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Despite its History and Reputation, Finland Has to Guard Press Freedom

Jan Lundius, a Swedish national, is a professor and former UNESCO associate.

Helsinki, Jan 11 2016 (IPS) - The year 2015 was a sad one for journalists around the world, with approximately 60 journalists killed, more than 200 imprisoned and more than 400 exiled.

In many countries, people speaking up against abuse and violations have a rational fear for their lives and wellbeing. To address this issue, UNESCO and the Government of Finland will co-host a conference on journalists´ safety the week of International Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2016.

The choice of Finland to organize such an event is no mere coincidence. When Reporters Without Borders presented its World Press Freedom Index for 2015, Finland topped the list for the fifth year in a row. And Finland´s government has taken its commitment further by making transparency and information an institutional concern, for example by making broadband access a legal right and easing the way for citizens to participate in the legislative process through online means.

Is freedom of speech determined by culture? And, if so, did cultural forces help mold the Finnish government´s liberal attitude toward press freedom?
Often when rulers silence the media they do it in the name of security or preserving national culture or unity. So is freedom of speech determined by culture? And, if so, did cultural forces help mold the Finnish government´s liberal attitude toward press freedom?

Until 1809, Finland was part of Sweden, a country that in 1766 was the first nation in the world to abolish censorship and guarantee freedom of the press. But after subsequent conquest by the Russian Empire, growing Russian patriotism demanded a closer integration of Finland and, by the end of the 19th century, harsh censorship of the press was introduced. This and other measures, including Russian promotion of the Finnish language as a way to sever the country’s longstanding cultural ties with Sweden, fueled an already growing Finnish nationalism.

When the Russian tsar abdicated in 1917, the Finnish legislature declared independence, leading to a civil war between the country’s “Reds”, led by Social Democrats, and “Whites”, led by the conservatives in the Senate. Thirty-six thousand out of a population of 3 million died. The Reds executed 1,650 civilians, while the triumphant Whites executed approximately 9,000. The war resulted in an official ban on Communism, censorship of the socialist press and an increasing integration to the Western world economy. The new constitution established that the country would be bi-lingual, with both Finnish and Swedish taught in schools and at universities.

During World War II, harsh press censorship was introduced – this time by the Finnish government itself – as the country fought two wars against the Soviet Union and the subsequently fought to drive out its former German allies in those conflicts.

The development of the current Finnish freedom of speech probably has to be considered in relation to this arduous history, particularly the difficult aftermath of the wars with the Soviet Union and, through all of it, the Finnish people´s struggle to maintain their freedom and unique character as a nation.

Today, Finland has a lively press and a thriving culture production in both languages, even if Finnish people with Swedish as a mother tongue constitute only about 5 per cent of a population of 5.4 million. Even in the Internet Age, Finns remain avid newspaper readers, ranking first in the EU with almost 500 copies sold per day per 1, 000 inhabitants, surpassed only by Japan and Norway.

During the Cold War years, Finland’s efforts to cope with is proximity to Soviet Russia had grave repercussions on freedom of speech in the country. Due to Soviet pressure, some books were withdrawn from public libraries and Finnish publishers avoided literature that could cause Soviet displeasure. For example, the Finnish translation of Solzhenitsyn´s The Gulag Archipelago was published in Sweden. On several occasions, Moscow restricted Finnish politics and vetoed its participation in the Marshall Plan.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to Finland’s expanded participation in Western political and economic structures. Finland joined the EU in 1994 and the euro was introduced in 1999. Restrictions on the media were relaxed and today, probably in reaction to its previous experiences with censorship, Finland is widely recognized having the most extensive press freedom of any country.

However, the rise of anti-immigrant political sentiment, as evidenced by the rise of the Finns´ Party, has cast a pall over popular media. Now the country’s second largest party after success in this year’s elections, the Finns´ Party combines left-wing economic policies with conservative social values, as well as a heavy dose of xenophobia, euro scepticism and Islamophobia, leading it to attract nationalistic fringe groups that are vociferous in public media.

One example is the group Suomen Sisu, which has an openly crude racial approach, disguised as “ethnopluralism,” an ideology stating that ethnic groups have to be kept separated and that Swedish speaking Finns’ influence on politics and culture has to be limited and that immigration has to be radically restricted, or even halted completely.

Finland´s most popular web site Homma is spreading this message, which also accuses Finnish media of being left-leaning and eroding Finnish national pride. The Finns’ Party´s leader, Timo Soini, is currently the country´s foreign minister and vice prime minister. While the party occasionally reacts harshly to criticism in media it states that it honors freedom of the press. Even when Soini was recently was attacked by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, he stated that it was quite OK since it was an expression of the press freedom.

Nevertheless, with Finland now scheduled to host an international conference on press freedom, we should be watchful of the dangers to free expression that lurk in uninhibited nationalism and xenophobia. Nordic people often take their excellent record in human rights for granted and, in so doing, dismiss these dangers. Let’s hope that the May conference will serve as a reminder to us all that freedom of the press and of expression is something that has to be jealously guarded and vigorously protected through thick and thin.


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