How National Security Impacted Press Freedom in Finland

A decision of to chase three journalists from Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, questioned its status as the world’s leader in press freedom. Investigative journalists Laura Halminen and Tuomo Pietilainen, together with their supervisor, Kalle Silfverberg, are accused divulging and attempting to divulge state secrets. All three deny the charges.

The case concerns a series of investigative articles about a military intelligence research center operated by the Finnish Defense Forces. If found guilty, the journalists face up to four years in prison, with a minimum sentence of four months.

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Despite Finland’s status as an exemplary example of freedom of the press, it has not been no problemin particular with harassment of journalists. However, the case against Helsingin Sanomat journalists has opened up a whole new front for press freedom advocates. It also brought up uncomfortable issues from Finland’s past, which the country still grapples with.

A small country with a big neighbor

Finland, with a population of 5.5 million, shares a border of over 800 miles with Russia and its population of over 144 million. For Finnish leaders, this translated into a realistic approach to foreign policy. In particular, the winter war from 1939-40, when Finland withstood an attack from the Soviet Union, is one of the defining events in the country’s history.

The decades following World War II were difficult for Finland, a small, war-ravaged country. Maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a necessity. Finland managed to avoid Soviet occupation and remained a democracy, but it paid the price in the form of “Finlandizationwhich meant strict political neutrality and did not challenge the influence of the Soviet Union.

Finland’s national security strategy is based on conscription, a trained reserve, the defense of the whole country and the will to defend it against attack. The goal is to make it an unattractive target for a potential aggressor state.

A recent decision Renewing Finland’s aging fleet of Hornets with 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, popular with NATO nations, is part of the strategy. Maintaining good international relations and participating in international military crisis management are other key elements. Finland is not a member of NATO, but joined the European Union in 1995. Polls indicate that support for NATO membership increased dramatically after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Prosecution before publication

The case against the three journalists was sparked by an article published by Helsingin Sanomat in 2017. Legislative changes aimed at expanding the information-gathering powers of the security services were underway at the time. Representatives of the newspaper argued that there were strong public interest reasons for publishing the story.

The police investigation included a raid on a journalist’s home and left them stuck in limbo for four years. The decision to prosecute, announced at the end of October 2021, concerns the article published five years ago and the subject matter of a series of unpublished articles. The accusation based on unpublished material naturally raised concerns.

There are currently few facts available on the basis of the lawsuits or the details of the case, but more information is expected to be released later. Based on the information available, it seems likely that one of the central issues in the case will hinge on when an investigative journalist’s research potentially crosses the line in an attempt to leak state secrets.

The Finnish Union of Journalists has raised serious concerns about the case, noting that it could set a precedent and mean that a journalist’s unpublished notes could lead to a conviction. The union and the Mass Media Council, the independent media regulator, have called for the transparency of judicial proceedings.

Without taking a position on the case, the council expressed concern that it could lead to restrictions on freedom of expression on grounds that could remain secret. The council stressed the need to clarify the circumstances in which considering material for publication or finalizing it, without publishing it, could constitute a crime.

Among the issues raised by the Mass Media Council are concerns about the risk of self-censorship. This is a sensitive historical issue, as the era of “Finlandization” included strong self-censorship in the media and in publishing. Writing about the case of Politiikasta, Academics Anu Koivunen and Johanna Vuorelma warn of the risk of returning to a Cold War-era media environment, where every decision to publish was assessed from a safety perspective.

Welcome to the land of the free press

In 2018, hundreds of signposts commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat greeted Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during their visit to Helsinki with messages such as “Mr. President, welcome to the land of the free press. The case against Helsingin Sanomat journalists may test whether Finland is still the country of the free press.

Whatever the outcome of the case, it gave Finland the the happiest country, cause for serious introspection.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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