Don’t rest on your laurels, Finland

From a foreign students’ perspective, Finland is doing great with freedom of expression. But as we see elsewhere in Europe, the waves of hate speech are rising. Freedom of speech should not be about insults, but a commitment to a healthy, compassionate society.

Eight newly independent states were born from the ruins, turmoil, blood and death, which the First World War had left behind. This December, we celebrate a successful story of Finland, the country in many respects in the leading positions in the Europe and World. My home country, the Czech Republic, will be celebrating the same day in several months.

It is not polite to talk about gloomy outlooks at a birthday party. Especially at a party where I am a mere guest. But I do have hope that following words will be in the same fashion celebratory as they are sombre.

Both countries had to overcome hurdles and restrains when it comes to free speech. In communist Czechoslovakia, (self-)censorship was institutionalized and curtailed freedom of the press, while secret services and “law”-enforcement agencies made sure none could express himself/herself freely.

Of course, Finland doesn’t have this experience in the post-Second World War era, but subtle and subconscious control over media in a form of self-censorship was also present. Important lections should be learned from this, as Esko Salminen writes in The Silenced Media: The Propaganda War between Russia and the West in Northern Europe: “The bases of such censorship – strong governmental powers and the proximity of a superpower - can still help to silence the media in small countries.”

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Finland has seized the opportunity after the Cold War to promote free speech. In the Press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, Finland occupies one of the best positions. On the other hand, global press freedom is declining, as the Chatham House in the Freedom of the Press 2017 has revealed.

Rapid globalization, an advance of the internet, digitalization and economic and political transformation are somehow corny words today, but they are changing the climate in society even in the strongest democracies. Finland deals with these issues better than Czechia, no doubt. The trust in media is still very high, Sputnik had to close Finnish mutation because of lack of interest, whereas, in Czechia, Sputnik is rather successful.

The trust in media in my home country is low – only 33 % of respondents in a national poll expressed trust to the press, and the percentage has been in continual decline for six years. Foreign correspondents are as scarce as hen’s teeth and the Czech Radio and the Czech Television have been under severe attacks from the politicians. Our fourth biggest party, from the far-right, is choosing with what media they will be cooperating – according to a “friendly status” or “unbiased reporting”. This may sound somewhat familiar to Finns as well.

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It is hard to access freedom of press of a country from the outside perspective, but when I have been trying to understand at least pictures or headlines of the Finnish media; or when I have been talking to fellow students of media or journalism, freedom of press and speech seems to be subjectively on very good level.

“There is not much to say about freedom of speech, it is just good,” said one Finnish student in a sauna to me. Moreover, when I participated at a Finnish journalism training, I was positively surprised how Finnish media pays attention to global development, environment, and also personal stories.

This is very important, because free speech, as I understand it, is not only fundamental human right, but also an obligation. The obligation to try to deeply listen to others, be empathetic, evaluate human freedom, needs and stances. This helps us overcome taboos in society. Freedom of speech is the obligation not to blame victims of rape, not laugh at alcohol addicts, not to look down our nose at prostitutes, not to insult homeless people. Freedom of speech is a commitment to a healthy, compassionate society.

When I was watching the "hate documentary" Boiling Point which was followed with discussion with a director Elina Hirvonen, I could notice similar development in Finland as in Czechia – the migration “crisis” has strengthened nationalism, increased hate speech in society and produced racist, subordinating, classifying proclamations.

Where does free speech begin and where does it end? Is freedom of speech given, or can it be overridden by rhetoric built on division “we-the liberals” and “you-problem-ridden/ backwards”? Should we restrain internet, or keep it as free as possible?

I would like to congratulate Finland for the achievements in free speech and hope a beautiful jubilee. Country of thousands of lakes and even more saunas should be proud, but humble.

When we, foreign students, are talking to Finns, we feel that it is possible to criticize things in Finland, be it military, government or university. But we have sometimes a feeling of excessive self-assurance from the part of Finns. I mean, things are not that perfect that you should not continually work to be better. For example, gender equality is without a doubt high, but still I have heard several stories of groping girls at sensitive places in clubs.

I can’t think of many similar stories regarding free speech, even though “Sipilägate” should be mentioned. Freedom of speech is healthy, but I think Finland shouldn’t rest on it’s laurels. I wish, for the sake of Finland, that we still have a country to look up to.

The writer is a student and freelance journalist from Czech Republic.