We take freedom of expression for granted though its teetering on its foundations

Riku Rantala

Riku Rantala

The heroes of free speech don’t live in the Nordics but in poverty stricken, dangerous countries.

What’s the first thing I do when I arrive in a country I’ve never been to before? I buy a local newspaper.

I get an English language paper – if I can find one – and a couple of the biggest circulation papers in the main languages of the country, even though I might not understand them at all. I’ve always found someone to translate the main headlines and photo captions over a beer.

Why? As a journalist and professional traveller I’ve noticed the importance of newspapers, even though I’m often bemused when reading them. They’re often so obviously marred by censorship, corruption, propaganda, or sheer lack of professionalism that from our perspective they look like parodies.

This is precisely why every traveller should get a handle on the local media. Broken or tainted, it’s a revealing window on a skewed society.

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I found out about world-class violations of freedom of expression before I started my travelling career. This happened at the kiosk in the central railway station in Helsinki, which in the 1980s had a selection of foreign newspapers. The most hilarious were the fetid and short Neuvosto-Karjala (Soviet Karelia) and South African Panorama, the mouthpiece of South Africa’s apartheid regime. To a 12-year-old they were comical papers, even funnier to read for their zaniness than the Finnish satirical mag Pahkasika.

The Finnish-language Neuvosto-Karjala would report on the opening of a new tractor repair shop, complete with mention of the smithy who’d forged its sign, even though the whole system was coming apart at the seams. Though Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged openness, it wasn’t reflected in any shape or form on the pages of the main organ of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic

South African Panorama, on the other hand, was an elegant, glossy magazine. Its open and grotesque racism was shocking to a small boy, as at the time half the planet had put a trade embargo on the country and demanded the release of Nelson Mandela. The magazine carried on as if nothing of the sort had ever happened – wholly blind to the surrounding reality.

Later, when travelling, my favourite bugbear became The New Light of Myanmar, the paper of the military junta in Burma – in which I’ve still yet to see a single photo that doesn’t feature some swaggering generals. Despite that, in recent years Myanmar has improved its ranking in Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

I have worked in four of the ten countries in which, according to the index, presswork is the most difficult to do. My director Tunna Milonoff and I have gone all over the place without permission to film or press visas, so as to avoid being monitored by the authorities.

Being a fast and flexible two-man film crew we’ve not been caught – though we were almost busted in Cuba (173rd on index of 180 countries) and in Laos (170th). In China (176th) we got a good lesson about the risks involved.

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In China, it seemed at first that the hardest thing was filming a programme in occupied Tibet. For instance, the Barkhor temple area in the capital, Lhasa, was full of Chinese secret police spies and surveillance cameras. We didn’t run into any problems, though, and we managed to get the video footage out of the country without being detained or having anything seized.

A month later, in Guangdong, in southern China, I guess our vigilance had slackened.

Not for long.

In Guangzhou, we sneaked our cameras to the livestock market where it was suspected that the SARS epidemic started. The market was a bedlam of animals kept in extremely bad conditions in small cages filled with faeces, and there was also trafficking in endangered species and other shady activities taking place all around. It was reckoned that the dangerous epidemic originated in that market from the illegal sale of civets.

Our interpreter was Helen, a young journalist trainee with the local Southern Metropolis Daily. “Be quick,” she whispered. “We’ll all be locked up if we’re caught. But no worries. You’ll be out in a couple of weeks at the latest.”

Yes, we would have been. We decided to work fast so that Helen wouldn’t be caught too – she’d be sure to be banged up for longer than a few weeks. Later, back in Finland, we read that Helen’s boss had been gaoled for six years for criticising the government and for revelations to do with the SARS epidemic.

When such things happen, I’m time and again amazed and deeply impressed by the fact that professional journalists have the courage to do their job regardless of the dangers. Papers like Southern Metropolis Daily manage to produce quality journalism in situations where many Finnish reporters would shy away from interesting but dangerous stories.

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During my years of travel, the world has fundamentally changed. The importance of newspapers and traditional media has declined while that of social media has grown.

