The Lapland MP, Julian Assange, Fake News & Catalonia

Mikko Kärnä has sparked an online frenzy after saying he will introduce a motion to parliament supporting Catalan independence.

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Lapland MP Mikko Kärnä stands in front of a Catalan flag / Credit: @KarnaMikko Twitter

Finnish politician Mikko Kärnä (Centre) will publish the text of a parliamentary motion today which calls on MPs to recognize an independent Catalonia.

It’s a move which has brought applause and critiques; sparked a wave of international media stories of dubious quality; and forced Foreign Minister Timo Soini to deny that any official Finnish recognition of Catalonia was imminent.

So who is Kärnä?

A few months ago, it was doubtful if most Finns had heard of the Lapland MP.

The 36-year-old gained his seat by default in 2015, when warhorse politician Paavo Väyrynen lumbered off to Brussels and Kärnä, next on his party’s list, got bumped up to fill the vacant slot.

In parliament, he’s hardly been setting the legislative world on fire. His last motion in early October was to propose a holiday for school pupils on the first day of bear hunting season.  But in recent weeks he’s reinvented himself as a vocal and passionate advocate for Catalan independence.

It’s an unlikely choice of cause, since Kärnä has never been to Barcelona.

“I can relate to Catalonia situation as Finland turns 100 years” he tells News Now Finland from his home in Inari, Lapland.

“Independence in this country was not a clear situation, and not everyone wanted to be independent in our state either” he adds, equating Finland with the situation in Catalonia, where an estimated million people attended a rally in support of unity with Spain last weekend; while less than 40% of eligible voters cast their ballots in favour of independence in an election on 1st October which had been ruled illegal by Spanish courts, and was boycotted by pro-Spanish parties in the autonomous region.

Kärnä’s attraction to Catalonia remains a mystery to commentators like Eeva Lehtimäki, a former political correspondent, and now a communications consultant at Ellun Kanat.

“I don’t see any contact or connection between Lapland and Catalonia. He has freedom of speech of course, but somehow it is out of hand now. I don’t know if this is some kind of snowball, if he doesn’t understand how fast things can get out of hand” she wonders.

Prolific on Twitter

Mikko Kärnä reaches ‘peak Catalonia’ with his constant flow of messages on Twitter. In the last month he’s tweeted almost 300 times; up to ten unique tweets per day, not counting replies to messages.

He tweets about Catalonia, often in English, at a rate of 2-to-1 compared to other posts which are mostly about Finnish politics; while he shares other people’s tweets about Catalonia by the dozen.

He fires tweets at European leaders like Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Stefan Löfven, Mariano Rajoy and Juha Sipilä.

And he doesn’t think this is too much.

“Really I didn’t expect to get as much attention as I did, but I have always been active tweeting and when we have something interesting going on around the world which sparks an interest for me, I tweet about it” he says.

Screen capture from Daily Express story

Fake News & Julian Assange

Last weekend Kärnä’s tweets reached fever pitch, when his post about planning to file a motion in the Finnish parliament to recognize Catalan independence got more than 21,000 shares and more than 32,000 ‘likes’. He also received 2,500 replies, mostly congratulating him on his planned move.

That tweet was soon echoed and corrupted by the British right-wing tabloid Daily Express, with a headline “EU TURMOIL: Finland preparing to go against Spain and RECOGNISE Catalonia’s independence“. This of course was not true at all, but the writer further pandered to the newspaper’s audience with claims Finnish recognition would be a “body blow” to the EU and “make a mockery” of the block.

Kärnä says he sent emails to “several news agencies” that published inaccurate stories but admits “actually, I should have done more”.

“If I could have done anything more I would have done, but I think I did the best I could to correct these mistakes” he adds.

Other media outlets picked up on the initial tweet, and the Express story. In Scotland, left leaning pro-independence newspaper The National was less definitive with the headline “Finland could be first to back Catalan republic” and wrote a story based around Kärnä’s tweet.

But crucially there was no attempt at analysis, or to give context to readers that Kärnä’s initiative was contrary to the Finnish government’s position and unlikely to attain any majority in parliament.

We reached out to The National for comment about whether they think there should have been a more balanced journalistic picture offered, but they did not respond to questions by midnight last night.

By the time Wikileaks founder Julian Assange shared Kärnä’s tweet, there was probably no point in him trying to correct the inaccuracies. It had simply taken on a life of its own.

“The only effective way to deal with misinformation is to deal with it as quickly as possible” says Fergus Bell, a journalist and verification expert who helps newsrooms fight misinformation.

“Misinformation spreads quicker than the truth and it is very hard for any future correction to gain us much attention or as much reach. If the correction can be attached to the original mistake, be it on social media or in an article then that is even better” Bell says.

Crucially, Kärnä didn’t contradict Julian Assange, overwhelmed perhaps by all the attention he was getting.

