Perhaps it was better before

Rauli Virtanen is a well-known Finnish foreign reporter.

Rauli Virtanen is a well-known Finnish foreign reporter.

Nowadays we’re free to write about anything and information is readily available. And yet there’s less interest in other countries than there used to be and a dearth of journalism on them. Maybe we’d understand the world better if more efforts were devoted to changing this, writes Rauli Virtanen.

The world opened up to me in 1969 when, as a young newsroom trainee, I was able to write for the newspaper Etelä-Suomen Sanomat. The foreign affairs section of a provincial paper produced in a small town was like heaven to me. It received the top European newspapers and the telex machine rapped out news agency reports from all over the world.

Because the department already had four established foreign affairs journalists with their own special areas, I was encouraged to write about events in Latin America.

Soon, farmers in Orimattila were being informed about why the reforms introduced by the left-wing military junta in Peru, led by Juan Velasco Alvarado, mattered to every one of us. I made the article look more interesting by having a photo of a cow with it and a heading along the lines of “Chasing a cash cow”.

In newsrooms in those days practically everything was possible for foreign affairs journalists.

The only limit to my “freedom of expression” had to do with the printing technology of the period. When I had whole page stories, I tried to use strong magazine-like headlines. I thought that ones like “Arafat – hero or terrorist?” and “ Laos – a dagger in heart of Indochina” would have looked great set using giant wooden five-centimetre block types. The compositor didn’t usually agree to this, so I had to make do with the cheaper and smaller metal types.

"In the late ‘60s, there was a genuinely keen interest within student and journalistic circles in so called ‘third world’ issues."

* * *

There was the same enthusiastic, world-embracing spirit at the foreign affairs desk of Aamulehti newspaper, where I wrote while doing my university studies. There, too, I was given Latin America to cover. The newspaper already had its Africa expert, Juhani Koponen, who later progressed via the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala to the national daily Helsingin Sanomat, and to be professor of developing country studies at the University of Helsinki.

We wrote with such enthusiasm about foreign affairs that at university the phenomenon was given the tag “afghanistanism”. It meant reporting on distant, often completely insignificant matters at the expense of important local news. The situation nowadays is the opposite: it is hard to get an article through unless it is linked in some way with Finland.

In the late ‘60s, there was a genuinely keen interest within student and journalistic circles in so called ‘third world’ issues. Of course, it was in part tinged with ideology and a sense of solidarity, but there was plenty of information available about developing countries, and it was eagerly distributed.

It is indicative of those days that I obtained my first journalism grant to go to Latin America from the Kordelin Foundation in 1972, and that the conservative paper Uusi Suomi subsequently bought dozens of my pieces on Latin America, as well as on Africa from where I sent reports at least on the desertification of the Sahel and travelled with Angolan guerrilla fighters.

I was struck by the fact that at the Uusi Suomi foreign desk pieces by my colleague Asko Vuorjoki on the Baltic countries were generally disapproved of, and maybe some were censored for being too anti-Soviet – I am not entirely sure. I didn’t know Russian and so didn’t report on the Soviet Union, and therefore didn’t personally run across Finlandisation – the fear of saying the wrong thing about the Soviet Union. Our country, which is now one of the leading countries in freedom of speech, has at least given its name to self-censorship!

Sometimes journalists are kept in check. In September 1973 I travelled to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. After sending a few stories, I was instructed by Uusi Suomi’s central newsroom to interview Pinochet’s supporters, even taxi drivers. A year later, the review I wrote of Pinochet’s first twelve months in power did not get published. The opinion of the person who decided the matter was that it was too radical and left wing.

"Our country, which is now one of the leading countries in freedom of speech, has at least given its name to self-censorship!"

* * *

Investment and interest in ‘third world’ matters in the Finnish media started to decline in the 1980s. “No more black pieces,” I was told under the guise of a joke at the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti on my return from Africa, and “no more jungle stories from South America, but rather from the USA about popular culture”. At the time, in Sweden there were correspondents covering South America. We jealously followed their reports.

In January 1985 I happened to be practically the only foreign correspondent in French controlled New Caledonia at the time of the rebellion by the Kanak population. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that the Swedish daily Dagens Nyhter put my story on the front page across five columns.

It was naturally a great moment for me, and one that showed how much the Swedes cared about a rebellion taking place on the total periphery. I myself wouldn’t have given the story such a prominent headline.

At the time, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) to its credit still had an Africa correspondent in Nairobi and one for the Middle East based in Jerusalem. The main daily Helsingin Sanomat on the other hand had given up long before: Timo Vuorela in Beirut in the 1980s must have been the paper’s last eyes and ears in a far away region. It was only in 2016 that it sent a correspondent to Africa, but the appointment of the efficient Sami Sillanpää only lasted a year.

“Extra” investments by these two mainstream media organisation have certainly been positively recognised. Journalists visit Istanbul, Yle’s diligent Tom Kankkonen is always in the Middle East, Helsingin Sanomat’s Tommi Nieminen lived in India for a year, as did Maria Manner in Brazil and Jukka Huusko in Egypt. Foreign affairs journalists go abroad for big sports events and so on, but they don’t compensate for having permanent correspondents.

The other Nordic countries are better represented, especially in the Middle East, the reporting and understanding of which should be particularly prioritised these days. It’s an issue of judgements of value being pushed aside citing financial resources – though it’s true that maintaining a foreign correspondent doesn’t come cheap. The trend has long been to substitute correspondents with news agency material.

"A positive turning point came in the 1990s, particularly at first in terms of reporting the Middle East, when the 24/7 monopoly of the US news channel CNN was broken by Al Jazeera and others."

* * *

On the one hand, things were worse before, because information about the world came to us via Anglo-American sources.

A positive turning point came in the 1990s, particularly at first in terms of reporting the Middle East, when the 24/7 monopoly of the US news channel CNN was broken by Al Jazeera and others. Now, in 2017, satellites and mobile devices enable greater freedom of choice for billions of people, even though it sometimes feels as if football on all channels obscures the many life and death issues confronting humanity.

One disturbing thing is that media houses consider it self-evident that at least once a year some organisation or ministry will fund one of its foreign affairs journalists to go to some far-off country that is insignificant in terms of newsworthiness.

And yet many journalists who are interested in the problems of our time are frustrated by doing nothing but desk jobs, as employers no longer send them abroad very often. As a result, quite a few talented journalists have sought out jobs as press officers with NGOs and aid organisations so they can work in areas they’re theoretically familiar with.

The next turn of the vicious circle, however, is that by cutting development aid spending the government has forced those organisations to cut back on their communications work.

The position of freelancers is particularly bad. When I was a visiting professor at Tampere University I would urge journalism students who wanted to be foreign affairs reporters to go backpacking on a small budget to areas where there are no Finnish correspondents, such as Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, or then South and South-East Asia, because it’s impossible for correspondents in China to cover the whole continent.

That sort of undertaking on current pay levels requires sacrifice, and in this case the use of a student loan for a good purpose, unless there’s a “daddy pays” option.

* * *

The biggest obstacle, though, is the upstairs of many media houses. Why don’t they have more advocates of significant foreign affairs coverage so that we could avoid a situation like that of autumn 2015? That’s when many Finns were asking where all those young, well-dressed, asylum-seeking iPhone guys had come from, and what for.

Iraq’s new ambassador to Finland said recently that we’d have a different attitude to refugees if the media had more coverage of what the conditions were like in Iraq (or Afghanistan).

"Fear of the ‘other’ sells – as long as the media doesn’t make the ‘other’ familiar."

A few years ago I offered a story on South Sudan, which was on the brink of disaster, to Ilta-Sanomat, and the foreign desk was enthusiastic. Soon after, though, they informed me that those higher up weren’t interested in my offer because the same year the paper had had a piece on Africa by one of its own writers.

My Strongly critical take on all this does not mean that Finland handles foreign news reporting particularly badly. It’s just that in this area too we would like to be part of the Nordic reference group, and not sink any lower. The situation is really a lot worse in many West European countries or the US.

So, in many respects things were better before, though of course the internet nowadays provides a million times more information than those European newspapers that we used to cut up for clippings folders in the late ‘60s. Nowadays, though, much bypasses the passive general public, for one because of the fragmentation of the media. That’s why people turn to fake news and why we have so much hate speech.

Fear of the ‘other’ sells – as long as the media doesn’t make the ‘other’ familiar.

Text: Rauli Virtanen

Translation: Mark Waller