By Aino Haili, Tommi Kolehmainen, Eini Nyman
Helsinki — Last year Finland experienced a turbulence in the freedom of the press. The pivotal change of state started with Finland’s prime minister, the national broadcasting company and a bunch of not-so deliberate emails.
Finland has dominated the number one position in the World Press Freedom Index for nearly a decade.
Fresh results show that Finland has now dropped to hold the third place in the global ranking presented by Reporters Without Borders, Norway being this year number one and Sweden on the second place.
The conflict between the prime minister and the national broadcaster could have been swept under the rug without much opposition in some parts of the world. In Finland, given its good position in most charts measuring press freedom in the world, situations like this cannot simply be dismissed with a shrug.
The conflict started with late night emails
At the end of November last year, Finland’s prime minister Juha Sipilä sent a number of angry-toned emails to the national and leading broadcast company Yle.
Yle had been reporting about Sipilä’s relatives’ connections to a Finnish mining company Terrafame which got significant financial support from the Finnish government. The company had recently received a large order from a machinery-providing company Katera Steel, which is partially owned by prime minister Sipilä’s relatives. Before that the mining company was close to bankruptcy.
Sipilä sent around 20 furious emails to journalist Salla Vuorikoski who was covering the case and the Editor-in-Chief of Yle, Atte Jääskeläinen. After receiving the emails Jääskeläinen decided not to publish the article.
The official explanation was that Yle had been reporting of the same issue continuously for a week so it was time for new topics.
Journalists disapproved the actions
Yle is administrated by a council appointed by the Finnish Parliament and the vast majority of the company is owned by the Finnish Government. Yle gets its funding from a so-called Yle tax, which is collected from citizens among their other annual taxes. The parliament decides about the tax after government’s proposal.
When such a company gets in the middle of accusations of letting the government’s representative affect what is published, naturally a lot of conversation was expected to occur outside and inside of Yle.
Jääskeläinen did not admit that there was any sort of pressure involved. According to him, the decision was made entirely due to editorial reasons.
But many journalists in and outside of Yle did not agree with his decision. In their opinion, it was the most important and politically relevant news topic of the week and it should have been reported accordingly. Finally the actions of Yle and the pressuring attempts of Sipilä filled the headlines in the following weeks.
The actions of Yle were widely condemned
In March, the Finnish Council for Mass Media (CMM) condemned the actions of Yle. CMM is a council run by Finnish media publishers and the National journalists’ union. They jointly defend freedom of speech, ensure good journalistic practice and deal with complaints through self-regulation.
The self-regulation works through a code of journalistic ethics, which the majority of Finnish media outlets have pledged to follow. Whenever these rules are broken in their coverage, the media in question is bound to publish the conviction concerning its “wrongdoing” if so decided by the council.
The chairman of the CMM Elina Grundström thinks that the nationwide discussion which resulted after the chain of events between Yle and Sipilä may have helped politicians and journalists to clarify the ground rules for mutual interaction.
”In my opinion it is good that there was such an extensive discussion about this case. This is just the way the self-regulation system works: we see a problem and explore it thoroughly. We can’t have high standard journalism if it’s not re-evaluated among the journalists themselves.”
After a vote between the council’s members, the council’s opinion was that the emails of Sipilä had affected the publishing decisions of Yle and therefore it had handed over its editorial power to an outsider (in this case even to a representative of the government, from which Yle gets its funding).
Also Suomen Kuvalehti, the magazine which was the first to report on the topic was condemned by the CMM. The fact that the article was published at 3.36 a.m. gave little time for Jääskeläinen to react and comment on the issue. The requests were sent to him in the middle of the night.
The Association of Editors-in-Chief in Finland also took a stance to the issue. The Association reminded that the unequivocal obligation of the editor-in-chiefs is to lead their newsroom, decide and take responsibility on the published content. These tasks should never be handed out to any external authority.
But the Association also reminded that the decision not to publish some of their reporter’s story does not restrict their freedom of speech. The reporter is not writing as a citizen, but as a journalist and as an employee of a media house. Therefore their freedom of speech as citizens is not restricted.
Press Freedom requires hard work
While Sipilä’s behavior in the situation was frowned upon, he actually got himself a pass from the Finnish Parliament’s ombudsman. He was investigating whether the prime minister was disqualified in the matter that got him sending the sketchy late night emails to the journalist in the first place. That basically made the hasty reactions of the prime minister completely unnecessary.
On the other hand the societal discussion following the case has been nowhere near pointless. The conflict between Yle and Sipilä can’t be single-handedly blamed for Finland’s decline in the Press Freedom Index, but there has lately been discussion about several shifts in the attitudes towards the media in Finland.
According to Grundström the phenomenon of politicians giving selective statements and to only certain media is truly alarming. Also the trend of mixing facts and opinions with each other is one of the biggest societal problems of today.
”In Finland politicians have started to react more negatively towards the media. Some claim that it resembles a political party with a political agenda of its own. Populistic opposition of journalism is more common among the politicians than before. Politicians should remember that also their own conduct has a great influence,” Grundström said.
Grundström said that press freedom was diminishing and being jeopardized globally. In Finland the situation is still exceptionally good because Finnish journalists are strongly committed to the code of journalistic ethics.
However press freedom is not a certainty but something that requires hard work from journalists and the whole society. Grundström thinks that this kind of case might help the Finnish society to hold on tighter to these values.
Press Freedom is based on everyday actions of every journalist and politician. Grundström outlines that journalists need to make sure that the facts are thoroughly checked and politicians have to be sure that they understand the content correctly before questioning the whole media.
These are the everyday practices that have an influence on press freedom. It is important to never take it for granted – even if you think you are the number one in the world.
The writers are students of Haaga-Helia University of Applied Science