By Enrique Tessieri
The anger and surprise that Gerry Brownlee has stirred up in this country sheds light why debating an issue like discriminaiton is so diffeicult to accept by some Finns. The New Zealand minister sharply criticised Finland last week in an address in parliament. Is our anger due to our low self-esteem or to the cold war, when censorship and self-censorship were pretty much the rule?
The first story that I published about Finnish-Soviet relations was for Spain’s leading newsmagazine, Cambio16, in the mid-1980s. The story was about how Bibles were smuggled to the former Soviet Uinon from Finland.
It didn’t take long for a Finnish foreign ministry official to express her dislike for what I wrote. Another embassy official in Madrid, whom I knew, was very straightforward: “If you continue writing those kind of stories you will be blacklisted by the foreign ministry,” she said.
During the end of the 1980s, the foreign ministry spent hundreds of thousands of Finnishmarks inviting foreign journalists to Finland. This was done through Finnfacts. I never knew what Finnfacts’ real role was back then except that its employees toured, wined and dined many of the foreign journalists that came to Finland.
How much objectivity can you expect from a newspaper if the foreign ministry pays the reporters his plane ticket, lodging and stay in Finland? When I worked for BridgeNews in 1998-2001, we weren’t allowed to accept any gift that was worth over $25.
Some names that come to mind from that period are Matti Kohva, head of Finnfacts, Ralf Friberg, Lasse Lehtinen and Pekka Karhuvaara of the foreign ministry. It sounds incredible but back in those days these officials watched over what foreign journalists wrote like white on rice. They made sure that they followed the official foreign policy line, which did not recognize cold war terms such as Finlandization.
One lunch date I had at the Savoy Restaurant in Helsinki, Friberg asked me to my surprsie that I should get in touch with him if I wrote about Finnish-Soviet relations. At the time I worked for the London Financial Times. Considering that Friberg could make such a suggestion, showed how far the foreign ministry would go to get its point across.
Not only did the foreign ministry watch closely what was written in the foreign media, but they exerted the same influence over the local media. If you do not agree, read the editorials when Soviet forces overran Czechoslovakia in 1968. All the evidence is sitting under our noses.
It goes without saying that the foreign ministry and Finnfacts decalred war on me for exposing what Friberg suggested. They did every thing possible to blackwash me.
Fortunately, I found work abroad in Argentina, Colombia, Spain and Italy as a foreign correspondent and burueau chief. My journalistic career reached new heights thanks to the opportunity I got to work for the big newspaper leagues outside of Finland.
My point is the following: The same mistrust that existed in official circles of foreign correspondents and their utter rejection of anyone who dared question Finnish-Soviet relations at the time is happening today when debating racism and social exclusion. In other words, who are you to tell us we’re wrong?
If you agree it explains a lot of things. For one it reveals why there are so few immigrants and Finns with international backgrounds taking part in the ongoing debate.
Certainly, like during the cold war, you can write and debate these issues today as long as you don’t stray too far from the official or general view of things.