News / 08.11.2011

Are immigrants treated with kid gloves in Finnish media?

Linus Atarah

As an organisation responsible for the protection of minority rights, the Ombudsman for Minorities in Finland has an interest in how immigrants are covered in the media because it is obliged to consider the boundaries of freedom of speech as defined by law, the issue of defamation in connection with hate speech and the incitements of hatred against certain groups, said Eva Biaudet, the Minorities Ombudsman in her opening remarks.

“We have noticed that the law as such is not a sufficient tool with which to reflect on how to reduce discriminating or harmful speeches or attitude-driven speeches in the media or in the society”, said Biaudet.

According to her, it is therefore important that public discussions such as the one organised by JSN are held in order to collectively reflect on the role of the media in creating a tolerable environment around migration issues by their choice of words.

Risto Uimonen, Chairperson of the media watchdog Media Council of Finland (JSN), on his part said public discussion on immigrants and media coverage is important from the perspective of maintaining the high quality of Finnish journalism. It is a difficult issue and the media has to carefully navigate between overreaction and being too politically correct, he said.

In spite of the fact that Finland still has a very small immigrant population compared to other European countries – about 155 000 and only 3.1 per cent of the total population – increased immigration in the last few years has given rise to an upsurge in xenophobia and racism.

To a very large extent playing on people’s anti-immigrant sentiments was a central factor in the phenomenal electoral success of The True Finns Party in this year’s parliamentary elections.

Since then attitude towards immigrants have hardened and there has been a polarised debate in the media in Finland about migrants and asylum seekers, centred on whether immigrants are given a fair coverage or negatively portrayed in the media. Anti-immigrant group also accuse the media of being too soft on immigration by avoiding publishing its negative consequence.

The government has also been forced to harden its stand on immigration by tightening its asylum laws and cutting back benefits to asylum seekers which is thought to be too generous and therefore entices people to seek asylum in Finland.

Speaking at the seminar Camilla Haavisto, a researcher in the University of Helsinki who has written her dissertation on how the media has covered immigrants in Finland said in the early 1990s – coinciding with the time of the arrival of spontaneous refugees in Finland for the first time – the media discourse characterised immigrants as infants and it still persists to this day.

She likened the childish characterisation of immigrants to the language used by a relative addressing her first-grade niece: “Is it nice to be at school? Do you have difficulties in any particular subject? Isn’t it difficult to rise up early since you have not used to it. Do you have nice friends?”

Another discourse most used by media in relation to immigrants was association with crime. “Over 70 percent of newspaper stories about Russians at the beginning of 2000 were in one way or the other connected with crime. Taken generally one-quarter of newspapers carried this theme”, she said.

Haavisto therefore rejected claims that Finnish media avoided immigration and its problems before 2008. 

What was missing in the media, however, said Haavisto, “was lack of committed or even interested attitude towards the parliamentary debate on immigration policy issues at the end of the decade and the beginning of the 2000. The news was descriptive, officials talked but politicians were conspicuous by their absence”. Immigration has only recently become politicised.

The current dominant media discourse about immigrants, said Haavisto, is framed in terms of costs and benefits. Reading between the lines in news stories there are always hints whether a particular immigrants or group is potentially productive and would swell up the tax chest.

“Is today’s fixation on costs necessary”, she asked. “Is it always obligatory that each story about an immigrant or asylum seeker should have a side box detailing the maintenance costs of immigration?”

 Riikka Venäläinen, editor of the biggest circulating daily Helsingin Sanomat welcomed a dialogue between media practitioners and media critique because the two, working in concert, she said, can help shape an understanding of the difficult issue of immigration.

However in her defence of the media, especially Helsingin Sanomat coverage of immigrant issues, Venäläinen said that the media should not hush over anything which might appear unpleasant about immigration.

”We should be able to talk about issues in a straight forward manner using their right names. If it is a racial war then we should be able to say a racial war”, she said, in apparent reference to a violent clash between immigrants and Finnish youths in Hakunila, in Vantaa, a few years ago.

Helsingin Sanomat, she said, has increased its coverage of immigrant issues within the last few years, devoting on average about an article a day to immigrant issues because according to her, it is an important issue and should be discussed.

Johanna Korhonen, a journalist and columnist for Helsingin Sanomat said that the use of language in relation to immigration depends on the attitude and the context within which the words are uttered.

“Is it the attitude or the words”, Korhonen asked. “If the attitude is right and the context is also right then the words do not matter”, she said.

  Risto Uimonen said that the mainstream media should be able to freely discuss immigration issues. According to him, if the mainstream media had been willing to tackle the issue squarely, there would have been no need to for it to have become a subject taken up exclusively by anti-immigrants in online discussion forums, such as the xenophobic Hommaforum.

To create a better understanding of immigration issues, Haavisto recommended that journalists should avoid creating conflict where a conflict situation does not necessarily exist – journalists always insists on  giving the side other of the story which often gives a false dichotomy where none exists. The practice gives disproportionate say to representatives of people who oppose immigrants and cultural diversity and it has become overused after the The True Finns Party’s gained political prominence.

She also advised that journalist should always try to seek out expert opinions when reporting on immigration issues in order to provide appropriate background information.

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