How much did censorship and self-censorship affect Finland during the cold war? The answer to that question lies in the dusty archives of Finland’s media. What kinds of editorial did Helsingin Sanomat write about the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and what did our major dailies say about what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968? What kind of press freedom was there in a country where discussing, never mind questioning, the official foreign policy line was forbidden?
Little was written about Finland in the English language media prior to European Union membership in 1995. Apart from Reuters and Associated Press, only the Financial Times (FT) wrote regularly about Finland. As FT Helsinki correspondent in 1989-91, I averaged about two stories a week.
Some of the stories that I filed to London and other European capitals weren’t liked by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and associations like Finnfacts, whose job was to win over foreign correspondents with free all-expenses-paid visits to Finland.
It’s unbelievable, but I actually wrote the following in the 1991-92 edition of The Europe Review: “Democratic reforms that swept Eastern Europe during the end of 1989 [fall of the Berlin Wall]…brought new challenges to Finland’s foreign policy…Furthermore, hitherto-unknown debate on sensitive issues like EC [EU] membership and the Finnish-Soviet treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance [FCMA] were being openly debated by academicians and politicians as well as by the local press.”
Max Jakobson, a diplomat who helped shape Finland’s policy of neutrality during the cold war, didn’t hide his anger at those foreign correspondents who disagreed with the official foreign policy line.
In the summer 1980 issue of Foreign Affairs he wrote: “…Finland is forever at the mercy of the itinerant columnist who after lunch and cocktails in Helsinki is ready to pronounce himself upon the fate of the Finnish people. A person visiting, say, London for the first time, who does not know English and has only a vague notion of the significance of Dunkirk or the role of Winston Churchill, would hardly be regarded as qualified to comment on the British scene today.”
Contrary to Jakobson’s claims, there were correspondents who lived in Finland for many years and were well-informed about the situation. These included the late Donald Fields, whom I had the opportunity to meet and speak to before he passed away, and myself.
If there was one matter on which Fields and I disagreed with concerning Finland policy of neutrality, it was how it encouraged censorship of the media and human rights violations when it came to asylum-seekers from the former Soviet Union.
No matter how much you tried to accept the foreign ministry’s and Jakobson’s thinking on Finland’s neutrality, it always boiled down to a bigger issue: geopolitical isolation and suspicion of the surrounding world. Foreign investment was almost negligible thanks to the Restricting Act of 1939 and it was not until 1983, 65 years after independence, that Finland got its first Aliens’ Act.
The Restricting Act of 1939 prohibited foreigners from owning real estate and acquiring a majority stake in Finnish companies – limiting this to 20% normally and 40% under special permission. The Act stipulated that foreigners could not own shares in sectors such as forestry, securities trading, transportation, mining, real estate and shipping.
The Restricting Act of 1939, which was passed during the Great Depression, became redundant in 1992.
I once wrote a short story for Spain’s leading news magazine Cambio 16 in 1986 about the contraband trade in Bibles from Finland to the USSR.
A Finnish diplomat whom I knew in Madrid told me how furious they had been about what I had written. She said outright that if I continued to write about such topics, then I would be blacklisted by the foreign ministry.
The press section of the foreign ministry and Finnfacts were a pretty ruthless bunch ready to destroy your career if they could, and to complain directly to your employer, the foreign editor. Employees of the foreign ministry when I was FT correspondent included Ralf Friberg, Lasse Lehtinen and Pekka Karhuvaara. Matti Kohva was head of Finnfacts.
I once got into a public argument with Friberg when he suggested during a lunch at the Savoy Restaurant that I should consult him before writing about Helsinki-Moscow relations.