Finland’s cold war era: media censorship and suspicion of the outside world

by , under Enrique

 Enrique Tessieri

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.

  1. Sasu

    En nyt tiedä miten tuo liittyy nyky tilanteeseen muuten kuin itsesensuurin suunta on vain vaihtunut. Ei puhuta maahanmuutosta liikaa ja ei todellakaan kirjoiteta rasismista. Jos kirjoitat rasismista niin kirjoita kuin se olisi värillisten tuottama ongelma.

    “Meillä ei ollut rasismia ennen kuin te toitte sen keskusteluun” fraasin tyyppisesti.

    • Migrant Tales

      –“Meillä ei ollut rasismia ennen kuin te toitte sen keskusteluun” fraasin tyyppisesti.

      Sasu, rasismia on aina ollut läsnä Suomessa ja erityisesti ulkomailla.

  2. Sasu

    Tessiere En väittänyt ettei rasismia aina ollut vaan että kantasuomalaiset haluaisivat uskoa niin. Niihän he reagoivat jos joku tuo rasismin pöydälle.

  3. Juhani Niinistö

    The interest in finding out about Finnish thinking varied greatly among the foreign correspondents or stringers of the cold war era in Finland. The Reuters man in Helsinki in the late 60s and early 70s was Colin Narborough. His provided fairly good coverage of the Finnish way of seeing Finland, he also freelancered as the writer of the then twice-a-week English newsroundup of YLE. – The problem in those years was that some correspondents (sent or hired locally) wanted to reflect back to the UK what the foreign desks had presumed.. It took some courage – or a good position – that a foreign correspondent would write in a way conflicting with the foreign desk presumptions in London or some of the Axel Springer houses in Germany.

    One surprising phenomenon was that views about Finland were more accepting in the US than in the UK. One reason may be that by that time emigrants from Eastern Europe had risen to influential positions in London and could not accept the fact that Finland (due to its last minute success in 1944 and German assistance) had been able to attain a position better than that of Poland, etc. I recall a mid-echelon BBC manager standing at Havis Amanda in the 80s, seeing all the cars going by and saying that “this is actually different” from Warsaw…

    I was in charge of the YLE external foreign language programming 1978-2005. During the cold war it was a major task to tackle with some western attitudes re Finland.

    Once we got a good signal on MW, Stockholm-based Finland watchers started using us as an easy source, without credits. No problem. It was delightful to be able to read our texts, word for word, in newspapers abroad.

    (I must add that Radio Finland closed in the early 2000s, I moved to Canada and returned to Europe last year, and have not followed much any debate re the Finnish cold war journalism).The Tessieri column showed up on my computer by accident, but it was a pleasure to read it..

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Juhani, and welcome to Migrant Tales. The last time I heard of you was when I was in Thunder Bay in 2006 at the local Canadian Finn Fling. How time flies. If we look at some of the the stories that were written in the U.S. about Finland back in the in the 1920s and 1930s they were Finnish Americans. When I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s we never heard that magic word on television: Finland. It was as if the whole country didn’t exist; it was as if Finland was tucked deep in one of Europe’s distant corners. That has now changed and that is a good matter.

      Have you thought about writing about these foreign correspondents, or stringers? Did you ever meet Donald Fields?

  4. Juhani Niinistö

    I worked with Donald (or rather was the YLE producer who commissioned and approved his work, he was a freelancer all thru the years at YLE) from 1977 until his death. And it was his idea to pull me from the domestic radio news to assist the English language coverage of the 1975 CSCE which resulted in a transfer in 1977. – All his YLE scripts were archived in ELKA in Mikkeli, in the Radio Finland deposits, or most He produced some 300 editions of Spotlight – and newscasts. – I did not always share his views and I did require amendments at times. – Donald took over from Hillar Kallas who was a veteran BBC staff person and had been in charge of the Finnish section during the war. Estonian born Kallas (from a renowned family in pre-war Estonia) had understanding for Finland – but in private conversations was critical of the emphasis (at the time) in Finnish media on social and labor issues..

    My comment re the attitudes in the US and the UK are based on contacts at the time with the BBC and VOA and later NPR in Washington. I had few personal contacts with print journalists in either country. In London on the print side there were “friends of Finland” such as William Forrest (Observer, the old News Chronicle) but they were ending their careers in the 70s. Forrest was used by the World Service to write commentaries about Finland esp in the late sixties. He had covered the Winter War on location in Finland.

    No, I am not planning to write about the correspondents, but may do something bordering on that.

    As for the US and Canada. I am politically liberal and the atmosphere of those events (such as the Finn Fling) was at times difficult to stomach. individual lectures could be exceptions…The rules of the Kanadansuomalainen kulttuuriliitto re the exclusion of the left have never been officially repealled. One side of FInnish Canadians lives in a kind of mental enclave reflecting Finland of the 50s… Though in Finland I had had something of a conservative label, there in Canada I was instantly labelled as communist. “kyllä se niinistö on kommunisti, sanoivat mummot osuuspankin jonossa Torontossa… It was funny…

    The other side is Järjestö, the publishers of the periodical “Kaiku”. Going to their events was like fresh air – after the immersion into the 50s in some other events…

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Juhani, that’s all very interesting what you say about some of the old correspondents and stringers.

