Silver Meikar

A wide-spread debate on the topic of freedom of assembly and on organising assemblies took place in Estonia in 2011, which was sparked by mass demonstrations that took place all over the world – from anti-dictatorship Arabian spring with multiple fatalities to the economic crisis in Europe and to a wave of protests caused by capitalism and problems of the financial sector in general in the United States. There were some protests in Estonia in 2011, however, not comparable to the ones mentioned, neither of extent or the effect.

The Constitution grants everyone the right to assemble peacefully and to conduct meetings (§ 47).
Organising public assemblies is essentially regulated by the Public Assemblies Act,[1] which was amended to an insignificant extent with the Code of Administrative Court Procedure[2] passed in 2011.
Riigikogu passed the Maintenance of Law and Order Act[3] on 23 February, which will replace the current Public Assemblies Act once it enters into force.[4]

The author did not find any essential court judgments on the topic of freedom of assembly in 2011. Neither did the Chancellor of Justice handle any procedures pertaining to freedom of assembly in 2011. He was filed one application on the topic in question, but there were no procedures initiated on it. The applicant was displeased as the publication “Õpetajate Leht” had not published information about organisation of the teachers’ protest.[5]

Legislative developments

Riigikogu passed the new Code of Administrative Court Procedure 27 January 2011; chapter 30 “Amendments in other acts” of which amends § 141 of the Public Assemblies Act. The amended version that entered into force 1 January 2012 prescribes that “the Administrative court proceeds the complaints about failure to register a public assembly or about prohibition of holding a public assembly as simplified proceedings on the day of filing the complaint or on the working day following it.” The author considers this to be a reasonable amendment as it enables a speedy revocation of a decision prohibiting holding a meeting.

Riigikogu passed the Maintenance of Law and Order Act, which had been in proceedings since 2007 on 23 February. Once it enters into force it will replace the regulation established by the Public Assemblies Act. Riigikogu has to pass the implementation act in order for the new Maintenance of Law and Order Act to come into force; but that had not been passed in 2011. This is why it is impossible to predict at the moment whether, in which shape and when the new regulation on public assemblies will come into force. There is one important amendment which, in comparison to the current provisions, has a negative effect on the freedom of assembly in the opinion of the author.

The 2nd part of the Maintenance of Law and Order Act regulates public assembly. § 67 states the order of notification of public assemblies:

§ 67. Prior notification of holding a public assembly

(1) Holding a public assembly that requires redirection of traffic or that is intended to be held outside a building or a structure intended for holding assemblies and for which it is intended to:

1) erect a marquee, stage, platform or any other large scale construction or

2) use sound or lighting devices, the holder of the assembly is to notify the place of the assembly to the police prefecture no later than four working days and no earlier than three months before the day of the assembly.

(2) If the assembly mentioned in subsection 1 of this section is intended to be held on several territories of police prefecture the notice will be given to at least one of these prefectures.

(3) Spontaneous assemblies need no prior notification.

(4) Assemblies mentioned in subsection 1 of this section, which cannot be notified of due to the urgent need to hold them within time frames set in subsection 1 have to be notified of immediately after the need for holding the meeting has arisen.

§ 7 of the current Public Assemblies Act states:

§ 7. Obligation of prior notification

(1) A public assembly that requires

1) redirection of traffic;

2) erection of a marquee, stage, platform or any other large scale construction or

3) use of sound or lighting devices,

must be notified of by the organiser of the assembly no later than four working days, but no earlier than three months before the day of the assembly by stating as provided in § 8:

1) to the municipality or town government, on which territory the public assembly is to be held;

2) to the county government, if the public assembly is to be held on several municipality or town territories of the county;

3) to the Government of the Republic of Estonia, if the public assembly is to be held of several county territories.

(2) Assemblies not mentioned in subsection 1 of this section must be notified of by the organiser no later than two hours prior to its beginning as provided in § 8 to the police either by a means of communication or directly.

The Maintenance of Law and Order Act has omitted the option of organising public assemblies on two hours’ notice, but allows spontaneous assemblies. The explanatory memorandum to the draft act explains:

The purpose of this provision is to provide an opportunity to lawfully carry out spontaneous, unorganised public assemblies even if the assembly, due to its nature of obstructing traffic, would require prior notification by law. The option of having spontaneous public assemblies is directly linked to the basis of democratic society.As a spontaneous public assembly has come about by itself and as a rapid response to a topical problem in the society, this kind of assembly is not organised and therefore does not have an organiser who could notify of this meeting.Spontaneous assemblies have to be differentiated from public assemblies for which the need has arisen rapidly, for those are not spontaneous assemblies, but correspond to cases mentioned in subsection 3. Only public assemblies can be spontaneous, public events have to be notified of in case of disturbance to traffic in any case.

