Menue_phone
16.07.2019

Finland - land of the free press - is new president of the Council of the EU

by Frederic Krull

Finland, the self-proclaimed country of press freedom, holds the presidency of the Council of the EU for the next six months. On the occasion of the summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in July 2018 in Helsinki, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat launched a campaign to tell the US President that he had arrived in the country of press freedom. For that purpose, 300 billboards were placed on the route between the airport and the place of the summit.

Finland- land of the free press - is new president of the Council of the EU Finland flag. Photo: Pixabay

The Finns have always been among the leading figures for world's press freedom. After dropping from first to fourth rank on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2018, the country is back on second place right behind Norway and followed by Sweden in the 2019 report. What is it that makes the current president country of the Council of the EU so successful in defending the right to freedom of press and media? Where are the weak spots?

Transparency gains trust

The top three countries of RSF's index, have something in common - a long tradition of transparency; Norway established its first "Freedom of Information Law" in 1970, Sweden already had one in 1766 (the oldest in the world!), Finland's "Act on the Openness of Government Activities" has been in place since 1951. It allows every Finnish citizen to get access to governmental documents (only excluding secrecy provisions), as well as to documents issued by "private parties that perform public tasks", such as insurance or work pension institutions. The latter is an important inclusion, as it is not obvious for most FOI laws in the world to include the private sector.

Dedicated journalists and a keen audience

A high level of press freedom is greatly appreciated by both journalists and the consuming audience. Institutions like the Council for Mass Media (CMM) provide instruments of self-regulation for journalists and campaign for more reflective news. 

In May 2019, a co-operation of media companies and unions established a journalist support fund to counter harassment.

Finland- land of the free press - is the new president of the Council of the EU Official Logo of the Finland presidency Image EU Parliament

According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2019 Finland has always scored highly as the country with the most trusted news media. The report also shows that Yle, Finland's public broadcaster enjoys the biggest public confidence, even though, it is not legally isolated from political power and its governing body is appointed by and from members of parliament.

Diversity vs. high concentrated media ownership

Finns are keen readers. The Finnish national readership survey 2015 revealed that 80% of the over 9 year olds read a printed newspaper weekly.

According to the Media Pluralism Monitor by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) of 2017, Finland is facing a significant higher risk (68%) in market plurality compared to other countries such as e.g. Germany (28%). A small number of companies dominate the media sector. 
The high concentration of the Finnish media market is said to be mostly connected to the market’s small size and linguistic isolation. Yet other countries with similar population sizes like Slovakia  (44%), Serbia (46%) or Denmark (50%), are at lower risk when it comes to market plurality. The great majority of the newspapers are independent and not political affiliated though.

Defamation on 'both sides'?

In October 2018, a Finnish court created a precedent against trolls and online hate-campaigns; in favour of the Yle journalist Jessikka Aro. After researching Russian propaganda that is spread and disseminated in Finland through social media bots and trolls, Aro was the target of an online hate campaign for several years that lead to harassment in her everyday life. The court's ruling in the case comprised a 22 months prison sentence and a 136.000€ compensation payment over the charges of defamation and negligence, against the trolls who were the driving forces behind the campaign.

Elsewhere, in April 2019, defamation charges were levelled against the journalist Johanna Vehkoo, who reports on Finland's far right movement. The defamation suit was filed against Vehkoo by Junes Lokka, himself a right wing politician, who has been a subject of her reporting, Vehkoo told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

SLAPP cases remain a problem all over Europe. SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation". These lawsuits are used as an instrument that intends to censor, intimidate or financially ruin, in order to silence critics. It is a direct threat against the freedom of speech. The ECPMF campaigns against the SLAPP suits to counter the attempts at silencing investigative journalism.

Two big scandals in two years

The so-called "Sipilägate" involved the former Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, who allegedly attempted to influence Yle's reporters over coverage of his potential conflict of interest in a state-funded nickel mine in 2017. A legally confirmed raid sanctioned on the home of the investigative journalist Laura Halminen, who was reporting on a military intelligence facility, was the second incident that disrupted the free media in Finland in 2018.

Innovation for more freedom

Tackling the issue of media access for local and regional communities, as well as to free up precious time for journalists, Yle brought a bot called "Voittoo" online, which is in charge of simple news coverage all over the country. Voittoo is able to write short articles with basic information about ice hockey results and statistics as well as to quickly react to election updates from all-over the country. Outsourcing these basic tasks to a bot, frees time for real journalism. Voittoo's code is available for free online.