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Tarja Halonen: Democracy is not a freeze-frame

“Democracy is not a freeze-frame. It’s a continual process,” former President of Finland  Tarja Halonen told participants at the recent Nordic Freelance Seminar. The annual conference was held this year on Suomenlinna Island 15-16 September, and Halonen was one of the guest speakers.

The seminar, which drew some 200 participants, examined the future of freelancing amidst the range of growing pressures facing the profession. Halonen said that freedom of expression or democracy should not be taken for granted, and referred to Finland’s loss of its top place in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

“The limits are being tested by forces other than the media. During the past year, for instance, I’ve heard Finnish politicians say: ‘I know what the Constitution says, but it’s difficult and impractical to abide by it.’”

The former president said she is concerned that many decision-makers have the same attitude to human rights conventions.

“They say that the world was different when human rights conventions were written and that’s why these conventions no longer work. Yes, the world is different. The people who wrote the human rights conventions had experienced the Second World War. We should honour them and the work they did. And we should honour the human rights convention.”

Halonen referred too to the 1766 Freedom of Press Act, enacted in Sweden, which concerned printing and at the time was the most liberal legislation of its kind.

“Over time, the openness of the authorities and decision-makers has become an essential element of Nordic democracy.”

She expressed concern at the rise of hate speech and in particular the threats directed at women.

“Women journalists and researchers are threatened as soon as they express themselves publically. The suppresses their voice in public discourse.”

President Halonen pointed out that not all shortcomings in society can be removed with the rule of law. Many of the things that led to the Second World War came about through lawful processes.

“In the Nordic countries, respect for the law is the foundation of society. We still have to ask ourselves whether we are doing the right thing morally even if we follow the correct process.”