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The Supreme Administrative Court: Yle does not have to turn over the Panama Papers to the Tax Administration

Yles logo.
Yles logo. Picture by: Yle Yle

The Supreme Administrative Court of Finland issued its decision on the case concerning the so-called Panama Papers. The Tax Administration demanded that Yle turn over to it material related to the Panama tax haven information leak. The Supreme Administrative Court found in favour of Yle in the case, meaning that Yle does not have to turn over material leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The Court based its decision on the right to obtain information under the Act on Taxation Procedure. According to the Court, a reference data inspection must target accounting records or other material that plays a central role in a tax inspection. The Court found that this prerequisite was not fulfilled. According to the decision, the tax authorities do not have the right to demand a large amount of unspecified information. According to the Court, the Tax Administration has not indicated a specific matter the processing of which could have necessitated the information that was demanded.

“From the start, we have steadfastly defended the freedom of speech which, together with the protection of journalists’ sources, lies at the heart of the whole Western democracy. This is a question of central principles concerning not only journalism, but also the freedom of speech and democracy. In the long term, turning over the papers would weaken the protection of sources and the threshold for breaking it would decrease. The fact that this process has now been brought to a conclusion is important not only to Yle, but to the whole Finnish media”, say Ville Vilén and Marit af Björkesten, responsible editors at Yle.

The Panama Papers consist of approximately 11.5 million documents, originating from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. It is one of the largest companies in the world providing tax haven services.

They were originally handed over to the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper under the protection of sources. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) joined in the research work later, and through this connection, two journalists from Yle went through the papers. In total, nearly 400 journalists from 80 countries studied the material for months.

The Tax Administration demanded that Yle turn over not only the Panama Papers, but also all the editorial background material related to the production of the MOT and Spotlight programmes that dealt with the subject. The Tax Administration referred to provisions concerning the special disclosure obligation of a third party and the obligation to present material during a tax inspection. Yle took the matter to the administrative court, and the Helsinki Administrative Court overturned the demands of the Tax Administration in August 2017. The Tax Administration appealed the case to the Supreme Administrative Court.