Law and order proposals: is Finland really turning into a ‘police state’?

File picture of protester in Senate Square, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finnish ministries made two proposals which hit the headlines this week for all the wrong reasons.

First, there was the idea that police would have sudden unfettered access to medical records; then controversy about possible restrictions to citizens’ rights to protest. It prompted one senior official to wonder aloud if Finland was ‘slowly moving towards’ becoming a police state.

Healthcare data: sharing information with police

The medical data story was first reported by Helsingin Sanomat newspaper which carried interviews with Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen (NCP) and Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Annika Sarikko (Centre).

It centres around fresh proposals to give police some greater powers to access medical information.

The original story – and the ministers – do try to explain that the information can be used to help police prevent a serious crime, or help with rape investigations; and Sarikko goes out of her way to say that the public can rest assured if you go to the doctor your problems or treatment won’t be automatically reported to cops.

Still, the reaction was predictably split down political lines – which probably says more about the upcoming general election, where everything becomes hyper politicized, than it does about any measured scrutiny of the proposals.

“What is it with this government? Time and again, proposals are being introduced to restrict citizens’ fundamental rights without any proper analysis of the consequences of these measures for civil rights and privacy” writes Left Alliance leader Li Andersson.

Newly elected Green party leader Pekka Haavisto also says he’s “worried” about recent proposals that would give authorities more access to private data on ordinary Finns.

“The most recent news is the Interior Ministry’s intention to give the police extensive access to Finnish patient data. The authorities should not be given access to such private information” Haavisto says in a statement.

File image of medical data / Credit: iStock

Medical data proposals “not a big novelty”

The political furore over the new proposals seemed to catch the Ministry of Interior by surprise.

“It’s not a big novelty, they made it look like it was big news and it gives quite a wrong impression about the whole thing. I see it’s been so wrongly understood” says Heidi Lempio, Senior Specialist in Legal Affairs at the Interior Ministry.

“Yes we are proposing a change, but it’s not as dramatic as it appears. The police already has the right to get some patient information but it’s quite restricted, and covered by several laws” she tells News Now Finland, explaining that police could request such patient information anyway, if they are investigating a crime that already took place, or if they are trying to prevent a one.

One scenario the new legislation could help prevent is a recent case of child abuse where an 8-year old Helsinki girl was killed by her father.

“After this case it was recognised there should be more fluid exchange between authorities, like between health and social authorities, and the police” says Lempio.

File picture of scientist looking at bacteria cultures / Credit: iStock

Lack of cooperation between authorities

In practice, the police found they were getting the required information from social workers or child protection authorities where they considered there might be a threat to an individual; but there was still a great deal of reluctance on the part of medical staff to do the same.

“Concerning social authorities, it has been working fine. But with health, it doesn’t work well at all. They don’t give information to police. And this is not evidence in a crime, it is to prevent possible acts of violence. It’s threat assessment to see what more could be done, more social support, more health support and it needs cooperation to prevent acts of violence. But health authorities have not been very keen to work together [with police] like this” explains the Interior Ministry’s Heidi Lempio.

The intention of the new legislation, according to the ministry, is to promote more low-level information sharing to prevent possibly violent crimes.

“It’s a balancing act. It needs trust between police, patients and medical records but we see there is also a need to protect potential victims of crimes” says Lempio.

The Finnish Medical Association did not respond to a request for comment, but Executive Director Kati Myllymäki was quoted by Helsingin Sanomat saying she was “quite dismayed” by the new proposals. “It does not really understand how healthcare works and what the role of a doctor is” she said.

“Finland has never been a police state, but we are slowly moving towards one” Lasse Lehtonen, the Administrative Head of Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital system tells Helsingin Sanomat.

Lower threshold for medical information

The new legislation would also lower the threshold for when police can get medical information about a suspect without the need for their consent. At present that can happen automatically if someone is charged with a ‘supra aggravated’ crime where the minimum punishment is six years in prison.

In future, that bar would be reduced to ‘aggravated’ crimes where the minimum punishment is four years in prison – including aggravated rape and aggravated assault for example.

By comparison, police in Sweden have an automatic right to receive medical data without consent for someone sentenced to one year in prison.

File picture of protester marching in Helsinki, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Rights of protest changes mooted

The other controversy this week was about a proposed change from the Justice Ministry, which would increase the amount of time that police expect protesters to inform them of any planned demonstrations.

At present, the right to assemble for peaceful protest is enshrined in Finland’s constitution. But in terms of bureaucracy, the Assembly Act says that police should have a minimum of six hours notice before a protest takes place.

Under the new legislation being proposed by Justice Minister Antti Häkkänen (NCP), that time would be increased to 72 hours.

“The current six-hour notification period has, however, proved to be too short in practice to enable the police to ensure freedom of assembly in all cases and, if necessary, to negotiate with the organizers of the meeting” a bulletin from the ministry reported at the end of October.

“A longer reporting period would also provide the police with more opportunities to carry out transport arrangements and enable more efficient use of the human resources of the police” it says.

Members of the Nordic Resistance Movement march through the streets of Turku on Saturday 18th August 2018 / Credit: Eemeli Sarka / News Now Finland

Minister Häkkänen says that compared to other countries, six hours is a rather short notification, noting that in other European countries there is a two or three day notification period.

“The ability to hold spontaneous demonstrations is still allowed. This is shown by reading the draft law. In any case, it is a small change, a period of notice that is already used by other countries” writes Häkkänen on Twitter this weekend.

Still, his political opponents are crying foul.

“Three days is quite an impossible long time for the demonstrators to hold back their protest, in situations where citizens want to express their opinion on the topical issue” says Li Andersson.

“Freedom of assembly and freedom to express their views are the cornerstones of Finnish democracy. I do not understand the justice minister’s thinking about restricting freedom of assembly. The presentation is crappy and hopefully it fails” says Pekka Haavisto.

The new legislation would come into force in August 2019.