The IPI global network today expresses serious concern over the Helsinki District Court’s decision on January 27, 2023, to convict two Helsingin Sanomat journalists of disclosing state secrets in the infamous Finnish Intelligence Research Center case. IPI is also alarmed by the court’s decision ordering the newspaper to remove the article in question from its website. While the sentences in the case were milder than feared, the verdict, together with the five-year-long investigation, often conducted in secret, risk casting a chilling effect on national security reporting in Finland.
In December 2017, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily newspaper, started to publish a series of articles on plans to give Finland’s security services greater powers to carry out surveillance and covert operations domestically and abroad. The articles shed light in particular on the operations of the Finnish Defence Intelligence Agency (VKoeL).
Following a lengthy investigation and trial, journalists Tuomo Pietiläinen and Laura Halminen, the authors of the article, were convicted of disclosing state secrets. Pietiläinen, considered to be the main person responsible, received a fine of approximately 4,200 euros, and Halminen, who participated in a lesser role, was not fined. The charges against Kalle Silfverberg, the editor of the newspaper’s political department at the time, were dismissed.
The additional charges of attempting to disclose state secrets, relating to unpublished articles, were also dismissed, but Helsingin Sanomat was ordered to remove the article from their website – a seemingly absurd decision, given that the article in question was published over five years ago and has been available online until now.
In addition, the court found no evidence that concrete harm or danger was caused to the interests of national defence or state security, and agreed that the purpose was to inform the public about the new intelligence legislation. Despite this, the court claimed that the journalists had taken a “conscious risk” and must have known that publishing even old intelligence information could be harmful to national security. The court asserted that the publication of such in-depth intelligence information could only have been acceptable if it was, for example, a significant revelation about abuse of power.
This case, which has been exceptional in Finland in many ways, has negatively affected the country’s reputation as a safe haven for press freedom. Helsingin Sanomat has said that the articles did not contain any state secrets and emphasized that all information that was published in the story was available in public sources. Moreover, according to testimonies given at the court hearings, the Finnish Defence Forces was aware that Helsingin Sanomat was investigating their intelligence operations and had detailed information on what the newspaper planned to publish. Yet despite later claiming that the publication was a threat to national security, the authorities did not reach out to the editorial management of Helsingin Sanomat prior to publication.
“While we are relieved that the Helsingin Sanomat journalists were not sent to prison, they have nevertheless been criminally convicted for their journalism work intended to contribute to a public debate”, IPI Executive Board Chair Khadija Patel said. “As a traditional global leader in press freedom, Finland’s actions and policies toward the media matter. We are therefore concerned that this case could negatively impact journalists’ freedom to report on national security issues around the globe at a time when governments in many countries are increasingly clamping down on the press.”
“This is an alarming development in a country like Finland, which is widely considered one of the bastions of press freedom”, IPI Executive Director Frane Maroević said. “We are deeply concerned that this decision may set a dangerous precedent and cast a chilling effect on national security reporting in Finland and elsewhere.”
“It is difficult to understand why, if the Finnish intelligence authorities genuinely believed that these articles constituted a threat to national security, they did not engage with the newspaper’s management prior to publication despite their knowledge of the journalistic project. Instead, they waited until after publication to bring charges now resulting in criminal penalties and censorship of the article that’s been online for five years.”
He added: “It is also very problematic that this case took over five years, thus leaving the journalist in uncertainty and under constant threat of sanctions. As most of the court hearings last year were held behind closed doors, it is very worrying that in a landmark case such as this, most of the trial was completely hidden from the media and the public.
This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.