The press is only free when journalism is for everyone

Photo: Toni Härkönen

Photo: Toni Härkönen

Finland is a major country for press freedom, but its journalists are white and they write for whites. People from different ethnic minorities can use social media to do “for us by us” journalism, writes editor-in-chief Koko Hubara.

I learnt to read when I was four, and, in addition to books I fell head-over-heels in love with newspapers and magazines. I read everything I could lay my hands on: dailies, all possible fashion and women’s magazines, youth magazines, and general interest periodicals.

It was extremely rare that people who looked like my family and me would appear in Finnish papers and magazines. In advertising, non-white women were sort of exotic creatures, and if they featured in journalistic pieces it was usually due to being Refugee Woman of the Year or some other survival story.

Last summer, I was thinking aloud about whether there could be a journalistic publication in Finland nowadays that would be made and owned by non-white journalists.

“I guess you know that no one will set up that sort of media or hire a brown editor-in-chief if you don’t do it yourself”, a friend said.

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Sometime earlier, in spring 2015, I had started a blog called Ruskeat Tytöt (Brown Girls). It dealt with my experiences of racism and sexism, as well as with culture and politics. From the outset the focus was a so-called “for us by us” viewpoint: the primary target group was racialised Finnish-speaking Finns, who hadn’t had their own blog or any other space in the media before.

As far as I know, for-us-by-us journalism originated from the needs of the US African-American population and the Harlem Renaissance movement of the early 20th century.

Today’s magazines like Ebony and Essence are for black people, the latter particularly for black women. The Huffington Post news site has its own subpages for black people and Hispanic people. There are also broad circulation media of this kind in the UK, such as the online magazines Gal-Dem and Black Beauty and Hair.

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Within a couple of weeks the Ruskeat Tytöt blog had attracted plenty of attention. It was picked up by other media and started to be cited in the major newspapers and magazines in Finland, both in good and bad tones.

Ruskeat Tytöt won various blog awards and received a lot of praise, but at the same time every other reader and/or (white) cultural correspondent, writer, theatre person, and artist had an opinion on how I should talk about racism and what should be considered “inoffensive”. For instance, when people at work touched my hair without asking and compared it to animal fur – that was simply friendly curiosity about difference, which I should understand and allow.

Of course I also got, and get, anonymous and signed hate mail and people hoping I would be raped or killed. There are still a lot of readers who are in the business of publicly belittling our experience and who change the subject when we raise the problems we face.

But for the most part the debate has been positive since the start, with an enthusiasm to learn and listen, and it has involved racialised people themselves as well as their white nearest and dearest whom the discussions undoubtedly address.

The blog led to a publishing deal (throughout its hundred-year history there have been about a dozen non-white Finnish writers published in Finland – the field of literature faces the same problems as journalism, but that’s a story for another time).

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I decided to discontinue the Ruskeat Tytöt blog and expand it into something entirely new, but with the same name and as a multi-channel online media that would produce written, visual, video, podcast, and social media content.

But where to get people to do it? From time to time I had asked various editors why their publications didn’t have non-white journalists, except for a few freelancers. The reply was always the same: “Because there aren’t any of you”. The explanation didn’t seem convincing. I decided to try the grapevine, and within a few weeks I got almost thirty non-whites – Finnish journalists, photographers, graphic artists, hair and makeup artists, stylists and illustrators from Finland, London and New York. Everyone wanted to get involved in Ruskeat Tytöt.

It emerged that the experience of most of them as journalism consumers was pretty similar to mine. Though working in the white Finnish media was mainly safe and straightforward, the possibilities for presenting original ideas and taking into account a racialised readership (for instance articles on beauty for black skin and hair; dealing with racism in a way that there was something new, including for ourselves) had not been good.

The subjects in Ruskeat Tytöt site are wide ranging: from the situation of asylum seekers to tailored therapy specifically for racialised people; from profiles of non-white artists to Afro hairstyle advice. The purpose of all the stories is to normalize the image of non-white people that’s mediated in Finland, and to offer non-white journalists the opportunity to do interesting and relevant journalistic projects.

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"Finnish journalism is by default white journalism."

When we speak about press freedom it’s usually meant as a gauge of how well journalists can carry out their work without censorship, intimidation and state pressure.

Although journalists in Finland do not by and large have to fear for their lives because of their writings, there are many subjects (such as immigration, and sexual and gender minorities’ rights) that trigger intimidating hate mail.

I don’t think that rating press freedom should only rest on these intrinsically serious problems. There also needs to be attention to the diversity of the press and the people who make it, who potentially stifle journalists or those who want to be journalists.

There is an almost unnoticed conception in our society of who can be a Finnish journalist. Finnish journalism is by default white journalism.

