“Luckily, it has become more difficult to hide the truth. The media can easily present stories based on the trail of evidence,” says University Lecturer Salli Hakala from the discipline of media and communication studies at the University of Helsinki.
This has resulted from the general increase in the level of education and amount of information available to the public, as well as new media technologies. A recent example of a covert operation was Finland’s involvement in the investigation of the passenger plane that was shot down in Ukrainian airspace, which led to President Sauli Niinistö giving an unprecedented media briefing. Another is Helsinki's ongoing expansion of the metro network, about which no information seems forthcoming to the media, even though the project is publicly funded.
“This is often the case when a public agent has to tackle the competition practices of the free market. They become secretive and reticent with information," says Hakala.
Hakala calls for more transparency in application and decision-making processes. Transparency hinges on the openness of information.
“That seems to be a challenge in our political climate. Often things aren’t discussed in public until decisions have been made. Recent studies have corroborated that our decision-makers are reluctant to release details while negotiations are ongoing.”
Conflict between the centralisation of power and the rights of citizens
A conflict has arisen between the concentration of power and the people’s right to be informed.
“Transparency requires constant effort,” Hakala states.
According to researcher Kari Karppinen from the discipline of media and communication studies, new tensions are likely to emerge in the dynamic between publicity and secrecy.
“The right of the people to access information is not being implemented equally, and the right to know is not an absolute right," Karppinen explains.
However, the researchers point out that transparency does not mean media publicity alone. The structures of communications and the openness of government are influenced by social and economic interests, political choices and power relations. The conflict often lies between the requirements of business competition, economic growth and technology on the one hand, and the ideals of democracy, freedom of speech and citizens' rights on the other.
“Not everything is interesting to the media. There are topics that don’t really lend themselves to news articles.”
Based on ideals from the Enlightenment
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Swedish act on the freedom of the press and public access to government documents. Together with other progressives, Anders Chydenius managed in 1766 to have the law enacted by the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament, when the Riksdag was also the governing body of Finland. It was the most liberal freedom of the press act in the world at the time, abolishing censorship and promoting open political debate.
It was also the first law in the world to decree the right to information – the first time an act stated that documents produced by the government and the judicial system were public by default and at the disposal of the citizenry. The creation of this law was part of the broader phenomenon of the Enlightenment.
“Finland is still one of the top countries in the world in terms of press freedom. However, freedom of speech and public access are ideals that may not be fully attainable. Some things fall outside the scope of publicity,” Karppinen points out.
The University of Helsinki will organise a symposium on the public right to information and transparency in government on 14 October to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the act on the freedom of the press. The symposium will be livestreamed and a recording may be viewed later at https://www.helsinki.fi/fi/unitube/video/20537
Link to the 250 Symposium