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Finland climbs to second place in 2019 World Press Freedom Index against background of court action against hate speech

The latest press freedom rankings produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sees Finland close to regaining the top position it enjoyed from 2010 to 2017. It comes second, behind Norway, among the countries considered to have a good press freedom situation.

Last year Finland was ranked fourth and third in 2018. The index categorises 180 countries and territories according to five criteria, from “good situation” through to “very serious situation”.

The comparative fall from grace in those years was due to attempted interference in the work of the public broadcaster by the prime minister and a police raid on the home of a journalist working for the national daily Helsingin Sanomat. In the latter case, the journalist concerned was investigating the presence of a secret intelligence-gathering centre.

But the high visibility press freedom campaign that accompanied the meeting in Finland of presidents Trump and Putin last July was picked up on by RSF as a positive assertion of freedom of expression.

The campaign included the posting of large billboards along route of the presidents’ motorcade announcing “Mr President, welcome to the land of free press”.

RSF also highlighted the robust response by Helsinki District Court in passing guilty verdicts against Johan Bäckman and the founder of the anti-immigration online mag MV-lehti Ilja Janitskin for harassing, defaming and incitement to defame journalist Jessikka Aro.

UJF president Hanne Aho expressed delight at Finland’s improved ranking and at how tenaciously the problem of hate speech is being tackled

“The court clearly denounced the persecution and further stated that the actions of those convicted had nothing to do with freedom of expression,” Aho recalled.

She also highlighted the importance of press freedom for a democratic society to function. The issue has become a rallying point in light of the efforts to curtail press freedom or distort freedom of speech.

“The importance of freedom of the press was also clearly highlighted by representatives of different parliamentary parties during the elections,” Hanne Aho observed.

Overall, though, the RSF index records a worsening of press freedoms around the world and increased fear and violence targeting journalists’ work.