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One subject that’s not really been studied in relation to journalism, but which has been in relation to advertising and visual culture, for example, is that in Finland there is a replication of racist, colonial, over-sexualized, exotic, animalized and culinarized descriptions of non-white bodies, especially of women.

When I saw men who look like my father in the press, the articles were about terrorism, Middle East turmoil or about the sorts of (sexual) crimes brown men commit in Finland – and occasionally brown men featured in sport news. If the subject was routine politics, finance or for that matter gardening, the experts were always white people. And that’s still the case.

Studies show that 70 per cent of experts interviewed in the media are men. How many of them are non-white? And how many of the anyway infrequent interviews with women are with non-white women? And what about those racialised people who are not located in this gendered division?

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When I was a child, there was precisely one journalist on television – on a youth programme – who was not white. She was a woman called Tea Khalifa, and she was my world. I recorded videos of the slots she was in and watched them over and over again.

In my little child’s mind, I wondered if, from the hybrid to which I happened to be born (daughter of a working family made up of a brown immigrant father and white Finnish mother), I too could become a journalist. It didn’t help matters that while my school grades were good it was proposed at careers guidance that I do a degree in nursing or in teaching Finnish as a second language, in general without asking what my own wishes were. It was only three years ago that I found out that I wasn’t the only one who had this happen to them (there is on-going research in Finland suggesting that this happens to brown Finns all the time).

Of course there were brown Finnish journalists before me and Tea, but not many. It can always be pointed out that when I was a child ethnic minorities had been in Finland for such a short time that they could not have been present in every sector of society.

But when we look at the representation in journalism of Roma and Sámi, who have lived here for ages, it is not easy to be swayed by talk about minorities only being in Finland for a few decades.

We can also consider the United States, where there have bee non-white people since the beginning of the country’s existence, and yet their representation in journalism is still disproportionately small compared to the size of the population.

Graph: Alex T. Williams / Columbia Journalism Review

There are no such statistics for Finland, nor is it allowed to compile ethnicity-based population data. According to the American Society of News Editors’ 2016 Diversity Survey, 17 per cent of newsroom employees belong to an ethnic minority. The number is increasing, but nothing like in relation to the size of the population, nor fast enough, despite persistent efforts.

When we look more closely at the figures, we see too that in 2015 there were over 10 000 white women working in the survey’s respondent organisations, while there was altogether under 2 000 women employees belonging to ethnic minorities (black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and multi-ethnic).

And there’s an abundance of studies on the subject of people being alone and dissimilar within a large, homogenous group not necessarily getting heard.

Perhaps the issue is not only (or at all) that we are so few here. Maybe it’s that there is a massive threshold to cross in being among the first to start to do something that hasn’t been done before. And if you manage to, what are the sorts of compromises you have to make? What’s it like for non-white journalist to work in an all-white editorial team? Can this journalist practice freedom of expression in such a situation?

"What’s it like for non-white journalist to work in an all-white editorial team?"

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In the end, following many fortuitous twists of fate, I became a journalist (and blogger, writer, translator and chief editor). I happened to get to know the right people, was in the right place at the right time, and got to write small pieces in papers and magazines I liked. But every time I clicked the send button on the email and sent off my idea for article I would think: what if they think that I don’t know Finnish (well enough)? What if they don’t see me as a person and a journalist but as a representative of all brownness?

I wasn’t completely wrong. At an editorial meeting I was asked about my ethnic background. Editors have said that I write in Finnish really well. I’ve been repeatedly asked to write articles on what it’s like to be a non-white Finn, what racism feels like, and so on, even though I have suggested pieces on many different subjects (and of course I’ve been able to write those too, I don’t deny it).

Hearing jokes bandied about for fun in the basically all-white-male editorial office about me as an immigrant and the continual sex talk was routine stuff. I didn’t know then how to say out loud how awful it felt, and it’s still hard to challenge the inappropriate talk of my esteemed colleagues. Who’d want to be the workplace wet blanket who can’t take a good joke? It’s also hard to put into words how this sort of treatment has influenced what I have dared to say as a journalist.

I don’t know what would have happened to my work without social media and the blogosphere. Journalists often talk about them in disparaging tones, because it’s thought that social media facilitates the spread of false information and doesn’t challenge people to get to know about things other than those that they already agree with.

Sometimes it’s good for people to read about things they agree with – at least for those people who haven’t before read hardly anything, that specifically apply to their affairs. From the viewpoint of a racialised Finnish journalist, social media was eventually the only possible channel through which to bring such considerations and journalistic perspectives to the public conversation in centenary Finland – this model country of press freedom.

Text: Koko Hubara

Translation: Mark Waller