Freedom in the World
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In June 2005, the Finnish government called the Italian ambassador for a meeting after the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made a gaffe about the Finish president, Tarja Halonen. A seven-week-long paper strike in June 2005 stopped the production of paper and cost the country as much as 1.5 billion euros. Helsinki hosted a series of peace talks between the Indonesian government and exiled rebels from its Aceh Province. In March 2005, the Finnish government made public a National Action Plan to combat trafficking.
Finland was ruled by Sweden until the early eighteenth century and then became a Grand Duchy of Russia until its independence in 1917. The country is traditionally neutral, but its army has enjoyed broad popular support ever since it fended off a Russian invasion during World War II. Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995 after its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union became void. It has been an enthusiastic member state and is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro.
In the 2002 presidential election, Tarja Halonen, of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was chosen as the country's first woman president. She defeated four other female candidates-from a total field of seven-from across the political spectrum to serve a six-year term.
The Center Party came to power after winning 55 seats in the parliamentary elections held on March 16, 2003. The second-largest party, the SDP, had led the ruling coalition since 1995. It remains part of the new ruling coalition, which also includes the Center Party and the Swedish People's Party (representing the Swedish-language minority). Anneli Jaatteenmaki replaced the SPD's Paavo Lipponen as prime minister, becoming the first woman to hold the post. However, just two months after she was chosen, Jaatteenmaki stepped down when it was alleged that she had leaked information from classified foreign policy documents and then lied about having done so. Jaatteenmaki had used evidence from the documents, which included details of Lipponen's confidential discussions with U.S. president George W. Bush, in her public attacks against Lipponen's pro-U.S. stance on the war in Iraq. After Jaatteenmaki's resignation, Matti Vanhanen, of the Center Party, succeeded her.
A Helsinki court unanimously acquitted Jaatteenmaki of breaching official secrets in March 2004. However, Martti Manninen, a presidential aide who had given her the documents, was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act and fined 3,600 euros. Jaatteenmaki subsequently drew the most votes in the Finnish elections for the European Parliament.
Finland emerged as a leader of the smaller states within the EU during the 2003 drafting of the EU constitution. Unlike in other EU member states, the proposed constitution is uncontroversial in Finland, and Prime Minister Vanhanen ruled out a possible referendum on the treaty in August 2004. Finns continued to debate the proposal of abandoning their traditional neutrality and seeking membership in NATO, an issue of particular relevance given the recent inclusions of the nearby Baltic States in the alliance.
In June, the Finnish government arranged a meeting with the Italian ambassador after Berlusconi made a gaffe about the Finish president. Berlusconi, who is a former cruise ship crooner, said that he had used his "playboy skills" on Halonen to persuade her to give Italy the European Food Safety Authority. Berlusconi's comments were made in an address at the opening of the Authority in Parma, Italy. Berlusconi further commented negatively about the quality of Finnish food. The Finnish government did not pursue the issue.
The production of paper was halted during a seven-week-long paper strike starting in May 2005, with a cost to the country of as much as 1.5 billion euros. Paper accounts for one-quarter of Finnish exports; Finland also supplies 4 percent of the world's total paper market and 60 percent of the European magazine paper market. A brief strike in September by the employees of Finland's public broadcaster, YLE, left public television and radio stations off the air for 10 hours. The strike was called to protest plans by YLE to cut up to 200 jobs.
Helsinki hosted a series of peace talks between the Indonesian government and exiled rebels from the country's Aceh Province. The talks, the first of which occurred shortly after the tsunami of December 2004, were sponsored by the Crisis Management Initiative, a nongovernmental organization founded by former Finish president Martti Ahtisaari, who was the mediator for the talks.
In September 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked the Finnish economy as the most competitive in the world, followed by that of the United States. All five Nordic countries-Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway-were in the top 10 positions. The ranking, the Geneva-based organization argued, disproves the common belief that higher taxes hinder competitiveness. Rather, the report further argued, in the case of the Nordic countries, "high levels of government revenue have delivered world-class educational establishments, an extensive safety net and a highly motivated and skilled labor force."
Citizens of Finland can change their government democratically. The prime minister in Finland has primary responsibility for running the government. The president, who is mainly a figurehead, is directly elected for a six-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and the deputy prime minister from the majority party or majority coalition after elections. Parliament must approve the selection.
