In headlines now / 01.10.2020

Court dismisses journalist’s appeal in “racist Nazi clown” defamation case

The Rovaniemi Court of Appeal has dismissed the appeal by Finnish journalist Johanna Vehkoo in the defamation case brought by far-right local counsellor Junes Lokka. Vehkoo was found guilty in April of defaming Lokka by labelling him a racist and Nazi clown on one of her closed-group Facebook posts. She was given a 14-day income-linked ‘day fine’ and ordered to pay Lokka’s court costs of €6 000 plus €200 compensation for the suffering he had endured. UJF president Hanne Aho has slammed the court decision for failing to take into account Lokka’s history of harassing and trolling Vehkoo for her work on exposing fake news. Aho pointed out that it was “unreasonable” of the court to have only mentioned one instance in which Lokka had phoned the journalist, instead of seeing this as part of a chain of harassment. Lokka, a member of the ultra-right Muutos party, has a history of self-identifying as a racist and stirring up hatred. In February this year he was convicted by Oulu District Court for what is termed “ethnic agitation”, after he posted racist videos on Facebook and YouTube. The appeal court found that Lokka’s previous behaviour did not justify the use of defamatory language against him. Out of context But the UJF president stressed that the appeal court failed to take account of the context of the case, where the alleged defamation took place on a closed Facebook group and not publicly. “The grounds of the judgment refer to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights where journalists have been convicted of defamation. However, the decisions apply to published articles. “Vehkoo did not publish an article or present her views in any way publicly, but rather to a restricted group of friends on Facebook. The deeds are not proportionate.” Aho called for consistency in the legal process, citing the case and earlier Oulu District Court verdict and state prosecutor ruling concerning offensive comments made on the page of Facebook closed group for members of the police in 2018. The decision then was that charges would be unwarranted because the posting was to a closed group, which at the time had 2 800 members. Vehkoo’s Facebook closed group was also a closed one and had only 300 members. Harassment must be condemned The UJF has supported Vehkoo throughout the case, including by buying a cartoon by artist Ville Ranta of a crazed-looking Lokka spewing invective. The money paid for the cartoon, which matched Vehkoo’s fine and costs, was donated by Ranta to assist the journalist. The union president said that it was particularly serious that the court did not recognise the problem of the harassment of journalists. Recent years have seen a number of high profile cases involving journalists being targeted, often by far right groups and fake news platforms. “It’s really worrying that the court doesn’t recognise harassment. This has legislative implications: the harassment of journalists must be identified and condemned.” The Finnish chapter of PEN has also looked at the wider free-speech context of the case. In an article for the organisation’s website, writer Elina Hirvonen wrote that under the Finnish penal Code “criticism of another person's conduct in political activities that does not clearly go beyond what is acceptable is not considered a defamation.” The appeal court ruled that Vehkoo’s comments on Lokka had not concerned his political activity. But what else could the epithet “Nazi” refer to if it were not Lokka’s politics, asked Hirvonen. Vehkoo said that she is undecided whether to take the case to the Supreme Court of Appeal, but is seriously considering doing so. She said that journalists have long been discouraged from using accurate terms to describe racists and the like, and that they have abide by the self-descriptions that such groups use. “We need to be able to say out loud that a person who supports a racist ideology is a racist, even if they themselves deny it.” Mark Waller Previous articles on the case:

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