Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Finland’s murky campaign-funding law caused further political turmoil in 2009 as Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen resisted calls for resignation over a campaign finance scandal. Meanwhile, concerns over encroachments on freedom of expression continued throughout the year.
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 elected 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 December 2009, Vanhanen announced that for personal reasons he would not seek reelection in 2011.
In April 2009, the Helsinki appeals court found Markus Pentikainen, a photographer for the current affairs magazine Suomen Kuvalehti, guilty of disobeying police orders during the 2006 “Smash Asem” demonstration in Helsinki against the Asia-Europe Summit. Pentikainen, while displaying full press credentials, had been arrested by law enforcement officials after he refused to leave the scene. The case was being pursued in the European Court of Human Rights at the year’s end.
In September and October 2009, Prime Minister Vanhanen came under fire after public broadcaster YLE publicized allegations that he had received valuable supplies for the construction of his home in the 1990s in return for political favors. The scandal prompted calls from the opposition and the media for Vanhanen’s resignation. The publicly funded company that allegedly supplied the construction materials, Nuorisosaatio, was also accused of financing the Centre Party’s campaign in several previous elections. However, YLE failed to produce any evidence or disclose its sources in the matter, causing the National Bureau of Investigation to drop its investigation. Despite criticism for its failure to sufficiently investigate the claims, YLE was exonerated by the Council for Mass Media in Finland. The Council’s chairman and one other member stepped down over the exoneration. These two resignations and the failure to reprimand YLE have exacerbated a debate over whether journalists should be required by law to reveal their source during the preliminary stages of an investigation. Potential legislation to address these issues was still pending at the year’s end.
In December 2009, the government of Finland announced that Finland’s six provinces will be abolished as of January 2010, along with its provincial governor posts. The provinces will become regions under the administration of the Regional State Administrative Agencies (AVI) and the Centers for Economic Development, Transport, and the Environment (ELY). The reform was initiated by Vanhanen in 2007.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Finland is an electoral democracy. The prime minister is responsible 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 failed to reform its campaign finance legislation in 2009 following corruption charges against several government officials in 2008. The current law contains loopholes allowing for undisclosed donations and lacks penalties for such violations. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen was involved in campaign funding scandals throughout September and October 2009. A separate investigation over campaign financing caused a member of parliament to step down in September. Additional isolated corruption and bribery cases emerged throughout 2009, including a bribery scandal in which members of the Defense Forces were said to have bribed a company, Stena Metall, to scrap army tanks. A heated discussion on how to amend the campaign finance and bribery laws continued through the year’s end. Finland was ranked 6 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. Authorities proposed legislation in 2008 that would hold bloggers responsible for comments posted to their sites containing hate speech; the law had not been adopted by the end of 2009. In August 2009, a Helsinki City Councilman and writer Jussi Halla-Aho was brought to trial on charges of inciting racial hatred on his blog. While cleared of these charges in September, Halla-Aho was subsequently found guilty of defamation of religion and fined EUR 330 ($450) for calling the Prophet Mohammad a pedophile.Public broadcaster YLE was cleared of libel charges in May after Halla-aho brought a case against them for calling him “Dr. Race” on a website in February. In August, media giant Alma Media made a “mandatory tender offer” for the stock of media group Talentum. In October, the Finnish government made broadband internet access a legal right for all Finns.
Finns enjoy freedom of religion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church 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 current legislation, religious communities other than the state churches may also 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. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Approximately 70 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 also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more significantly disadvantaged and marginalized.
The 2004 AliensAct streamlined the procedures for asylum and immigration applications, as well as for work and residency permits. The law also allowed for the granting of residency permits for individual humane reasons. The state provides aid for skill recognition in the labor market and assists with language acquisition for immigrants. As immigration levels increased in 2009, Finland also received record numbers of asylum seekers.
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 cabinet, 12 out of 20 ministers are women. In addition, women hold about 42 percent of the seats in Parliament. 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 an ongoing concern in Finland.
Finland is both a destination and a transit country for trafficked people. Legislation enacted in 2004 made human trafficking a criminal offense. Amendments to the Alien Act in 2006 allow trafficked victims to stay in the country and qualify for employment rights.