Representatives in the 200-seat unicameral parliament, the Eduskunta, are elected to four-year terms. The Aland Islands-an autonomous region that is located off the southwestern coast of Finland and whose inhabitants speak Swedish-have their own 29-seat parliament and have one seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Saami of northern Finland also have their own parliament.
During the March 2003 parliament elections, the two main winners were the Finnish Center party with 24.7 percent of the vote and the Social Democratic Party of Finland with 24.5 percent of the vote. Other parties include the National Coalition (18.5 percent), Left Alliance (9.9 percent), Green League (8.0 percent), Christian Demo-crats (5.3 percent), Swedish People's Party (4.6), and True Finns (1.6).
Finland has been rated the least-corrupt country in the world in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index since 2000. However, in June 2005, Kaj-Erik Relander, the former chief executive of the telecommunications operator Sonera, was convicted of abusing communications privacy laws. Relander had ordered the illegal scrutiny of staff phone calls. Finnish law stipulates that only the police with a court order can examine the details of dialed and received calls. In September 2004, the chief of the country's Security Police (SUPO), Seppo Nevala, was suspended for his involvement in a related case; he is suspected of trying to conceal the illegal procurement of telecommunication logs by a regional SUPO chief.
The law provides for freedom of speech and respected these rights in practices. Finland has a large variety of newspapers and magazines. Newspapers are privately owned but publicly subsidized, and many are controlled by or support a particular political party. Finnish law gives every citizen the right to publish and guarantees the right of reply to individuals who are subjected to heavy criticism in the press. In February 2004, the Eduskunta substantially liberalized a controversial media law that placed burdensome restrictions on internet publishers and service providers. As a result, internet traffic logging is no longer required, and online discussion groups are beyond the scope of the law. However, web publications must name a responsible editor in chief and archive published materials for at least 21 days.
Finns enjoy freedom of religion. Both the predominant Lutheran Church and the smaller Orthodox Church are financed through a special tax, from which citizens may exempt themselves. Other religious groups are eligible for tax relief if they register and are recognized by the government. Religious education is part of the curriculum in all public schools, but students may opt out of these classes in favor of more general education in religion and philosophy. The government respects academic freedom.
Freedom of association and assembly is respected in law and in practice. The country has a robust civil society. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. More than 70 percent of workers belong to a trade union.
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. While ethnic minorities and asylum seekers report occasional police discrimination, there were no reports of human rights abuses, according to the U.S. State Department 2005 report on human rights.
The rights of ethnic and religious minorities are protected in Finland. 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 their traditional means of livelihood, which include fishing and reindeer herding. Their language and culture are also protected through financial support. However, representatives of the community have complained that they cannot exercise these rights in practice and that they do not have the right to self-determination in land use.
While Roma (Gypsies) also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more widely disadvantaged and marginalized. In May 2004, a new Aliens' Act streamlined the procedures for asylum and immigration applications as well as for work and residency permits. The new law also allows for the granting of residency permits for individual humane reasons. Despite these changes, the number of asylum approvals has declined in recent years.
The criminal code covers ethnic agitation and penalizes anyone who threatens any racial, national, ethnic, or religious group. In June 2004, the distributor of an anti-Semitic book was ordered by the Ministry of Justice to pay a fine and remove the book from circulation. Despite the existence of racial tensions, Finland is the only major European country that has not produced a far-right anti-immigrant political party.
The government, under pressure from international human rights bodies, has commissioned a prominent historian to advise whether a study reevaluating Finnish collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II is warranted.
Women enjoy a high degree of equality with men. In 1906, Finland became the first country in Europe to grant women the vote and the first in the world to allow women to become electoral candidates. In the current parliament, 38 percent of the delegates and 8 of 18 government ministers are women. Tarja Halonen was the first woman to be elected president in Finland. However, women continue to earn 10 percent less than men of the same age, education, and profession, and they are generally employed in lower-paid occupations.
Finland is both a destination and a transit country for trafficked people. In August 2004, new legislation came into power, making trafficking in persons a criminal offense. In March 2005, the Finnish government unveiled a National Action Plan to combat trafficking. The plan includes the establishment of a national assistance coordinator for victims, temporary residences for victims, a witness protection program, and legal and psychological counseling for victims.