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Prosecutor General decides not to press charges on hate speech targeting journalist

(By Mark Waller) The case of the deluge of hate speech directed at a journalist for doing her job exposes the limits of current legislation designed protect journalists and press freedom.

The Prosecutor General has decided not to press charges concerning the slander and threats directed at award winning journalist Rebekka Härkönen after reporting on the terrorist knife attack in Turku on 18 August 2017. Following the ruling, Härkönen told Yle that while she understood the decision the upshot of it affects how press freedom is upheld.

UJF president Hanne Aho said that the state is sending out the wrong signals. “People should be able to carry out their work without becoming the targets of campaigns trashing them – no matter whether it’s journalists, doctors, police officers or whoever. The organised besmirching of another person should be totally forbidden both by law and in our collective consciousness”.

Härkönen became a target for anti-immigrant extremists following publication of an article she wrote for her paper, Turun Sanomat, on the attack that left two people dead and eight wounded. She interviewed an 18-year-old Afghan man, Ahmad Hosseini, an asylum seeker, who had assisted one of the injured and had chased after the attacker.

The article provoked a storm of online abuse, particularly after the chairperson of the rightwing nationalist Finns Party used his Facebook timeline to boost an article from the anti-immigrant online fake news site MV-lehti that condemned Härkönen’s story as a fabrication.

But Härkönen’s article was thoroughly researched and it mentions the actions of Finns who assisted at the scene. It highlighted the role of Hosseini because it was newsworthy. In its subtext the story clearly challenged some of the prevailing stereotypes in Finland of asylum seekers from predominantly Muslim countries.

The police took the initiative in investigating the possible criminal nature of the torrent of online abuse, slander and threats Härkönen received.  She said that at the time she was glad that Finland is the kind of society prepared to tackle harassment and coercion directed at a journalist and press freedom.

Härkönen initially wanted the hate speech directed at her to be subject to criminal charges, but later withdrew the demand when the burden of threats made against her became too great.

Härkönen said that the move was also the only way to get the Prosecutor General to consider whether to take up the case in the public interest without the victim pressing charges.

On 9 March this year the Prosecutor General issued the decision not to press charges in the matter as the hate speech directed at Härkönen was not a matter that could be considered of major public importance.

The decision, said Härkönen, reflects the systemic weakness of legislation. She stressed that the decision of the Prosecutor General is understandable and that the bar is set particularly high in terms of what constitutes a matter of public importance. Härkönen’s case is also something of a novelty for the office Public Prosecutor.

“I think our legislation is totally inadequate for protecting journalists doing their job and press freedom, which is a pillar of a democratic society. The legislation should be changed.”

One of the weaknesses in the current system, she pointed out is that a campaign of harassment and persecution directed at an individual is not regarded as a sufficiently grave offense in toto.

She said that there should be a full public debate on how press freedom works in practice.