An example of a spontaneous public assembly was the memorial meeting in Tallinn that came about unorganised after the death of rally driver Michael Park.[6]

Spontaneous meeting is a new concept in Estonian legal system, which cannot, for obvious reasons, be illustrated with court practice. The explanatory memorandum describes a spontaneous assembly as an instinctive rapid response to a topical problem and an assembly that came about unorganised. A large portion of public assemblies are agreed upon through mediation of social networks[7] and there is no clear understanding whether such assemblies can be considered to be spontaneous assemblies.

The author is of the opinion that the amendment to the Public Assemblies Act that was passed in 2008, which allowed organisation of smaller assemblies with two hours’ notification is much clearer and guarantees the protection of fundamental freedoms better. The author thinks it to be important that Riigikogu consider adding a subsection to § 66 of the Maintenance of Law and Order Act upon proceeding the implementing provisions

Organisers of assemblies not mentioned in subsection 1 of this section must notify the police no later than two hours prior to assembly’s beginning as provided in § 68 either via email or directly.

Public assemblies and demonstrations that have taken place

The author detected from the public database of the police[8] that 169 public assemblies were registered all over Estonia in 2011. However, it is not enough to make conclusions about activity of the citizens for the following reasons:

  • A substantial portion of the public assemblies registered with the police was made up of various election events of political parties or religious gatherings. Events for expressing views, celebrating occasions or for gathering signatures in support accounted for 69 entries of the register at most, in the opinion of the author. Many of them had to do with specific historic dates (for example Tartu Peace Treaty) or topics (for example various union events), and the people organising events were shared, which could be enough to conclude that the activity of citizens and citizens’ movements in organising public assemblies was rather small.
  • The public database of the police is largely not identical to the Tallinn town database for public assemblies.[9] Estonia’s largest local government database does not have entries on several events that are entered in the police database. However, there are more events in the Tallinn town database for public assemblies that are not entered in the police database. It is not possible to compare all of the public assemblies’ databases of the local governments at the point of making this analysis.
  • The police database does not reflect protests that are registered as events as required by law. The greatest expression of views in 2011 can be considered the public appearance of the Dalai Lama at Vabaduse square on 17 August with thousands of people in attendance. Organisation of this assembly can only be found in the Tallinn town database for public assemblies.[10]

It is not possible to gather statistics or make quantitative studies that help to analyse citizens’ activity, to point out important topics of protests or study trends without a public, manageable and central database for public assemblies and events.

The author is of the opinion that the state has to create a central and public database for events and public assemblies according to the principles of open data. [11]

Public discussions and trends

The lack of a reliable database for public assemblies does not allow for an objective analysis of the protests that took place in 2011. The author will now bring up a selection of protests that were covered in the media and give a subjective assessment on the use of freedom of assembly in Estonia. TIME selected the protestor as the person of the year 2011,[12] reasoning its choice by extensive protests that took place in the world. The mass demonstrations that began in Tunisia spread to nearly all Arabic states and brought about the fall of ruling regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and extensive reforms in other states. Several European states saw mass demonstrations against budget cuts and decrease of social guarantees. Occupy Wall Street protest movement that began in the second half of the year in New York spread across the United States and gained followers all over the world.

Estonia remained largely unaffected by these three trends. On the day of the global Occupy Wall Street protest day on 15 October a public assembly was registered in Estonia as well,[13] but according to Estonian Broadcasting, the short assembly in Tallinn was attended by a few hundred people and the one in Tartu by several dozen people.[14] In comparison, the gatherings in support of Andrus Veerpalu on 10 April in Tartu, Otepää and Tallinn had a larger attendance.[15] It is worth noting about this assembly that even though the support demonstration for the Estonian skier Andrus Veerpalu who had got involved in a doping scandal had not been registered, the police did not break up the crowds or punish the organisers of this assembly.

Guaranteeing the right to freedom of assembly did not come under threat on politically sensitive topics such as the memorial picket on 27 April of the 2007 Bronze Night,[16] the assembly against school reform on 5 November[17] or at the small demonstration supporting fair elections in Russia[18].

