A global leader in press freedom, Finland maintains public trust in media

How Finland maintains public trust in mainstream media amongst the presence of fake news

, by Juuso Järviniemi

A global leader in press freedom, Finland maintains public trust in media
Image credit: John S

“Welcome to the land of free press”. That’s how billboards in Helsinki greeted Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin when the two presidents held their summit in the Finnish capital in July 2018. The campaign organised by the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat did not exaggerate: Finland ranks second in the world in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, just behind Norway.

Commitment to free press continues to be deeply ingrained in the Finnish mindset, and Donald Trump-esque attacks on the media by government figures seem almost unimaginable. Rather, the most immediate threat to journalism comes from online trolls.

Fighting the fakers

If one Finnish journalist knows what harassment feels like, it is Jessikka Aro from the public broadcaster YLE. Since launching an investigation into Russian information warfare during the Crimean crisis in 2014, she has for years been the target of personal hate campaigns orchestrated by Kremlin-friendly figures. Johan Bäckman and Ilja Janitskin were convicted on criminal charges related to the case in 2018, with the case currently pending a further judgement from an appeals court. Janitskin, 42, died of cancer in February this year.

Janitskin was notorious for running a fake news website, “MV-Lehti”, featuring racist and misleading content. In light of trolling scandals at home and abroad, Finland has tackled disinformation head-on, including during the parliamentary elections in 2019. The government’s public communication campaign, “Finland has the best elections in the world – and why is that”, encouraged citizens to read the media critically and to stay alert to foreign attempts at electoral interference. So far, the fight against fake news has been successful: in the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, Finland ranked no. 1 in public trust in media.

However, the report does highlight some worrying trends. While 59% of Finns trust the media, a 2016 survey showed that 71% of the nationalist Finns Party’s supporters had ‘lost their trust in traditional media’. This month, the magazine Seura reported that Mika Niikko – an MP for the Finns Party and chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee – had created a coronavirus-themed Facebook discussion group which has become an arena for conspiracy theories. The MP is no longer an admin on the group, but his parliamentary assistant remains one of the group’s moderators. Like any country, Finland faces a continuous struggle to keep fake news from poisoning mainstream debates.

Pluralism in a small media market?

One possible reason for why Finnish trust in the media remains high is the lack of polarisation: few outlets have a clear partisan affiliation, and journalists take pride in their independence. In most cities, including in the capital Helsinki, there is no direct competition between major newspapers of different political leanings. On the flip side, most cities indeed only have one daily newspaper in circulation.

Though Finns have traditionally been keen readers of newspapers, local press have been struggling with declining subscription figures and ad revenue. Local press still remains strong, but the concentration of media ownership is a risk in the small Finnish market. This is even more so in the TV and radio sectors, where the four largest companies got over 90% of all revenue in 2016.

Providing ‘alternative perspectives’ has long been the selling point of dubious underground sites. While the underlying sentiment might be legitimate, the better way to protect pluralism would be to watch against media concentration, and to ensure that local and specialist outlets can stay in business. If a small nation with a peculiar language like Finland can succeed at the task, it shows an encouraging example to other countries grappling with the transition towards an era of digital media.

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