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Forbidden photos: government in hard-line challenge to freedom of expression

Like a blast from the past, Finland’s rulers are exhibiting high levels of oversensitivity to how they are depicted. The Prime Minister’s Office is threatening to prosecute a photographer for publishing photos it doesn’t like.

Sakari Piippo, who worked as a photographer for the Prime Minister’s Office until the end of March this year, took a series of photos of government leaders, among them prime minister Juha Sipilä and finance minister Alexander Stubb, and a number of high ranking civil servants, that provoked a sharp backlash from top mandarins.

The series of black and white photos present their subjects from unusual angles, in granular realism, in close up and with much attention to sartorial detail.

For Piippo, the photo series was something positive, a project in which he wanted to show a new perspective on the nature of political power. “They are sensitive and poetic images,” he told the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti.

The photos, taken at a press conference, were published in Raymond, the magazine of the Finnish Slot Machine Association, which runs a print and online publication featuring creative photo reportage.

But it was all too much for the Prime Minister’s Office, which demanded that the photos be removed from the internet or other media, and accused Piippo of contravening copyright, the duty of loyalty binding on employees, and had not been granted permission to carryout his secondary occupation.

Raymond magazine has since removed the photos from its website.

The furore sparked by the case has led to them being published more widely than was ever intended.

According to the UJF, which has been advising Piippo, copyright to the photographs belongs to him alone. Copyright belongs to the creator of written or graphic works unless otherwise agreed.

On the issue of doing secondary work without permission, Piippo says that he did notify his employer that he was doing such work. The Prime Ministers Office counters that it cannot trace this notification.

Piippo says that he had discussed the photo project with his superior.

Prime Minister’s Office has not challenged the photographs in terms of their content. If it argued that they are offensive or demeaning, it would have to say in what ways, and perhaps expose the individuals in the photos as thin skinned and vain.

But the case harks back to a time when self-censorship among institutions and media in Finland meant that images depicting the state president and other heavyweights could not carry any negative nuance.

In another recent case where the government has acted heavy-handedly towards the media, the Ministry of Finance refused to grant interviews and accreditation to an information briefing to freelance journalist Jari Hanska by claiming spuriously that he had previously violated the Guidelines for Journalists.

In that case, the Ombudsman admonished the ministry for overstepping the mark, and warned that in terms of the principle of proportionality to freedom of expression and good governance restrictions affecting the media must be limited as possible.

The Ombudsman also stated that at events such as press conferences, officials and politicians are aware of the fact that they will be photographed and filmed openly and with permission.

Piippo hopes that this ruling will make the Prime Minister’s Office reconsider its stance.

The UJF’s magazine Journalisti argued that the case is without merit and involves a challenge to freedom of expression.

This right concerns everyone, and those in power have to endure it, even when publicity is negative. The issue with Piippo’s photos is not negative publicity but differences of taste, and in this the state should not take on the role of judge.

The magazine also points out that a good employer would not threaten its employees with prosecution for exercising their freedom of expression and enthusiastically doing work other than that required by their job description.

See articles in Finnish with the pictures here: