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Ville Vilén & Marit af Björkesten: Protection of sources is an important part of Western democracy, not idle nonsense

Ville Vilen ja Marit af Björkesten vierekkäin
Ville Vilen ja Marit af Björkesten vierekkäin Picture by: Yle/Jussi Nahkuri marit af björkesten

The question of source protection emerged again in Finnish public dialogue in November 2017 with comments voiced by the Director General of the Finnish Tax Administration.

Retiring Director General Pekka Ruuhonen wondered why Yleisradio refuses to hand over the tax haven leak materials known as the Panama papers. According to Ruuhonen, the tax administration is not interested in the source itself, only in the materials, which makes refusal in his view “idle nonsense”.

The tax administration has also done more than talking: they have launched an aggressive effort to break Yle’s protection of source in a court of law. Yle has solid justification for refusing to hand over the materials.

The first court process ended favourably for Yle, as the Helsinki administrative court ruled against the tax administration in August 2017. The case has since been subjected to the Supreme Administrative Court.

The question of source protection concerns one of the cornerstones of Western democracy: the freedom of speech. Protection of media sources is an important part of our freedom of speech. The media must have the right to keep its sources confidential.

This is crucial for effective monitoring and reporting of major political and economic decision-makers and authorities. The media of course always carries out these tasks with adherence to its own ethical principles.

The tax administration has based its demands on the claim that protection of sources only applies to the source itself, not the materials that the source has provided. The claim is an absurd one. According to Finnish legislation, related decisions issued by European courts of human rights, and an interpretation of the freedom of speech article in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, protection of sources is applied to both the source itself and the materials provided by the source.

Western democracy rests on the principle that different bodies have different tasks and functions. The media has its own tasks, and the tax administration has others. The media does not exist to help the authorities in their work; it has its own important role as watchdog keeping an eye on those who use power in our society.

Breaking the protection of a source would be highly exceptional and would have a major negative impact not only on Yle, but on the operations of all Finnish media. Therefore, Yle will fight till the last for the protection of its sources.

Ville Vilén
Director, responsible editor
Creative Content, Yle

Marit af Björkesten
Director, responsible editor
Swedish Yle