Freedom of expression: The Finnish example (or a matter of honour)

Friday, September 02, 2016
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Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and Speaker of Parliament Maria Lohela. CC BY | Petri Krook.

By Luiz Hidalgo Nunes Jr.

“Let me ask you something: what’s the situation for freedom of expression here in Finland?”

“Oh, very good! Actually we have been among the best for a few years now. The last [Press Freedom Index] report was released a few weeks ago, if I’m not wrong. We’re very proud of it.”

This dialogue took place in April 2016, in Helsinki. As a journalist, I posed the question to a teacher during a visit to one of the city’s teacher training schools, an appropriate place to broach such a subject. Finland’s approaches to both education and freedom of expression are very unique and warrant unique attention.

On May 3, 2016, Helsinki hosted World Press Freedom Day, a choice that already denotes the importance that freedom of expression is given in the country. During the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä affirmed that transparency and freedom of expression have a direct impact on combating corruption.

“Finland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and this correlates, I believe, with the high level of freedom of the press in our society,” he said. Prime Minister Sipilä also pointed out that “good governance means openness and transparency, and citizens must demand it. Citizens, politicians and public authorities alike have an interest in an independent and professional media. We need good journalism that is based on facts and accuracy.”

And this “good journalism based on facts and accuracy” pays its dues: since 2009, Finland has been atop the World Press Freedom Index—2016 included. In fact, since 2002, the country has been ranked below first only twice (fifth in 2007 and fourth in 2008). Every other year, Finland has been the best among the 179 countries ranked on the Index, a comprehensive report published annually by Reporters Without Borders that evaluates independence, media pluralism, free flow of information, legality, security and freedom of journalists. The country has 200 newspapers, including 31 dailies, and also ranks third in the world for newspaper readers per capita. According to Reporters Without Borders, ownership is highly concentrated, with most of the dailies belonging to two media groups, Sanoma and Alma Media. The balance is possible, though, due to a very active self-regulatory system and Finland’s Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in Mass Media, enacted in 2003.

Self-regulation: the Scandinavian way

When it comes to Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), media regulation boards function as a mix of ombudsman and court. In Finland, a key institution is the Council for Mass Media (CMM), jointly managed by media editors and the national journalists’ union, which aims to defend freedom of expression, guarantee good journalistic practices and address complaints through self-regulation. An unsatisfied reader is able to present a critique of a particular media vehicle, which then has the right to reply. A volunteer group of journalists, editors and readers evaluate the relevance of the arguments and determines whether the media vehicle has violated ethical principles of the profession. If so, it is required to publish a retraction in the same space and with the same emphasis as the initial news.

The CMM is funded by its own media groups and equal decision-making power is dispersed amongst the board members.

In addition to the CMM, in 2003, Finland enacted a bill that made a number of important changes. The Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in Mass Media defined guidelines to guarantee media the right and freedom to work autonomously, while circumscribing the possible legal actions that may be taken for violating the Act. There are two characteristics of this bill that makes it different from many other press regulations:

  1. In addition to bringing newspapers and magazines under its purview, the Act also identifies radio, broadcasting companies and Internet companies as “media.”
  2. The bill ensures in its very first chapter (General Provisions/Section 1: Objective) that any media shall be free to work:

“In the application of this Act, interference with the activities of the media shall be legitimate only in so far as it is unavoidable, taking due note of the importance of the freedom of expression in a democracy subject to the rule of law.”

This freedom, by the way, is applied to a number of items. For example, documents and recordings in the possession of authorities are public, unless their publication has been specifically restricted by law (for which there is a high threshold). Everyone has the right to access public documents and recordings, and physical threats or even incidents of harassment against journalists in Finland are extremely rare. In the last ten years, only one case prompted an argument (see text box below).

I can’t help feeling sad and embarrassed when I read these facts and think about my country, Brazil, in comparison. In order to access public documents, journalists sometimes have to ask a Justice to grant them this right. Not by chance, Brazil has dropped 5 positions on the same World Press Freedom Index since last year, decreasing from 99 to 104.

Commenting about Finland’s powerful position atop the rankings, Ilkka Nousiainen, Chairperson of the Finnish branch of Reporters Without Borders, said he believes the country is number one again due to this freedom and autonomy of journalists. “Our journalists can write freely without interference from media owners or the government,” he affirmed.

Indeed, freedom of expression not only is a fundamental right in Finland, but it also helps to maintain a vibrant society that supports its own citizens and civil society.

If Finland can do it, other countries must be able to follow the same path. That the entire world can attain Finland’s freedom of expression record someday is a hope that we must all keep alive.

Speaking of that…The Pentikäinen v. Finland lawsuit

As far as freedom of expression is concerned, in recent years one particular case brought freedom of expression in Finland under the microscope. In 2006, Finnish photojournalist Markus Pentikäinen attended a public demonstration against an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Helsinki's city centre that became heated, with police forming a blockade in front of the Kasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Police announced the closure of the demonstration and asked protesters to leave the scene, but the photojournalist continued standing in the middle of the police defense line. In response to a police officer’s warning to immediately leave the area, Pentikäinen identified himself as a journalist and said he was going to follow the demonstration to the end. Shortly after, he was arrested in the company of about 20 demonstrators.

In 2007, the Helsinki District Court found Pentinkäinen guilty of resisting or refusing to obey a lawful order—without, though, any penalty being imposed on him. The following year, the photojournalist appealed the judgment to the Helsinki Court of Appeal, arguing that his conviction violated the Constitution of Finland and Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, as he was a journalist and did not personally take part in the demonstration. The court rejected his appeal and the Supreme Court later refused him leave to appeal.

In 2010, Pentinkäinen appealed his case to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that his arrest and conviction violated his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention, again without achieving any results. And then in 2014, he appealed to the Great Chamber of the Court, which also found no violation of the Convention; it was argued that not only was his arrest prescribed by law but also that the journalist had not been prevented from covering the demonstration (so much so that he hadn’t even received any penalty or fine), but was tried and convicted for refusing to vacate a location that police had asked to be evacuated in order to protect public safety. His conviction had been for a crime of disobedience, neither constituting a violation of his freedom of expression nor being related to it.

Today, there is still no consensus among journalists, scholars and the general public about whether his conviction was a violation of his right to freedom of expression or not.


Luiz Hidalgo Nunes Jr. is a freelance journalist from São Paulo, Brazil, with more than a decade of experience in television, magazine, newspapers and web journalism. He completed the 2015-16 Scotiabank/CJFE Journalism Fellowship at the University of Toronto's Massey College.

 

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