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Finland may have slipped in press freedom rankings, but all is not lost

Two incidents in recent years have seen Finland slip from first to fourth place in the world rankings for freedom of the press. Here FCC member Hannamiina Tanninen takes a look at this “public disgrace”.

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä gives a joint press conference with the French President (not in picture) in Helsinki, Finland, on August 30, 2018. Photo: AFP / Ludovic MARIN Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. Photo: AFP / Ludovic MARIN

For many years, the Republic of Finland was the poster country for press freedom in the world. Every year since 2010 Reporters Without Borders (RFS) ranked Finland as the Number One country in its annual evaluation of press freedom in 180 different countries. However, due to incidents in 2016 involving the Finnish national broadcaster YLE and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, Finland slipped to third place in the 2017 ranking.

The national broadcaster YLE did not report accurately the ownership structure of a company run by the Prime Minister’s relatives – and the PM put pressure on YLE not to report the connection. The editor-in-chief of YLE denied that the integrity of the reporting was compromised due to pressure from the Prime Minister.

In the aftermath of the story, three senior journalists from YLE resigned citing differences in opinion regarding freedom of speech as one of their reasons. Interestingly, the main reason that caused the drop in the 2017 press freedom index was the reaction from the national board that evaluates press integrity in Finland, rather than the story itself.

A further drop to fourth place followed in the 2018 ranking after police confiscated materials from a journalist who was investigating a Finnish military communications centre.

The independent national board for press integrity consists of experienced journalists and evaluates the integrity of journalism in the country, not the quality of it. The national board does not monitor the press regularly but if an incident regarding integrity is considered a serious one, the board will discuss it.

The board imposed sanctions on YLE for its handling of the incident. Also, the Prime Minister was given a serious warning. This was a very unusual decision since the board does not give such verdicts lightly, especially when they involve people who are not journalists.

For most countries, being ranked as the third or fourth best environment in the world for the press to operate in would be impossible to imagine. In Finland, the drops in the ranking and the incidents leading to them caused a nationwide debate, as press freedom is highly valued in the country. Most media outlets considered the incident a public disgrace, something that would harm the reputation of Finland abroad.

So far it seems that not all is lost regarding press freedom in Finland. When compared to Hong Kong, working from our newsroom in Finland is like the difference between night and day. In Finland, civil servants are easy to reach. They mainly understand the importance of and fulfill the obligation of, providing accurate information to the press. And they usually do so in the most polite and timely manner.

In most cases, politicians do reply to interview requests, at least from the main media outlets. Even from junior journalists like myself. In Finland, if a politician is “not available for comment” it is not regarded as business as usual, but as something suspicious and worth investigating. It also does not take much effort from the journalists to reach politicians in the first place, as they are usually just a phone call away.

Based on the latest polls, the Prime Minister involved in the 2016 incident is set to lose the election and join the ranks of the opposition after the country goes to vote in 2019. It will be interesting to see how many media outlets are willing to report his alternative policy ideas once he no longer holds the office of the number one politician in the country. Number one spot or no, it would seem that the press still holds significant power in Finland.


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