In terms of freedom of expression, you’d think this was a positive development – now practically anyone can get involved in mass communications and without sizeable start-up capital – but I’m not really sure.

For one, in the most problematic countries, social media content is also censored and internet use is monitored and severely restricted.

Second, in countries that are traditionally models of freedom of expression, the changing landscape of the media is manifested as escalating confrontation, a mushrooming of fake news, a blurring of source criticism, and even in the fact that some politicians have started using and abusing media that is not fact-based.

All the dictators in the world and those who want to curtail freedom of expression welcome this trend with a smile.

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Cambodia, which has done reasonably well in the press freedom statistics among Southeast Asian countries (meaning it is not among the world’s lowest third in the international indices), is a good example of the global trend. There, the situation of freedom of expression has weakened substantially in recent years, underpinned by big power politics.

Following the country’s bloody civil war of the early 1990s, the multifarious media played an important role in building the fragile democracy. But in 2017, the Cambodia Daily, one of the most supportive media of country's civil society, established in 1993, closed down following the brutish imposition of unendurable additional taxation by the authorities.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for the past thirty years, has been taking no chances in securing his re-election in the 2018 elections. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have been shut down, and the National Democratic Institute, funded by the US, had to close its doors.

Only some years ago, Hun Sen was eligible for US development funds, but now the new skyscrapers of Chinese real estate investors are transforming the Phnom Penh skyline. In Cambodia, Chinese funding has already quadrupled compared to American aid.

As with many areas, for instance in Africa, China is increasing its influence in its neighbouring regions by supporting more prosperous states. Chinese support is a good thing for corrupt leaders, because this aid donor is not interested in human rights or press freedom.

But Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has spoken appreciatively of US President Donald Trump – quoting one of his outbursts against the media.

Paraphrasing The Atlantic, we have come to the point where the United States – a former beacon of freedom – nowadays mainly inspires dictatorships.

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Back to Finland, the model country of freedom of expression. For years we held top place in the Press Freedom Index, until pressure exerted by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä on the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) and the resulting fallout knocked us to third place.

But how does Finnish freedom of expression appear in the context of my travels – journeys where I have seen both actual propaganda and have been afraid to reveal myself as a journalist?

It seems young at any rate. We too had our time of muteness, not all that long ago. Some of the journalists who experienced this are still around. It’s important to bear this in mind: the road to self-censorship is a short one for us too.

I think the Finnish media still identifies too much with those in power. We are amused by how in the Russian media journalists traditionally regard the polishing of the national self-image and other non-journalism as part of their job, but we don’t see the log in our own eye.

Our journalists should take a stricter attitude to powers of be, and take a clearer position outside its sphere, even if in terms of our academic backgrounds we are the same crowd. Sure, consensus is useful in a small country, but the role of the media should not be to advance politicians’ agendas in society.

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Even though we have freedom of speech, how do we use it? By making headlines to solicit clicks and by shouting in hate chatrooms.

The other threats here are the same as in other countries that take freedom of expression for granted: information overload and entertainment deluge. Journalists need to find ways by which the public can also consume important media content.

We don’t talk enough about the worst threats: bubbles where we live and consume in – and algorithms. These are the mechanisms whereby the search engine Google or social media from Facebook to Twitter distort our worldview when it comes to maximising advertising revenue by choosing our news flow that enhances our beliefs and removes content that our beliefs call into question.

If we really want to defend democracy and freedom of expression, these gigantic media companies, which are bound by no rules or regulations, should be reined in by joint international efforts, without sacrificing the freedom of the internet. There’s a major need to put things into shape within the whole European Union.

It’s anyway clear that it’ll be pointless to look for the heroes of freedom of expression from the top of the Press Freedom Index. They are entirely elsewhere, at the tail end of the index, gathering and publishing important and meaningful information to the public – and often risking their own lives to do so.

Text: Riku Rantala
Translation: Mark Waller

The writer is a journalist, author, and international adventurer. The TV series Madventures featuring Rantala and his director Tunna Milonoff has been sold to nearly 200 countries.