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Chief editors: Media not a channel for personal freedom of speech

Chief editors of Finland’s most influential news sources say they must be able to rely on loyalty to their organisations' policies. At the same time, they say editors must encourage transparency about decision-making in their newsrooms. A joint statement issued by the media professionals follows the resignations of several high-profile journalists at public broadcaster Yle over perceived political interference.

Merja Ylä-Anttila
Commercial broadcaster MTV's Chief Editor Merja Ylä-Anttila Image: Jyrki Valkama / Yle

The representative organisation of editors-in-chief in Finland, PTY, published a statement on Tuesday in response to public discourse that started in November about the responsibilities of a chief editors and their position in terms of freedom of speech.

PTY says in the statement that chief editors employ freedom of speech in their respective media, while journalists use their employer’s freedom of speech in their work. They are not entitled, however, to use the media channel for personal freedom of speech, the group says.

"I think its good to shed some light on certain gaps in the current discussion. Not everyone has an idea about what kinds of tasks a chief editor is charged with and which of these is linked to laws about freedom of expression," said Merja Ylä-Anttila, first deputy of PTY and chief editor for the commercial news broadcaster MTV.

PTY maintains that decisions that a chief editor makes about news items do not limit journalists’ freedom of speech. Journalist employees publishing whatever they like under the name of the media company they are employed for is a different matter, however.

Ylä-Anttila said the PTY statement is not intended to take a stand on any individual cases, and there's no specific reason the missive is being released just now.

"It is not aimed against or in defence of anyone," she said.

Chief editors are in charge

Chief editors want to remind people that they are responsible for the content their media channels produce, and this task cannot be relinquished to anyone outside the editorial team.

The PTY says editors-in-chief must also ensure that their units have conditions that are conducive to work by fighting off both external and internal pressure. 

"When the report concerns a big, influential topic in terms of general society, there are many interested parties that might try to influence things, from various quarters.  At this point, the chief editor is the last sea wall that provides wind protection for the staff to work in peace on difficult high-stress stories," says Ylä-Anttila.

PTY points out that even the chief editors' employers cannot interfere in their work in any other way than by appointing or removing them from the post.

More transparency could better identify fake news

The organisation said that a responsible editor-in-chief encourages an open atmosphere in the newsroom, one in which criticism about the journalistic decisions of the management is permitted to be aired.

"The media team should be able to talk about these things. Trust is very important," says the MTV chief editor.

PTY calls on editors everywhere to be more transparent. Audiences should be better informed about how decision-making in news making works, and under what grounds the media produces the content that it does.

Opening the processes up will also help the audience to distinguish reliable news sources from fake news and other traffickers in 'alternative facts'.

"This is the kind of thing that should make all news teams take a hard look in the mirror. It would also enhance the credibility and reliability of what we do. Consider this a kind of friendly push in that direction," says Ylä-Anttila.

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