spreading false information.

The lawsuit by Autio and investment firm Brave Capital concerns articles written by two reporters and published in Estonia in November. The pieces detail Autio's alleged criminal conduct and embezzlement-related ties to the Youth Foundation (Nuorisosäätiö), a Centre Party-linked agency specialising in student housing.

One of the defendants is the editor of the Pealtnägija programme, Mihkel Kärmas, who told Yle that the suit came as a complete surprise to the team.

"Brave Capital and Autio himself answered our questions briefly at the time," Kärmas said. "After that we heard nothing, until just before the holidays when we received a massive and meticulously crafted lawsuit against us."

Unusual circumstances

Kärmas said the case is very unusual, even though ERR does get sued from time to time.

"This time it's not just the broadcaster, but myself and my colleague Anna Pihl who have personally been sued. This is the first such situation in the history of Estonian Public Broadcasting."

Kärmas said he also found the actual contents of the case to be puzzling. The lawsuit mentions 18 separate instances of alleged falsehoods or inaccuracies. Kärmas said the accusations are unfounded.

"Of these 18 allegations, 15 concern issues that we never actually reported on. For instance, they claim that our articles mention that Autio faces three separate criminal charges in Estonia, which we never wrote. The plaintiffs are saying that so-called "regular people" might get the impression from the articles that Autio has been accused."

The other three allegations concern publicly available information, Kärmas added.

The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported in early August, 2018 that the National Board of Patents and Registration claims the men pilfered money by negotiating inflated real estate and land deals in Estonia with the foundation's construction firm business partner, Salpausselän Rakentajat.

Pieces pulled, gaps in logic

Broadcaster ERR took down the contested articles after a court ordered them to be censored. Kärmas said this is not entirely unusual in Estonia.

"The thinking is that if our pieces were later found to be in error, they would accrue injuries or losses for each day they remained public."

A central concern for Kärmas is that the court prohibited ERR from publishing any information related to Autio's criminal investigation. Finnish police suspect Autio of helping to bribe ex-bosses at the Youth Foundation, along with related financial crimes.

Kärmas noted that the same information found in his and Pihl's articles has been published in multiple news outlets, including Yle's MOT current affairs programme and weekly news magazine Suomen kuvalehti in Finland, as well as several Estonian platforms.

"It is illogical to sue us for any of this," Kärmas said. "The current CEO of the Youth Foundation Kimmo Pihlman has given many interviews on possible criminal enterprises, and he hasn't been sued, which is interesting."

Questioned about Autio's possible motives for getting the articles offline, Kärmas offered the speculation that the businessman is worried about causing harm to his investors and his reputation.

The lawsuit may go on for years, but Kärmas said he is confident in the legal process.

"Our journalism is sound and we stand behind the articles. This is definitely a pain in the neck, though. Still, it's part of the job."

Yle contacted Arto Autio via telephone, but he declined to comment.

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