Estonian trade unions organised some peaceful and small public assemblies, but no remarkable strikes. Estonia has the smallest number of trade union members of any state in Europe and the trend of losing trade union members is continuing.[19] Epp Kallaste, doctor of finance with Tartu University explains the small number of trade union membership in the following way: “…one’s attitude to one’s working conditions and pay and the opportunity to hold meetings about it is seen either as an individual or a collective matter”.[20] She predicts in the same article that if the preconditions for a strike have been fulfilled, Estonians will also hold strikes.

The largest demonstration of 2011 in Estonia was the performance of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso to thousands of people at Vabaduse square in Tallinn on 17 August.[21] In addition to this demonstration there were dozens of peaceful assemblies across Estonia from July to September in connection to Dalai Lama’s visit; some of these held the purpose of bringing the breach of human rights committed by the People’s Republic of China and the Tibetans’ condition to the public’s attention.[22]

On 25 October a demonstration for a higher pay for teachers was held in front of the Riigikogu building, which was taken part of by more than 1500 people.[23] A month earlier, on 19 September there were ten times less people at a demonstration with the same message,[24] which once again sparked a public debate on why Estonians do not have the courage, the knowledge or the will to protest publicly. After the demonstration that was held in October the journalist Anneli Ammas wrote: “It has always been marvelled that Estonians are so patient and do not protest when they’re not happy with their rulers. Now we finally had a real demonstration, one we couldn’t even see at the darkest moments of the recession.”[25]

Several community-related demonstrations also took place in 2011, which intended to stop the founding of a mine, receive financial support for road-building or to demand cancellation of a local level decision. The community of parents of the Pühajärve basic school[26] in Otepää municipality deserve a special mention. They managed to work together and force to cancel the decision of the rural municipality government not to open the first form with the protest that took place on 24 March.[27] When the rural municipality government suddenly decided to close the school in autumn of 2011 the community once again protested[28] and sued the decision of the municipality.[29]

In author’s opinion it is still too early to tell whether there is a growing trend for Estonians to demonstrate their views at public assemblies and to make more use of the freedom of assembly. But his statement that people are willing to use internet petitions and social media networks to publicise their viewpoints was once again confirmed in 2011. The Facebook page created in support of Andrus Veerpalu had 60,000 joins, the page in support of worthy pay for teachers had more than 10,000 joins.

In author’s view, in order to guarantee the freedom of assembly, it is more important to consider the increasing trend that shows the public assemblies are agreed via internet-based social networks. Frank La Rue, the special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council states in his report of 16 May: “Thus, acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights.”[30]

The author is of the opinion that it is the obligation of each state that respects human rights to guarantee access to internet in the whole territory for a reasonable fee. In order to guarantee the freedom of assembly and expression the states have to guarantee that no obstacles or limitations are set for gathering information from the internet, for imparting opinion via the internet and for creating social networks via the internet.

Recommendations

  • Specify the new regulation of public assemblies. The term “spontaneous assembly” has not been defined yet, and this cannot be explained with court cases for obvious reasons.
  • Add a subsection to the new Maintenance of Law and Order Act concerning public assemblies stating an option for an assembly with two hours’ notice; this is still allowed under the current regulation.
  • Create a central and public database for public assemblies and events on the principles of open data, which would enable an analysis of held demonstrations.


[1] RT I 1997, 30, 472 … RT I, 23.02.2011, 6.

[2] Halduskohtumenetluse seadustik [Code of Administrative Court Procedure]. RT I, 23.02.2011, 3.

[3] RT I, 22.03.2011, 4.

[4] More on this in the chapter Legislative devlopments.

[5] Source: recorded private coversation with Alo Heinsalu, Director of Chancellor of Justice’s Office.

[7] The author writes about the new challenges to freedom of assembly in the information age in the chapter Public discussions and trends.

[8] Police and Border Guard Board (2012). Politseis registreeritud avalikud koosolekud [Public assemblies registered with the police]. Available at: http://www.politsei.ee/et/organisatsioon/avalik-teave/politseis-registreeritud-avalikud-koosolekud.dot.

[10] Avalikud üritused. Dalai-laama avalik esinemine. [Public assemblies. Public appearance of the Dalai Lama.] Available at: http://www.tallinn.ee/est/avalikud_yritused?id=3289&vorm_id=1.

[11] Open data is a practice that makes informationa vailable to all without limitations to access, patents and copyright. Open data is primarily to mean opening of all government and scientific research establishments’ data. Available at: http://www.opendata.ee/mis-on-open-data/.

[12] TIME’s Person of the year 2011. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/person-of-the-year/2011/.

