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9th Dec 2019

Finnish TV station risks EU Council ban

  • Microphones are meant to be turned off at Council 'round-tables' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Finland’s national broadcaster, Yle, risks being banned from all EU Council “round-tables” after it published ministers’ remarks in Latvia.

Janis Berzins, the Latvian EU presidency spokesman, told EUobserver on Friday (1 May) that Riga is “in talks” with EU Council officials and with the International Press Association (API) in Brussels on how to react.

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But Latvia, which holds the EU chairmanship until July, has already banned Yle from council meetings on its home turf.

The round-table is a media format in which camera crews film ministers as they mingle before a meeting begins.

The footage is used as background for anchormen’s comments or for quotes from other sources.

Yle, on 24 April at an informal meeting of EU finance ministers in the Latvian capital, filmed and published a conversation between Finland’s Antti Rinne and his Slovak counterpart Peter Kazimir.

The two men discussed whether a Finnish politician, Jutta Urpilainen, will try to unseat Rinne as the chairman of Finland's Social Democratic Party.

“Jutta has now started a campaign,” Rinne said.

“Campaign for what?” Kazimir replied.

“For the presidency,” Rinne said.

“Of the party?” Kazimir added.

“Yes,” Rinne said.

“Ah, so she would like to come back?” Kazimir noted.

“Yes,” Rinne said.

A contact from Yle’s newsdesk in Helsinki, who asked not to be named, said it didn’t break the rules because they only apply to official EU meetings in Brussels or in Luxembourg.

“If it had been an official meeting in Brussels, we wouldn’t have done it”, he said.

He noted they took the risk because the story “is of big interest to Finnish people, that they [Rinne and Urpilainen] are having this fight”.

He said the issue shouldn’t be blown out of proportion in terms of press freedom. But he added that Yle sometimes holds back material if, for instance, publication would harm national security.

“We don’t always put out everything we have. We make the decisions on a case-by-case basis”.

For his part, Latvia’s Berzins dismissed the argument.

“It’s obvious that the EU Council rules apply [in Riga]. It’s a council meeting even if takes place somewhere else”, he said.

“They [Yle] can still have full access to press conferences and to other people’s stock shots. But their own cameras won’t be let into the room”.

The rules, as stipulated by API, say media must “make sure that camera microphones are set to record background noises (not conversations) and, if despite this setting conversations are nonetheless recorded, such recordings must not be used”.

They also say the provisions “apply in the council press centre (Justus Lipsius building) … and the press centre of the Kiem Conference Centre in Luxembourg”.

API’s president, Tom Weingaertner, said a decision on the wider Yle ban will be taken next week.

"We haven’t taken a definitive position yet”.

But he added “basically, we think the rules always apply … if you ask me personally there’s no difference these days between formal and informal council talks”.

Open microphone gaffes are rare in EU circles.

But other international meetings have had to grapple with the same issue.

A meeting of the G8 club of wealthy nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006, saw widespread publication of an exchange between the then British and US leaders, Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

“ Yo, Blair. How are you doing?”, Bush said at the time.

“Thanks for the sweater - it's awfully thoughtful of you”, he added.

“It's a pleasure”, Blair said.

“I know you picked it out yourself”, Bush noted.

“Oh absolutely - in fact, I knitted it”, Blair replied, before the conversation turned to a war, then erupting, between Lebanon and Israel.

“What they [Lebanon] need to do is … to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's all over”, Bush noted, referring to a Shia Muslim militia in Lebanon.

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