According to Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) news reports, the Finnish tax authorities have threatened to raid the workplace and homes of Yle journalists to gat access to data that make up the notorious Panama Papers. The massive data leak includes information on the shell companies set up in tax havens by a Panama-based law firm to help wealthy clients avoid paying taxes.
The tax authorities have demanded that Yle hand over all documents related to the Panama Papers or face having the broadcaster’s premises and its journalists’ homes raided, a move unprecedented in the 80 or so countries where the mass media has reported on the Panama Papers.
UJF lawyer Jussi Salogangas points out that the tax administration has the legal right to third party access to tax information. This, he says, is based on the legal obligation of all citizens to disclose tax information. “But the tax authority must take account of other legislation: state power must be rooted in law and human rights treaties.”
The latter relates in particular to article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms that journalists’ sources are a core area of freedom of expression and that state authorities must not force journalists to surrender their sources. Searches of the workplaces and homes of journalists to seize sources are illegal.
“The European Court of Human Rights is a watchdog on power,” says Salokangas. “It has stated that the media could appear unreliable in the eyes of the public if authorities were able to obtain confidential documents. This would lead to a situation where private citizens would be put off from leaking information to journalists.”
Salokangas notes that under the European Convention on Human Rights, interference with the protection of journalistic sources in a democratic society must be for a crucially important reason. Finland has a number of information exchange agreements with other EU member states. The Finnish tax authorities could therefore obtain tax information directly from other signatories to the human rights convention.
“Why doesn’t the tax authority make use the easier right of access to information, instead of leaning on the Broadcasting Company and its individual journalists? It’s out of all proportion to its objectives.”