There’s hardly any daylight between the countries at the top of the recently-published World Press Freedom Index.
Norway ranks in first place with Sweden, Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland rounding out the top five.
While the list can be a good overview of problems the press faces in many countries, it can be quite arbitrary for others.
Finland dropped two places to fourth this year, after police searched the home of a journalist and confiscated computer equipment. Courts have ruled the search was entirely legal, carried out under the same laws that were on the statutes when Finland was at number one on the press freedom list just a few years ago.
Denmark fared poorly as well, dropping five places after the Swedish journalist Kim Wall was murdered while on assignment there. It’s true that she was murdered in shocking circumstances while working on a story, but there’s no suggestion she was murdered because she was a journalist. There’s also no evidence that press freedoms in Denmark were in any way curtailed or imperiled by the deeply tragic way she died.
So these lists can be misleading in some cases, with Reporters Without Borders looking for small points of difference to separate the leading countries where press freedoms are undoubtedly respected, championed and ingrained in societies, albeit with our share of minor issues.
Press Problems In Europe
You don’t have to look too far down that Press Freedom list to uncover more serious problems which should worry us because they highlight the parlous state of press freedoms in many EU countries.
In Hungary, ranked 77th on the list, the last three regional dailies have been snapped up by friends of right wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Just a year before, independent daily newspaper Népszabadság was suspended after exposing government scandals.
Meanwhile in Bulgaria, a country that currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, Reporters Without Borders highlights the “corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs”. Eighty percent of print media distribution in Bulgaria is controlled by a group headed by the ex-chief of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency. The government is accused of using EU funds to bribe some media outlets to go easy on their policies.
And in Poland, ranked 58th out of 180 countries for press freedom, journalists have been threatened with jail for reporting on the government, public service broadcasters have been turned into government propaganda outlets, and RSF says the new management “tolerate neither opposition nor neutrality from employees and fire those who refuse to comply”.
Finland’s Mixed Message
Two years ago, Helsinki hosted the official events to mark World Press Freedom Day. At the time, Foreign Minister Timo Soini spoke up for press freedoms.
“With free press, it is not always easy to be a politician. But let me be clear, this is how it should be. This is what makes societies open. Having a hard time with the media makes me proud” he told media guests at a reception.
Those are fine words, but Soini was sending mixed messages. Just two months before he spoke up in defence of the Polish government, even as they worked to dismantle the integrity of independent public service broadcasting.
Soini called an EU outcry about Polish government moves against the media an ‘over-reaction’.
What Can Finland Do Better?
We often say that press freedom comes with responsibilities. It’s the reason why Ilja Janitskin is sitting in a Finnish prison cell today.
The right-wing publisher is suspected in 50 counts of aggravated incitement over the inflammatory racist content of his MV-Lehti online newspaper.
His extradition from Andorra to face trial is not a case of Finland clamping down on press freedoms as some on the right have tried to frame it, but a consequence of pushing content that prosecutors say broke the law.
It’s certainly encouraging Finland is taking actions at home to uphold press freedoms, and hold those accountable who abuse them.
But shouldn’t we take action over what’s happening in other European countries too?
Maybe being near the top of the World Press Freedom Index should also come with responsibilities. Perhaps we shouldn’t have so much hand-wringing about one incident that made us drop down an often-arbitrary list.
Instead, Finland – in coordination with Nordic partners – should be a louder voice in Europe holding other countries to account and challenging them to do better to guarantee press freedoms, media plurality and independence.
No more mixed messages from ministers. No more quiet contentedness about being near the top of the list. More action and stronger words to hold our contemporaries to account for their failings.
Don’t let European press freedoms slip even further. As Mr Soini once said “critical journalism is just as important as it is difficult”. That’s a rule we should also apply to the way we deal with other European countries where press freedoms are genuinely under threat.