Parliament’s Delete Button: Transparency vs Media vs Privacy

Media houses want Parliament to keep its visitor logs. Parliament says no. So can there be any compromise?

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Finland's parliament has been criticised by media organisations for not keeping visitor registers for longer than one day / File Photo Credit: iStock Photo

Parliament’s Executive Director says that criticism of its practice of destroying visitor logs at the end of each day cannot be taken lightly.

“It is still harming the parliament’s reputation, that has to be admitted” Pertti Rauhio tells News Now Finland.

Rauhio’s comments come after the Editors-in-Chief of 29 prominent Finnish media houses complained to the Parliamentary Ombudsman that it prevents journalists from doing their jobs, when the list of people who come to parliament and meet with MPs and other officials is only kept for one day.

News chiefs from state-funded broadcaster YLE; Finland’s biggest daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat; tabloids Iltalehti and Ilta-Sanomat; and news agency STT are among the signatories to the complaint.

Journalists could use the lists to see who visits a particular member of parliament and how often; and which companies, lobby groups, foreign governments or special interests they represent.

Lobbyists are welcome to join the consultative phase of drafting legislation to give their input, and the details of who attends those sessions are kept in the minutes of the meetings. But at present, no daily lists of people who come to parliament, nor who they meet, are retained.

One Year Lists

Previously, the lists were kept for a whole year, because parliament officials believed they had a security requirement to keep them for that length of time; but this turned out not to be the case, according to Pertti Rauhio.

“There has to be some sort of reasoning to keep registers or logs. Whenever we collect peoples names, there has to be a reason. In this case the reason has been and still is security” says Rauhio.

“We do not collect them for journalist purposes. We do not collect them for historical studies. It says in the official document that this information is solely for the purpose of security” he states.

Rauhio says after consulting with Helsinki Police at the end of 2016, they understood there was no requirement to keep the lists for a whole year, and just one day would be enough.

Media Disagrees

One of the driving forces behind the letter of complaint was STT’s Editor-in-Chief of News, Minna Holopainen, who says the most important principal at stake in this case is that the rule of law is upheld.

“I think for me, that’s the very core of Finnish society. That’s why we have a high level of trust in Scandinavian societies” explains Holopainen.

“It’s very strange, and I can’t really understand how they ended up deleting the information. The court already ruled that if you walk into Parliament, and they register you, in that very minute the information becomes public information. If there would be some reason not to release [the list of names] it needs to be based on law, they can’t just shred the list the next night. It’s really odd” she says.

Transparency Matters

Green Alliance Presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto is concerned about having a list in the first place, in case of privacy issues. But he also proposes another idea and criticises a lack of transparency around politicians and who they’ve been meeting.

“Parliamentarians, Ministers and even the President should make public their meetings, not just in the parliament but also meetings outside of parliament too” he tells News Now Finland.

For a country like Finland, which currently sits at number three in Transparency International’s 2016 Perception of Corruption Index, Haavisto wonders why there is not more transparency about something like who politicians meet with.

He compares US President Donald Trump with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, and says that while Trump’s calendar of who he meets can be found online, fairly easily, it’s not possible to see a similar schedule for Niinistö. And that’s something Pekka Haavisto claims will change if he becomes president.

“I started collecting my own meeting register from the start of the year. At least half of the meetings are at my request, to meet lobbyists or representatives from companies because I wanted to learn more” says the former UN official.

Haavisto says of course there would be exceptions, in the interests of national security for example. He cites in his own case a trip to Afghanistan in the summer, when he was involved with sensitive talks to try and secure the release of a Finnish hostage. Those sort of names don’t need to be made public.

“My big questions is why at all do we make lists of visitors to the parliament? I don’t understand the use of the list if you destroy it in the evening. But the register for lobbyists is much more essential, but it should not only include parliament, but all other meetings as well” he says.

‘A Grey Area’

The question of balancing a need for privacy, with accurate and useful records, and also the expectations of media companies could push this particular case into muddy waters.

“It’s been argued that the parliament is correct in having no legal obligations [to keep the visitor logs] but I find it a little bit fishy. It’s a grey area” says Juha Rekola, International Ombudsman at Journalistiliitto, the Union of Journalists in Finland.

“Maybe the Editors-In-Chief are trying to create registers to be kept, and I don’t know if it’s necessary or if you’re an MP meeting a personal friend within the parliament house you need to keep something on record for a long time” he says.

“I hope now this case will open things up in a way that is useful, and acceptable”.

Still, says Rekola, at least there is a lot more scrutiny and transparency than in decades gone by. He recounts an incident from the early 1980s when the North Korean Ambassador gave a bunch of flowers to the wife of then Parliament Speaker Johannes Virolainen.

Slotted among the blooms was an envelope full of cash. The diplomat wanted Virolainen – who was also Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union – to not hold its next meeting in South Korea.