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Censorship and self-censorship in Finland

June 25, 2007

Prior to Finland’s entry into European Union in 1995, there was little written in the English-language media about the Nordic country. Apart from news agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press, a handful like the Financial Times wrote regularly about Finland as well. When I wrote for the FT in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I’d file on average two stories per week on the country.

Undoubtedly the Soviet angle was was one of the most intriguing aspects of being a foreign correspondent in Helsinki. The first front-page story I ever wrote was published in 1985. It was a story about Soviet authorities asking Finnish customs officials to keep secret the price of natural gas that Finland imported from the USSR.

If you wrote critical stories on a regular basis about Finnish-Soviet relations, you were placed under close scrutiny by Soviet Embassy and even Finnish Foreign Ministry officials. I was told by one Finnish diplomat based in Madrid in the mid-1980’s that I would be blacklisted if I didn’t stop writing stories that ran against to “the official” foreign policy line.

The diplomat was annoyed by a story I had written in Cambio 16, one of Spain’s largest newsmagazines, on the contraband of Bibles from Finland to the Soviet Union.

Writing lame stories about Finland during the Cold War-era meant not writing about human rights issues, refugee from the USSR nor questioning sensitive geopolitical agreements like the treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Understanding (FCMA).

How much censorship or self-censorship existed in Finland before the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s? Part of the answer can be found in the editorials of the country’s major newspapers.

Were such editorials ever outspoken about Finnish-Soviet relations? Did they openly question the government’s foreign policy stance with the former USSR? What did Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily, write the next day after Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia in 1968? Why didn’t the Finnish press ever question why the country granted only once political asylum to a Soviet citizen?

We cannot change the past but we can understand it well enough so we’ll never fall pray to the trap of censorship and self-censorship.

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