“I cannot take responsibility for bad journalism” says Kärnä.

“I am one man. I have a life. I have a job, and it was a really intensive day on Friday” he concedes.

Political Criticism

At the Finnish Foreign Ministry in Helsinki, alarm bells were ringing by Friday evening, as international media speculation grew about whether Finland would break the EU stance on supporting Spain.

Foreign Minister Timo Soini rushed out a statement to state funded broadcaster YLE to say categorically that Finland wasn’t about to recognize an independent Catalonia, in direct reaction to Mikko Kärnä’s tweet.

“I can understand civil servants in the Foreign Ministry, they might not be happy with me” says Kärnä.

Those civil servants are not the only ones unhappy with the Lapland MP.

While Kärnä’s Centre Party has said in public that all politicians have the right to speak up or introduce their own motions, in private there is frustration that he has been too vocal.

“He’s not representing the government or party’s line” says one senior Centre Party politician, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to speak publicly about a colleague.

“For the government it might cause some small harm, because our officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have had to say what Finland’s position is” the politician says.

“Mikko is a nice guy, a clever guy, but perhaps a bit…” the politician leaves the sentence hanging.

A second Centre Party politician – who requested that we withhold his name for the same reasons as the first politician – was more direct.

“He can support the Catalan issue, but he could do it less hard, and I think they are too sharp comments for this very tense, sensitive issue” says the second politician.

“I think he has gone through many limits now […] and I have to be irritated that he is giving such a big support for the declaration of independence because there has been so much international publicity for that, and because Mr Sipilä is our party leader and Prime Minister, there is a lot of questions, is this the line of [the Centre Party] or the Finnish government?”

Map showing Enontekiö municipality in Lapland / Credit: Google Maps

Local Reaction

In Mikko Kärnä’s Enontekiö constutiency, one of Europe’s most remote wilderness areas, the politician inspires a ‘love-him-or-hate-him’ reaction.

Voters might not follow Kärnä’s Twitter stream, but his support for Catalonia has been covered widely in the Finnish national media, even if it didn’t make the local papers yet.

“If he says something about some local issues which I think is something local people is interested in, then I make news, but not on every issue he says or writes” says Katja Keskitalo, editor of the local Enontekiön Sanomat newspaper.

As with any local politician he’s got his supporters and detractors.

“Where things are not right, there is Mikko Kärnä. He is a defender of rights” says Seppo Alatörmänen the Centre Party leader of the local council.

“I think Mikko doesn’t care where the people live, in Finland or Catalonia or Sweden or Norway. Because he thinks that people have their rights and he defends that. He defends Enontekiö that we have our police force. He defends the rights of Sámi” says Alatörmänen.

Even political opponents on the local council agree that Kärnä has been working to get a permanent police presence re-established in Enontekiö. But they disagree about him being a proponent of Sámi rights – which might seem at odds with his vigorous defence of Catalan rights.

“I think a lot of Sámi people in Enontekiö they can’t live with Mikko Kärnä because he’s being so much like a vihollinen – enemy – to the Sámi people, when we are talking about Sámi issues” says local councilor Janne Näkkäläjärvi of Johtti Sápmelaččat, a Nomadic Sámi association that has had its own list in municipal elections for many years.

“He was very difficult when he was leading our municipality” says Näkkäläjärvi, who disagrees with Kärnä on several issues that are important to Sámi people in Enontekiö.

New Motion

There are three type of motion which can be filed with the Central Registry of Finland’s parliament, and Kärnä says he has already done the paperwork and will publish the text today.

The first type of motion is a proposal for new legislation which goes to the speaker’s council, which could then send it to the relevant parliamentary committee for first discussion.

The second type is a discussion motion that could some day come up in plenary session.

And the third type of motion is one which urges the government to take action on a particular issue.

Importantly, Kärnä’s motion doesn’t call for immediate recognition of Catalonia. It is more nuanced than that, and he laments the fact he’s limited to 140 characters on Twitter.

“Now in Catalonia, many people want to believe that soon Finland is going to just recognise independence” says Kärnä, who explains his motion is in two parts.

The first part says that Finland must promote political liberties within the EU and a peaceful negotiation of the current crisis in Catalonia. And the second part calls for Finland to recognize an independent Catalonia only after conditions for statehood have been met – like monetary issues, border control, and other markings of sustainable independence.

He denies this is a ‘dodge’, calling it “realism”. “The people of Catalan must know it too” he says.

Kärnä says he has had some words of support from other MPs, but that the real business begins next week when parliament reconvenes after the autumn break, and he gets to do some face-to-face selling of his idea.

And he won’t be drawn on how much support he expects to receive.

“The government must present the issue to the President, and the President makes the decision. But before recognizing, it is clear that Catalonia must show the markings of a real sovereign state”.