Estonian media tycoon on balancing Kremlin’s aggressive information flow

Hans Luik
DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Could you tell me about DELFI. What does DELFI do?

DELFI is quite a complicated information system. We take information from our editorial board, but also from newspapers and magazines that we own or co-own. It’s a joint project of online reporting, tougher reporting, features, and analyses. DELFI is based in Tallinn, and most of the printed newspapers and magazines we own are in Tallinn, but there are also some in Vilnius. DELFI is very successful on the Internet, both in local languages, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian, and also in Russian. We also publish in Polish in Vilnius. So we report and we sell banner advertising, of course, but our new phenomenon is DELFI TV, with which we get access to the basketball and football rights. We also have talking heads, discussion programs, and a variety of entertainment. Recently, DELFI has exceeded number of users of the other Internet portals in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius.

Does DELFI predominantly address a Baltic audience and inform on Baltic affairs?

Yes. As the Kremlin and the Russian media have recently taken a more censored and imperialist form, many people from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine access us. We also used to have DELFI Kyiv, but during the oligarch era it was impossible to compete, as the oligarch businesses only supported their own information portals, with their own advertising. Oligarch banks, oligarch telecoms, oligarch supermarkets, only advertise on oligarch channels; so we closed it five months ago.

And what are you working on right now?

There is the understanding that the Baltic governments, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, would like to support free media targeted at local Russian audiences. And the Russian audiences are quite keen in reading DELFI as it is; we have the largest Russian audience in Riga and Tallinn following us. But additionally, we have provided shelter to a team of journalists that were kicked out by the famous Russian Internet site, which is now working under the Latvian DELFI publishing under And we are very happy to have them. Moreover, we now have good contact with TV RAIN in Moscow, and we are now in the situation where the government in Riga has already put up some financial resources, and the government in Tallinn is also thinking about it. We presented a plan to the Estonian government to create a television program, with the help of TV RAIN and possibly in partnership with Swedish TV3, in order to provide our local Russian population with non-biased, objective, and informative news.

Will this be Internet-based or terrestrial television?

We are able to do both. We have our own television studios and with the help of TV RAIN we will also be able to cover Moscow news. It is no wonder that Moscow is still a very important city, one might say the important city, for the local Russian population in the Baltics, and TV RAIN will be able to provide unbiased cover.

What would be the expected budget of this TV station?

This is hard to imagine. I would say we could do with 2.5 million euros per year. I think local Russian audiences would forgive us if the coverage isn’t be so amazing technically, because nowadays if you cover the most important things that happen, if the camera is not the best or even if it trembles a little bit, it only adds to the image of acute, quick information.

Do you hope to become a commercial or mostly state sponsored TV station?

We’d certainly like to sell advertising, but the economic recession is still present in the advertising market, so most of the money would have to come from the state. We also think that private sponsors could be attracted. I personally sponsor independent Ukrainian news coverage by a group of independent journalists. So sponsors are stepping up to balance this flow of Kremlin aggressive information. If we talk about social media, I have the sense that the Kremlin is really present and they are occupying out public sphere in big way, pretending to be the same public in Riga, Vilnius, or Tallinn; you can recognize the same patterns which say that your state isn’t worth existing and your armed forces are a bunch of young pioneers, and so on. I think there’s some copy-paste action happening in the information department of the Russian army.

Do you see this as a major challenge to such a project? What are the biggest threats to this project?

The main threat is that if we take Russian state TV, Central Television, REN.TV, and Russia Today, Russians are very good at entertaining, they are intellectual and very active in their debates. Russian are good at TV shows, and the Baltic have somewhat more of a milder character. You have to be aggressive when you inform, when you have debates, and when you entertain. And if you are dull, you don’t get the audiences. That’s the challenge.

Do consider news content from the Visegrad countries to be interesting for the Baltic region?

Well, I’m a big fan of Czesław Niemen, and I think cities such as Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw could also be of interest. They are very popular tourist destinations, and people travel and do business in Poland. So, whenever we hear anything about Polish business, Polish prices, Polish supermarkets, German-Polish trade wars, or the price wars, it’s very interesting. I think that Europe comes to us through, firstly, the Nordic countries and, secondly, the Visegrad countries. And, everybody in the Baltic states sympathises with Polish farmers, whose apples and other crops has fallen under Russian sanctions.

This interview was conducted by editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, Wojciech Przybyski (@wprzybyski), at The Riga Conference 2014.

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