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23rd Feb 2018

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Finnish PM embroiled in press freedom row

Finland's prime minister has been forced to deny trying to censor public broadcaster Yle over its coverage of a possible conflict of interest.

Juha Sipila got involved in a row with a reporter from Yle who had investigated a contract given by a state-run mine to a company owned by his relatives.

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In one email, he told the reporter: "My respect for Yle is now equal to zero, which of course doesn't differ from your respect for me. Now we are even."

Sipila told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday (30 November) he had not been given a "fair chance to comment on the story".

"There was not the slightest intention at any stage to limit the freedom of the press or to influence what Yle says or does not says," Sipila said.

"My confidence for Yle is OK," he added.

Elina Grundstrom of the Council for Mass Media, a media watchdog, said his handling of the case "looked bad".

She said it was "not tenable" for journalists to wait for the authorities before they report their stories.

The chancellor of justice, who oversees officials' compliance with the law, and the parliamentary ombudsman said they would look at the prime minister's possible conflict of interest.

The issue arose when state-run Terrafame mine, which had earlier received a huge injection of cash from the taxpayer, awarded a contract to Katera Steel, owned by Sipila's relatives.

The prime minister says he has no knowledge of Katera's business, was unaware of the contract, and denies he had any influence over Terrafame's decision to award the contract.

Meanwhile, Yle has itself come under fire after it was revealed that its head of news and current affairs, Atte Jaaskelainen, shelved follow-up stories on the conflict of interest case.

One presenter tweeted he had been warned for breaking the order.

Jaaskelainen issued a statement that he had simply told journalists to move on to other topics after Sipila's problems had led Yle's news agenda for four days.

Finland is generally regarded as having one of the world's best records on media freedom.

But the Sipila row is already the second controversy involving the government and Yle this year.

Last spring, then-finance minister Alexander Stubb told the public broadcaster to hand over its research of the Panama Papers leak to tax authorities and police.

Yle refused, and the Finnish authorities brought the case to court, where its pending trial.

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