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16th Jun 2019

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UN celebrates press freedom, but journalists under fire

  • Reporters without borders say 2016 was the worst year for free press in twelve years. (Photo: Unesco)

More than 1,000 people will celebrate press freedom on Tuesday and Wednesday, paying tribute to murdered journalists at a special conference organised by Unesco in Helsinki's Finlandia Hall.

The venue is symbolic. Finland recently topped the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) index of press freedom for the seventh year in a row.

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The country is also a pioneer in the field.

Two hundred and fifty years have passed since Anders Chydenius, a Finnish priest and liberal, authored what is widely regarded as the world’s first freedom of information law. He forced through his motion at the 1766 parliamentary gathering of Sweden, whose sovereignty at that time extended to Finland.

The act limited censorship and gave people the right to access state documents.

”Freedom for writing and printing is one of the strongest pillars of support for free government,” Chydenius wrote in 1765.

Journalism helps states to make better laws and informs subjects on the limits of authority and their own duties, he argued.

”[Without it,] learning and good manners would be suppressed, coarseness in thought, speech and customs would flourish, and a sinister gloom would within a few years darken our entire Sky of Freedom.”

Unfortunately, press freedom is still not a given 250 years later.

This year was the worst year for free media in 12 years, according to the RSF index

RSF deplored the ”deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom around the world.

“Many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism,” said RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire.

“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests.”

Finnish freedom threatened

Europe remains the most free region for journalists, but it is moving downhill.

Poland recently pushed through a ”nationalisation” of public TV and radio services, which cost some 135 people their jobs after they were deemed to be disloyal to the new government.

The UK also fell in ratings after police violated the confidentiality of journalists' sources.

German chancellor Angela Merkel recently authorised criminal proceedings against a comedian who published a satirical poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The move came at the request of Turkey, which is ranked 151 of the 180 countries in the RSF index. Turkey is among the world's most prolific countries for jailing journalists.

Press freedom isn't even safe in the countries that first championed it.

Sweden dropped from fifth to eighth position in the latest RSF index because of threats against journalists.

”It’s a real threat to democracy. Internet media are closing their comment fields. Many journalists say they self-censor,” Swedish media professor Ingela Wadbring told EUobserver.

Internet trolls mainly target women who take a stance on immigration or sexuality, she said.

"Actually, often it’s enough just to be a woman [journalist]," she added.

In Finland, meanwhile, finance minister Alexander Stubb recently tweeted a call to public broadcaster Yle. He urged it to hand over material linked to the Panama Papers leak to tax authorities and police.

The editors refused, saying that would create a dangerous precedent on Finland’s ability to protect sources.

Ville Vilen and Marit af Bjoerkesten of Yle told Stubb in a written statement: ”Who would involve a journalist from a country where there is a risk that officials can demand - and receive - confidential information?

"How reliable would others consider an organisation that officials could barge in to confiscate files? Could Finns themselves ever rely on journalists to protect their sources?

"The Panama Papers are important, but this is a question of even more meaningful values and principles."

Stubb stopped tweeting about the case after the world press freedom festivities began.

Finnish PM embroiled in press freedom row

Juha Sipila denies trying to pressure a journalist to stop investigating conflict of interest allegations, but a media watchdog says his handling of the issue "looks bad".

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