      With respect to the Finns in Canada and the U.S. it’s true what you say. With the greatest respect for many of these people, some live in a time warp where they speak of Finland as if it hadn’t changed at all in the past half a century or more. It’s a bit like what happened to the Chilean refugees that came to Finland in the early 1970s. Many returned back to their home countries over two decades later and were shocked by what they saw.

      One of the interesting things about writing for the foreign media in Finland was the KGB and Supo. I knew that both of them were watching what I did. However, it’s not clear how much and when. Donald was pretty careful about speaking over the phone.

      Whenever I wrote something critical about Finnish-Soviet relations, for example one big feature I wrote with Christian Tyler for the Weekend Financial Times, “The Last Wall in Europe,” I got a call from a so-called “journalist” from the Soviet Embassy. I once was even offered money by a broker to spy for him concerning the Wärtsilä Marine bankruptcy. I refused, naturally.

      Do you remember Paul Sjöblom?

  5. I am

    Hi MT and Juhani Niinistö,
    How r u Juhanni? I thought u r relative with Niinisto president? he he
    Many names and surnames are similar here in Finland, like Juhan, Juho, Juhanni, Juhannus juhla, except my darling name.
    U r welcome on MT,
    U have many things for talk about, wow i love it.
    R u living in Finland now?
    Have a happy day Juhanni u, MT and all
    Peace to the world

  6. Juhani Niinistö

    Now, I am not sure whether this is the right forum for commenting on past correspondents etc, I arrived here by accident.. But.

    Your question: Joo, joo. Sjöblom had been here since the Winter War.. somehow I never viewed him as a journalist but rather as a feature writer and recollector. He used strong language but he was fairly innocuous. The big names of the 50s were Alan Beasly (he was the “Donald” until 1958 and the “voice” representing Finland on the airwaves) and of course Arvid Enckell who was running the department for radio services at the For min. Nice stories about them, walking from the toimitus in Hallituskatu to the Studio in Fab 15 – and then for a long lunch at Savoy or less. Mrs Enckell handled the French news. (French closed in 1958, YLE started again in 1987 and closed 2002)

    I have on old photo of Beasley awaiting transportation to cover the handback of Porkkala in 1956.. Enckell wrote a book about Finnish democracy – explaining Finland during the era when communist democracies kept coming up in Eastern Europe. (Ralph Enckell was then another person, a career diplomat).

    About the “kirkkosuomalaiset” in Canada. Finland should have helped them to be in contact with this country, but the effort failed – also due to the psychological resistance at that end. Hannu Taanila did excellent special weekly features to those people, 84-92, but the reaction was rather savage…

    But for some reason Finland kept little contact with the left there.. There in 2006, in TB, a visiting Suomi-Seura board member assured me over breakfast in that old hotel near the railroad station that no “black lists” existed any longer. And indeed The Järjestö has been getting SS project donations, etc.

  7. justicedemon

    Hello Juhani

    As someone who obviously moved in exalted circles at this interesting period in Finnish history, perhaps you can shed some light on why Finland failed to implement its solemn undertaking in Article 6 of the Paris Peace Treaty:

    Suomen on ryhdyttävä kaikkiin tarpeellisiin toimenpiteisiin taatakseen kaikille Suomen oikeudenkäyttöpiirissä oleville henkilöille rotuun, sukupuoleen, kieleen tai uskontoon katsomatta oikeuden nauttia ihmisoikeuksia ja perusvapauksia, joihin sisältyvät sananvapaus, paino- ja julkaisuvapaus, uskonnonvapaus, vapaus poliittisiin mielipiteisiin sekä kokoontumisvapaus.

    It has always seemed to me that failure to deliver on this undertaking rather undermined the proud boast that Finland had paid off its war reparations under Article 23 of the same Treaty. The specific guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of assembly were not realised until Finland joined the Council of Europe in 1989.

    • Migrant Tales

      Finland was one of the last countries to join the Council of Europe, which was before too vocal about human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Having come to live in Finland after a short stint in Argentina in 1977-78, I was pretty surprised how “human rights” was seen as something negative by the Finnish authorities.

      In a secret file Supo had on me, one of the matters they listed was “interested in human rights” or something in that order. How did they get this file? I was going to travel to Mali and went to get a visa from the honoray consul in Helsinki. The honorary consul, a Finn, was totally drunk when I visited him and called his Supo contact to inquire what they had on me. In a short while his contact called back. Some of the information they had on me was that I had organized and participated in a demonstration. Incredible, no?

      All this happened in the spring of 1989.