Freedom in the World 2009


A campaign-funding scandal and revelations about the foreign minister’s improper contacts with an exotic dancer stirred Finnish politics in 2008. Also during the year, the authorities strictly enforced hate-speech laws in a number of cases, raising concerns about freedom of expression.

After centuries of Swedish and then Russian rule, Finland gained independence in 1917. The country is traditionally neutral, but its army has enjoyed broad popular support since it fended off a Soviet invasion during World War II. Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995 and is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro currency. In the 2000 presidential election, Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was chosen as the country’s first female president. She defeated six other candidates—including four women—from across the political spectrum.

Halonen won a second term as president in 2006, defeating the candidate of the opposition National Coalition Party. However, the 2007 parliamentary elections represented a victory for the center-right National Coalition. Although the ruling Center Party held on to its plurality by one seat, capturing 23.1 percent of the vote, the National Coalition Party gained 10 seats, winning 22.3 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the left-leaning parties received record-low levels of support. Acknowledging the shift to the right, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen formed a four-party coalition consisting of his Center Party, the National Coalition, the Greens, and the Swedish People’s Party, leaving the SDP in opposition for the first time since 1995.

In the new cabinet, 12 out of 20 ministers were women, the highest proportion in the world. In addition, 84 women were voted in as members of Parliament, capturing 42 percent of the seats. Only Rwanda and Sweden had greater female representation in their legislatures.

In June 2008, Center Party parliamentary caucus leader Timo Kalli admitted on a talk show that he had knowingly broken the law by failing to reveal the sources of 2007 campaign donations. A series of other politicians, including state ministers, subsequently admitted doing the same. The law required politicians to reveal the sources of campaign donations but offered no penalty for violations, drawing criticism from anticorruption groups. In a separate scandal, Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva was replaced in April after Finnish newspapers in March revealed text messages he had sent to an exotic dancer. He was denounced in part for misusing his position and his official telephone in this case and in other suspected incidents of a similar nature. Finland ratified the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in July 2008.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Finland is an electoral democracy. The prime minister has responsibility for running the government. The president, whose role is mainly ceremonial, is directly elected for a six-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and deputy prime minister from the majority party or coalition after elections. The selection must be approved by Parliament.

Representatives in the 200-seat unicameral Parliament, or Eduskunta, are elected to four-year terms. The Aland Islands—an autonomous region located off the southwestern coast whose inhabitants speak Swedish—have their own 29-seat parliament as well as a seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Saami of northern Finland also have their own parliament.

Finland’s sterling reputation on corruption issues was tainted somewhat in 2008 after a series of lawmakers admitted that they had violated the law by failing to disclose the source of campaign funds. The law in question was faulted for lacking any penalty for violations, and the government was drafting new campaign finance legislation at year’s end. Also in 2008, Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva was forced to resign after being accused of misusing official resources by sending multiple text messages to an exotic dancer, among other suspected abuses. Finland was ranked 5 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Finnish law provides for freedom of speech, which is also respected in practice. Finland has a large variety of newspapers and magazines, grants every citizen the right to publish printed material, and protects the right to reply to public criticism. Newspapers are privately owned but publicly subsidized, and many are controlled by or support a particular political party. In May 2008, right-wing blogger Seppo Lehto was sentenced to an unprecedented two years and four months in prison for gross defamation and inciting ethnic and religious hatred under Finland’s hate-speech laws. Lehto had stirred controversy when he posted a video of himself on YouTube drawing an image of the prophet Muhammad as a pig. In July, authorities proposed legislation that would hold bloggers responsible for hate speech posted to their sites by others as comments. The government said it was merely applying editorial responsibility to the internet in the same way it was applied to newspapers. However, critics raised concerns that popular blogs could be forced to ban comments altogether rather than screen the high volume of posted remarks for potential hate-speech violations. In a separate hate-speech case in August, police raided two right-wing music dealerships for allegedly distributing material containing racial and religious slander.

Finns enjoy freedom of religion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) and the Orthodox Church are both state churches and receive public money from income taxes, but citizens may exempt themselves from contributing to those funds. Under legislation passed in 2007, it became possible in 2008 for religious communities other than the state churches to receive state funds. According to the U.S. State Department, communities with 200 members or more can receive a statutory subsidy of over $5 per member. The government officially recognizes some 55 religious groups. Religious education is part of the curriculum in all secondary public schools, but students may opt out of such classes in favor of more general instruction in ethics. The government respects academic freedom, and privacy rights are also protected.

Freedoms of association and assembly are upheld in law and in practice. However, in September 2008, 27 people were arrested at a 500-person rally in favor of graffiti rights. The demonstrators were arrested for throwing bottles at police. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Approximately 80 percent of workers belong to trade unions.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which consists of the Supreme Court, the supreme administrative court, and the lower courts. The president appoints Supreme Court judges, who in turn appoint the lower-court judges. The Ministry of the Interior controls police and Frontier Guard forces. Ethnic minorities and asylum seekers report occasional police discrimination.

The criminal code covers ethnic agitation and penalizes anyone who threatens a racial, national, ethnic, or religious group. Since 1991, the indigenous Saami, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, have been heard in the Eduskunta on relevant matters. The constitution guarantees the Saami cultural autonomy and the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods, which include fishing and reindeer herding. Their language and culture are also protected through public financial support. However, representatives of the community have complained that they cannot exercise their rights in practice and that they do not have the right to self-determination with respect to land use. While Roma (Gypsies) also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more significantly disadvantaged and marginalized.

In May 2004, a new AliensAct streamlined the procedures for asylum and immigration applications, as well as for work and residency permits. The new law also allowed for the granting of residency permits for individual humane reasons. Finland is the only major European country that has not produced a right-wing anti-immigrant political party. The state provides aid for skill recognition in the labor market and assists with language acquisition for immigrants.

Women enjoy equal rights in Finland.In 1906, the country became the first in Europe to grant women the vote and the first in the world to allow women to become electoral candidates. In the current Parliament, 42 percent of the delegates are women, as are 12 of the 20 government ministers. However, women earn only about 80 percent as much as men of the same age, education, and profession, despite a law stipulating equal pay for equal work. Women are generally employed in lower-paid occupations due to a deeply entrenched idea of “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs.” Domestic violence is a problem in Finland, though in 2007 police received special training to identify potential cases. In October 2008, newly appointed editor in chief Johanna Korhonen was dismissed from the newspaper Lapin Kansa for what she claimed was the revelation that her spouse is a woman. The paper maintained that the firing was due to the spouse’s local political involvement, though she had apparently cut ties with her party before Korhonen was appointed. The firing was questioned publicly by President Tarja Halonen.

Finland is both a destination and a transit country for trafficked people. In 2004, new legislation came into force, making human trafficking a criminal offense. The government unveiled a National Action Plan to combat trafficking in 2005. It established a number of services for victims, including a national assistance coordinator, temporary residences, a witness-protection program, and legal and psychological counseling. In July 2006, the country’s first antitrafficking prosecution was initiated after seven men and a woman were caught trafficking 15 Estonian women; all were eventually convicted. Also in 2006, the Alien Act was amended to allow trafficked victims to stay in the country and qualify for employment rights.

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