Dark clouds loom over freedom of expression

Janne Virkkunen. Photo: Soppakanuuna / Wikimedia Commons

Janne Virkkunen. Photo: Soppakanuuna / Wikimedia Commons

Freedom of expression is a feature of the Nordic welfare model - at least for the time being. Not everyone in the world has that right. It’s more a privilege enjoyed by the few.

We’re used in the Nordic countries to thinking of democracy as the best way to organise society. And the outcome isn’t bad. Liberal democracy needs stable institutions in order to work. It’s only from this stability that people’s freedom ensues. And of course, conversely, stability ensues from the freedom to act and express yourself.

Which is why it’s good that Finland and the other Nordics are located high in those international rankings that place countries in order of social stability. The Nordics are usually among the top ten in international rankings. They have become a global brand.

Freedom of expression is an essential component of liberal democracy as we understand it. It was first made statutory by the Swedish parliament in Stockholm in 1766, and Finns can be proud of the contribution of Anders Chydenius, a clergyman from the town of Kokkola, for bringing about the decree on freedom of printing.

This first effort was short lived. On ascending the Swedish throne, Gustav III annulled the statute just six years after it was introduced. It was restored pretty quickly, fortunately, never again to be rescinded.

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But, while freedom of expression is well anchored in the Nordic social fabric, globally it’s not faring particularly well.

Of the world’s roughly 7,4-billion inhabitants only just over 900-million live in conditions that you could speak of as having freedom of expression. Over 6-billion people live beyond its reach. Freedom of expression is not a universal right, more a privilege for the few.

Things are going badly in the European Union area, even though there’s an emphasis on shared European values. EU members Poland and Hungary are going down a dismal path to government-led perdition. In both countries the rule of law is in jeopardy, and in Hungary the government of Victor Orbán and its allies have taken over the entire provincial press, marking an end to the era of independent media there. Freedom only lasted some 25 years.

Organisations advancing freedom of expression have focused especially on Turkey, in whose prisons there are well over a hundred journalists, incarcerated simply because they have done their job: to inform the public of developments in the country. Good journalism is a crime only in countries that are on the road to dictatorship.

A recent instance is the two-year prison sentence for terrorist propaganda handed down to Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak. The issue was actually about Ayla Albayrak, who has dual Finnish-Turkish citizenship, reporting from Turkey’s Kurdish region.

A positive effect of this will be if the unwarranted court verdict results in a growing interest in freedom of expression. Hopefully, the Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini will finally acknowledge that his earlier talks of Finland and Turkey’s shared values was a crude error.

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Turkey’s president, Recep Tayip Erdogan, came to power by winning elections. His term as prime minister started in 2003 and ran until the 2014 presidential elections, which he won, and since then he has ruled the country backed by his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey once again has an autocratic sultan.

I was in Istanbul on 27 November 2004, having dinner at the meeting of the executive council of the International Press Institute, which champions freedom of expression. Prime Minister Ergodan was the guest speaker. He gave a beautiful talk about the importance of freedom of expression, and three years later, in spring 2007, he expressed the same sentiment at the IPI’s general assembly, also held in Istanbul.

Today, the Erdogan administration persecutes the Turkish media and locks up journalists. My friend Kadri Gürsel is one such example. He was released after spending 11 months in prison, but will be in court again at the end of October. Again, he faces a lengthy sentence because he has done good work as a journalist.
Erdogan’s path from pro-democracy leader to autocratic sultan is a textbook case. When you’re intoxicated with power you think you’re invincible. As the British politician Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

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We’re accustomed to thinking that freedom of expression at best means having quality media that monitors those in power and thereby acts as a mainstay of democracy. Critical quality media is an invaluable aspect of liberal democracy. The two have travelled a long road together.

But what if this isn’t so in the future? What will happen to democracy and its life force?

In Donald Trump’s United States the quality media is fighting for its survival. One problem that has emerged is that people no longer trust media content. In 2016, the PEW Research Center surveyed people’s confidence in news organizations, and found that only one in five people surveyed have confidence in the ability of the media to disseminate correct information about events in the country. For President Trump the media is a public enemy.

Social media is also posing a challenge to an enfeebled quality media. Greater numbers of people get information and news from different forums. In the US, nearly 40 per cent of adults use Facebook as a news source, and 62 per cent of adults accept social media as a news channel.

Social media can also be used to spread lies and half-truths. It’s the done thing to talk – even if not quite seriously – of the post-factual age.

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In mid-September, the chief editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, gave a lecture at Oxford University on fake news. Barber, an experienced journalist, reckons that fake news is conducive to the times because “We live in a world where there are no accepted facts. A world where facts are secondary to opinion. A world where the media landscape has fragmented. A world which has become intensely polarised.”

The rise of populism fuels sentiments that oppose quality media. The same is true of immigration, which in Europe might still take on an uncontrollable character. The threat is real enough but whether or not it will be realised is another thing.

Burgeoning populism and liberal democracy constantly rival one another. Anti-immigration and uncertainty about the future due to globalisation are risk factors for the sustainability of democracy. Liberal democracy still prevails, and quality media equally so. But the future of neither one of them is set in stone.

Developments require new sorts of thinking by the mass media and new solutions for strengthening trust. This is not easy at a time when more and more people are rejecting traditional media and looking elsewhere for information.

The media can’t give up. Fake news can only be beaten with better journalism. Good journalism thrives in a well functioning democracy, and conversely a well functioning democracy exists and operates under conditions where good, critical journalism thrives.

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What about our own country and freedom of expression? Finland held top spot for freedom of expression for seven years in a row until last spring, when it fell to third place. The reason was the foolish badgering of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. He fired off angry emails concerning Yle’s news broadcasts to the then chief editor responsible for news broadcasting, Atte Jääskelainen, as well as to a Yle journalist.

Journalists and publishers have always to be vigilant because the dangers to freedom of expression can come from anywhere. During Matti Vanhanen’s second term on office, in 2010, justice minister Tuija Brax sought to undermine journalists’ source protection. Fortunately, the minister came to her senses and abandoned the idea.

Another instance was in 2016 with the furore over tax evasion and the Panama Papers. The Finnish tax authorities wanted to seize the documents that Yle had in its possession but the broadcaster stood firm and refused.

Freedom of expression in Finland is firmly anchored in Article 10 of the Constitution and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR can be invoked if the judiciary in Finland goes off course.

But to come back to last spring, when the Prime Minister announced to Yle’s chief editor and one of its journalists that he had zero confidence in the broadcaster. There were echoes here of the disputes that past politicians Kalevi Sorsa and Mauno Koivisto had with the media back in the 1970s and the 1980s.

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There was an attempt to make the dispute between the prime minister and Yle a freedom of expression issue, and culminated at Yle in whether Jääskeläinen submitted to pressure from the prime minister. I think it seems from published documents and the external review conducted by Professor Olli Mäenpää that Jääskeläinen had buckled under pressure, slightly.

But we should underscore that editorial management does not imply restricting journalists’ freedom of expression. The editor in chief has the right and duty to intervene in lapses in journalistic work when they become apparent. This should not be done by command but through discussion. The command route is generally the more spectacular but is regrettably short for the one doing the commanding.

The crisis at Yle was not one of freedom of expression but one to do with leadership. It had probably been forgotten at the broadcaster that the main job of the chief editor and his or her management team is to build a healthy editorial culture. Without it there’s really nothing more than a workplace slowly sliding into crisis. That’s what happened at Yle and it led to Atte Jääskeläinen leaving his job.

Rather less attention has been paid to the new Finnish Broadcasting Company Act, passed in parliament in June. In it the parliament underlines not only Yle’s independence but also that it is a media operator under the auspices of parliament.

This means that the Finnish parliament decided to transfer decision-making concerning the public broadcaster’s strategy from the company’s board of directors to its administrative council. This way the strategy will be decided by an administrative council comprising members of parliament.

If after this anyone still imagines that Finland can once again become the world’s leading country in freedom of expression, they’re sorely mistaken.

Translation: Mark Waller

Janne Virkkunen worked as the editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest Finnish daily newspaper, from 1991 until his retirement in 2010.