[13] Tallinn town database for public assemblies. Available at: http://www.tallinn.ee/est/avalikud_yritused?id=1444&vorm_id=3.

[14] Koit, Riina; Rajalo, Priit (2011). „Tallinnas avaldas meelt paarsada, Tartus kümmekond inimest“ [A few hundred people demonstrated in Tallinn, a few dozen people demonstrated in Tartu]. ERR news. Available at: http://uudised.err.ee/index.php?06236817.

[15] Pahv, Peep (2011). „Veerpalu dopingulugu – teadlased mõtlevad, inimesed piketeerivad“ [Veerpalu’s doping story – scientists are analysing, people are picketing]. Postimees. Available at: http://sport.postimees.ee/417120/veerpalu-dopingulugu-teadlased-motlevad-inimesed-piketeerivad/.

[16] Loonet, Teelemari (2011). „Galerii: pronksöö mälestuspikett D-terminali juures“ [Gallery of photos: memorial picket for the Bronze Night near the D terminal]. Postimees. Available at: http://www.tallinnapostimees.ee/425884/galerii-pronksoo-malestuspikett-d-terminali-juures/.

[17] Rudi, Hanneli (2011). „Sadakond inimest protesteeris eestikeelse hariduse vastu“ [A hundred persons protested against Estonian language education]. Postimees. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/623822/sadakond-inimest-protesteeris-eestikeelse-hariduse-vastu/.

[18] Postimees (2011). „Tallinnas toimus miniaktsioon ausate valimiste toetuseks Venemaal“ [A small demonstration took place in Tallinn in support of fair elections in Russia]. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/664534/tallinnas-toimus-miniaktsioon-ausate-valimiste-toetuseks-venemaal/.

[19] Salu, Mikk (2011). „Kas Eesti ametiühinguid saab veel päästa?“ [Can Estonian trade unions be saved?] Postimees. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/598390/kas-eesti-ametiuhinguid-saab-veel-paasta/.

[20] Aavik, Marti (2012). „Epp Kallaste: kui põhitingimused on täidetud, streigivad ka eestlased“ [If the basic conditions are met, the Estonians will also have strikes]. Postimees. Available at: http://arvamus.postimees.ee/720218/epp-kallaste-kui-pohitingimused-on-taidetud-streigivad-ka-eestlased/.

[21] Dalai Lama’s speech at Vabaduse square. The official website of the month of Dalai Lama’s visit. Available at: http://www.dalailama.ee/2011/08/17/dalai-laama-kone-vabaduse-valjakul/.

[22] The schedule for the month of Dalai Lama’s visit. Available at: http://www.dalailama.ee/events/kava/.

[23] Tooming, Urmas; Teder, Merike (2011).“Õpetajate miiting lõppes riigikogu „vallutamisega““ [The teachers’ assembly ended with taking over Riigikogu]. Postimees. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/609952/opetajate-miiting-loppes-riigikogu-vallutamisega/.

[24] Delfi (2011). „Õpetajad nõudsid raadiomaja ees kõrgemat palka“ [Teachers demanded for a higher pay in front of the radio building]. Eesti Päevaleht. Available at: http://www.epl.ee/news/online/opetajad-noudsid-raadiomaja-ees-korgemat-palka.d?id=58082090.

[25] Ammas, Anneli (2011). „Protestiv suunanäitaja“ [Protesting trend-setter]. Postimees. Available at: http://arvamus.postimees.ee/615182/protestiv-suunanaitaja/.

[26] Friends of Pühajärve basic school. Available at: http://puhajarve.blogspot.com/.

[27] Kanal 2 (2011). Pühajärve kooli sulgemise katse kukkus läbi [The attempt to close Pühajärve school failed]. Available at: http://www.reporter.ee/2011/03/24/puhajarve-kooli-sulgemise-katse-kukkus-labi/.

[28] Kond, Ragnar (2011). „Pühajärve põhikool suletakse rahva vastuseisust hoolimata“ [Pühajärve basic school will be closed despite public’s opposition]. ERR news. Available at: http://uudised.err.ee/?06239639.

[29] Väikenurm, Marge (2011). „Endine õiguskantsler esindab kohtus Pühajärve kooli lastevanemaid“ [The former Chancellor of Justice represents the parents of Pühajärve school in court]. Valgamaalane. Available at: http://www.valgamaalane.ee/681210/endine-oiguskantsler-esindab-kohtus-puhajarve-kooli-lastevanemaid/.

[30] UN General Assembly (2011). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. Available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf.

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