Helsingin Sanomat forced to defend pro-China advert

Finland's 'newspaper of record' came under strong criticism from many quarters over its decision to publish a full page Hong Kong advert.

Hong Kong advert from Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Sunday 29th September 2019 / Credit: Twitter

Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat has been forced to defend its decision to publish a full-page pro-China advert about Hong Kong in Sunday’s newspaper.

The advert framed weeks of pro-democracy clashes between activists and security forces, which have often turned violent, as “only one piece of a complex social, economic and political puzzle.”

“We’ll solve this puzzle alone. And it may take time” the advert says.

Although clearly identified as an advert, the paper received widespread criticism from diplomats, academics, politicians and their own readers.

Centre Party MP Mikko Kärnä said he would draft a bill in parliament to “criminalise the dissemination of foreign political propaganda in commercial media.” The Lapland MP said that Helsinki Sanomat was acting like a bullhorn for the “Chinese terror regime” and it highlighted the need for such legislation.

“A whole page of political propaganda in Helsinki Sanomat. Many elements of state influence” wrote Johanna Vuorelma, a political researcher at Tampere University.

“An interesting policy is that the identification and interpretation of state propaganda is left to the reader” she adds.

Another academic Ilmari Hirvonen from the University of Helsinki said the advert was not just “objectionable” but “deliberately misleading”.

“It is also journalistically questionable if a newspaper published the ad knowing the situation. It is even worse when it comes to human rights and violence.”

China has a woeful track record on human rights and press freedoms, and restrictions are being documented in Hong Kong as well. China ranks at number 177 in the World Press Freedom Index. Hong Kong ranks at number 73 in the Index, but Reporters Without Borders notes that Beijing’s influence “has led to a decline in press freedom in Hong Kong.”

Meanwhile Ville Cantell, Director of Europe Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked on Twitter how Helsingin Sanomat could justify publishing such an advert, and wondered if a similar advert placed by the Kremlin about Ukraine would be printed in the newspaper.

Newspaper defends its position

Helsingin Sanomat’s Editor-in-Chief Kaius Niemi said the decision to publish the advert is not judged by the same journalistic criteria as other content in the paper, but by “international marketing standards.”

Niemi said it was an act of “open democracy” to publish the advert, and it would be wrong if the paper refused to accept ads which didn’t dovetail with Helsingin Sanomat’s editorial line. He noted the same advert was placed in other newspapers like the New York Times, Le Monde in France, the Financial Times and Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter.

“I think we live in the land of free press because we foster the freedom of expression of ads too, when some of the public might react negatively. And the ad does not affect our editorial line” Niemi wrote on Twitter.

“Overall I’m very pleased that people are reacting strongly for open democracy, even if this time media had its collateral share” he says.