Transparency and redefining boundaries

Photo: CC0In the last decades, international comparative studies have indicated that Finland has become known as the country with the least amount of corruption and relatively extensive freedom of speech. The transparency that began in the 1900s has been reinforced through political and administrative factors and through the internet as a new form of communication. At the same time, developments in the internet era have led to the redefinition of the boundaries of freedom of speech and to new facets of conflict. 

The conditions for and boundaries of freedom of speech in Finland have been strongly defined by social development in each era of time. Drafted during the reign of Sweden in the 1700s, Finland’s Act on freedom of writing and publishing (1766) was an early milestone in the freedom of speech and one of the first such laws in the world to be passed.

Despite legislation, political power relationships and aspirations have had a central role in the implementation of freedom of speech up until the 1990s. For example, criticism by those in power, nationalists, left-wing extremists and rightwing extremists have been seen as posing threats to freedom of speech.

According to international comparisons, the status of freedom of speech is excellent. However, critical arguments pertaining to the impact of social control and social networks on the actual realization of freedom of speech have been presented.

For example, the freedom of speech experienced in the field of media is contradictory; although freedom of speech is generally seen as having expanded, one fourth of journalists (2014) admit that they have not written an article for fear of the consequences, and chief editors of regional newspapers admit to adjusting their actions to some extent to meet the aspirations of external stakeholders.

Transparency

The availability of administrative and legislative information has created an important foundation for a more transparent culture of publicity. Since the 1990s, the  administrative transparency and civil influence have been supported through legislation, projects and programmes.

The revised Constitution of Finland, the Act on Openness of Government Activities, Administrative Procedure Act and the Local Government Act, especially, have supported the structures of transparency and participation. Proposals and discussions during Parliament sessions have been available online since the mid-1990s.

Citizen paticipation

Citizen participation was included in the Government Policy Programme (2003-2007) and the policies were further affirmed in the government resolution to expand democracy (2010). In 2013, Finland joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) program, whereby the government is committed to openness, simplification  of administrative language, opening the administrative information pool and increasing opportunities for citizens to engage in participation.

In the 2000s, investments were also made in services to promote citizen participation. The Parliament’s Committee for the Future launched experiments in civic participation, such as crowdsourcing. Government projects and bills were introduced for discussion in the Ota kantaa (“take a stance”) service maintained by the ministries.

The Electronic Citizens’ Initiative (2012), residents’ initiative (2013) and the Ministry of Justice’s online commenting service (2014) with background information services (“democracy database”) expanded citizens’ local and national participation.

Freedom of speech online 

The internet has changed the procedures and boundaries for limiting freedom of speech. The development of censorship has most generally progressed from the utopia of the free network (end of the 1990s) to the development of monitoring and censorship mechanisms, at the same time that regulation has increased (2000s). By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, censorship had become a globally accepted practice. A central phenomenon of the 2010s has been the activation of internet users in defending their rights online.

The overall trajectory of the development of online censorship is also reflected in public discussion in Finland, if considering news articles pertaining to freedom of speech in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (1995-2015). In the 1990s, the internet was seen as a forum for free communication. There were expectations concerning self-regulation, censorship was presumed impossible and it was predicted that the internet would bring democracy to dictatorships.

Adapting to the internet

The 2000s has seen the emerging of a redefining of the boundaries and concepts of freedom of speech and censorship and monitoring practices. When revising the Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in Mass Media, issues such as the internet as a medium, the concept of online publication, limitations adapted for the internet, monitoring and parties responsible for the limitations were considered.

Monitoring procedures became one of the themes. The data retention bill raised considerations about privacy and data protection as well as so called Lex Nokia bill, which pertains to monitoring communication at workplaces.

The 2010s has been characterized by extensive data leakages and conflicts pertaining to power and monitoring on the internet. The Snowden and Wikileaks infor mation leakages were reflected in the process of preparing the Finnish cyber intelligence law.

The 2006 uproar about the Muhammed illustrations and the illustrations in Finland by Ville Ranta concerning the issue demonstrated how internet media crises can spread quickly and globally. Hate speech and racism had been a topic in public discussion earlier. The EFFI civic organization, in particular, functioned as the voice for civic organizations, but issues pertaining to freedom of speech were also on the agendas of several political parties.

Conclusions

The developmental trajectory of freedom of speech in Finland in the last decades implies that the status of freedom of speech is the sum of many factors. Legislation has functioned as an essential enabler and creator of a culture of transparency. The limitations of freedom of speech which have been central throughout history – religious, political and propriety related limitations on freedom of speech – have changed shape in the last decades.

The religious collision course has shifted to involve Islam and the secular society. The internationally strained political situation creates new, sensitive questions. Pressure for social control and the impact of networking are further reflected in how people experience the status of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech disputes related to sexuality were chiefly associated with child protection.

The internet as services and space has also required the redefining of the boundaries and concepts of freedom of speech, which is made evident by copyright disputes, the concept of publication and editorial responsibility. Likewise, different practices limiting freedom of speech, such as limiting the possibility to write anonymously and monitoring network communication, have increased; most of the primary media sites in Finland require registration to be able to make comments.

Chief Information Specialist at the Parliament of Finland