A decision to prosecute three journalists at Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has called into question its status as one of the world’s leading countries for press freedom. Investigative journalists Laura Halminen and Tuomo Pietilainen, along with their supervisor, Kalle Silfverberg, are accused of disclosing and attempting to disclose state secrets. All three deny the charges.
The case concerns a series of investigative articles about a military intelligence research center operated by the Finnish defense forces. If found guilty, the journalists face up to four years in prison, with a minimum sentence of four months.
Is Peace Possible in Ukraine?
Despite Finland’s status as a leading example for freedom of the press, it has not been problem-free, particularly with targeted harassment of journalists. However, the case against Helsingin Sanomat’s journalists has opened up an entirely new front for defenders of press freedom. It has also raised uncomfortable issues from Finland’s past, which the country is still grappling with.
A Small Country With a Large Neighbor
Finland, with a population of 5.5 million, shares a border of more than 800 miles with Russia and its population of more than 144 million. For Finnish leaders, this has meant taking a realist approach to foreign policy. In particular, the Winter War of 1939-40, when Finland resisted an attack by the Soviet Union, is one of the defining events in the country’s history.
The decades that followed World War II were challenging for Finland, a small country ravaged by war. Maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a necessity. Finland successfully avoided Soviet occupation and remained a democracy, but it paid the price in the form of “Finlandization,” which meant strict political neutrality and not challenging the influence of the Soviet Union.
Finland’s national security strategy is founded on conscription, a trained reserve, defense of the entire country and a willingness to defend it from attack. The aim is to make it an unappealing target for a would-be aggressor state.
A recent decision to renew Finland’s aging fleet of Hornets with 64 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, popular with NATO countries, forms part of the strategy. Maintaining good international relations and participating in international military crisis management are other key elements. Finland is not a member of NATO, but it joined the European Union in 1995. Polls indicate that support for NATO membership has grown significantly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Prosecution Before Publication
The case against the three journalists was triggered by an article that Helsingin Sanomat published in 2017. Legislative changes that aimed to extend the information-gathering powers of the security services were underway at the time. The newspaper’s representatives have argued that there were strong public interest reasons for publishing the story.
The police investigation included a raid on one journalist’s home and left them stuck in limbo for four years. The decision to prosecute, announced in late October 2021, concerns the article published five years ago and material for a series of unpublished articles. The prosecution based on unpublished material has understandably raised concerns.
There are currently limited facts available about the basis for the prosecution or the details of the case, but more information is expected to become public at a later stage. Based on the available information, it appears likely that one of the central questions in the case will hinge on when an investigative journalist’s research potentially crosses the line into an attempt to disclose state secrets.
The Finnish Union of Journalists has raised strong concerns about the case, pointing out that it could set a precedent and mean that a journalist’s unpublished notes might result in a conviction. The union and the Council for Mass Media, the independent media regulator, have called for openness in the legal proceedings.
While not taking a position on the case, the council has expressed concerns that it could result in restrictions on freedom of expression on grounds that may remain secret. The council has emphasized the need for clarity about the circumstances in which considering material for publication or finalizing material, without actually publishing it, could constitute a crime.
The issues raised by the Council for Mass Media include concerns about the risk of self-censorship. This is a sensitive historical issue, as the era of “Finlandization” included heavy self-censorship in the media and in publishing. Writing about the case for Politiikasta, academic scholars Anu Koivunen and Johanna Vuorelma warn against the risk of a return to a Cold War-era media environment, where every decision to publish was assessed from a security perspective.
Welcome to the Land of Free Press
In 2018, hundreds of billboards commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat famously greeted Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on their visit to Helsinki with messages such as, “Mr. President, welcome to the land of free press.” The case against Helsingin Sanomat’s journalists may test whether Finland still is that land of a free press.
Whatever the outcome of the case, it has given Finland, the world’s happiest country, cause for serious self-reflection.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.