Exceptionalism is our greatest enemy in promoting social equality and press freedom in Finland

by , under Enrique Tessieri

I used to comment mock the Swedes before for their exceptionalism. The argument is that Sweden is such “a perfect” society that social no-nos like racism simply cannot exist. The same exceptionalism that we see in Sweden is alive and kicking in Finland, too. Exceptionalism is everywhere and you bump into it near-constantly if you are Other. 

Aminkeng A. Alemanji highlights the issue in his doctoral dissertation: “The notion of Finnish exceptionalism is very slow to accommodate changes to its existing framework because it is constructed on the idea of being the best, where the best cannot get any better.”

Finnish exceptionalism doesn’t only apply to ethnic issues but is seen in the narrative of the Finnish media and how it functions.

A prime example of the latter is a recent row between Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and YLE because critical reporting of politicians like the prime minister is suppressed.

Read full story here.

Finnish exceptionalism never became clearer to me than when I wrote in 1989-91 from Helsinki for newspapers like the Financial Times in 1989-91.

In journalism, your byline, or name, is your “ethnicity.” Since I didn’t have a so-called Anglo-Saxon name, some at the Financial Times (FT) looked at me with suspicion because I was born in Argentina and because there was a war in 1982 for the Falkland Islands or Malvinas as it’s called in Spanish.

Once the European editor who visited Helsinki questioned my integrity as a journalist by asking me what I thought about the Falklands-Malvinas conflict.

When I applied in 1990 for an opening in the FT for Buenos Aires correspondent, one reason I wasn’t hired was because I was born in Argentina.

Finnish foreign ministry

In Finland, the foreign ministry was especially hostile to journalists who didn’t tow the official line on Finlandizationor the influence that the former USSR exerted over Finland during the Cold War.

In the mid-1980s, I was told by foreign ministry foreign press officials that I’d be put on a blacklist if I wrote critically of Finlandization.

Some of the stories I wrote about back then was for Madrid-based newsmagazine Cambio 16 on the contraband of bibles from Finland to the former Soviet Union.

I was also told a few years later that officials like Ralf Friberg near-constantly complained to the FT about my writings and views of Finlandization as well as the country’s draconian foreign investment laws (Restricting Act of 1939) and immigration policy.

If one wants to look at how the foreign ministry bought favorable stories about Finland from foreign newspapers, check organizations like Finnfacts and the role of people like Matti Kohva, Pekka Karhuvaara and Lasse Lehtinen, among others.

Finnfacts spent in the 1980s hundreds of thousands of Finnish marks annually to fly over, wine and dine journalists from abroad so they’d write favorable stories about Finland.

Apart from Friberg, whose nickname was “Leonid [Brezhnev]” at the foreign ministry press department, Kohva is another person who was outright hostile to those journalists that disagreed with the official view of Helsinki-Moscow relations.

In a Finniche article published in the end of the 1980s, Kohva wrote about how it made his blood boil when foreign journalists used the term Finlandization to describe Helsinki-Moscow relations.

If Finnish journalists were barred from discussing sacrosanct topics like Finnish-EU membership never mind Helsinki-Moscow relations during the Cold War, imagine if a foreigner did that. It meant total war and character assassination by foreign ministry officials like Friberg and Kohva.

Friberg suggested to me over lunch that I should get in touch with him if I wrote about Finnish-Soviet relations. I disagreed and wrote about how the foreign ministry meddled in my work as a journalist.

Another matter that promotes self-censorship is an unwritten agreement that journalists have to show the article to the person they interview. In countries like the UK, such a practice is unheard of for obvious reasons.

Does the row at YLE surprise me? Not in the least. It has been going on for a very long time.

Another symptom of Finnish exceptionalism is collective amnesia.