Supreme Court rules source protection a valid defence for reporter who refused to testify

The appeal will allow the reporter to defend her decision to refuse to respond to certain police questions in the case.

Supreme Court in Helsinki. Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

Finland’s Supreme Court has granted leave to a Helsingin Sanomat journalist to appeal a decision by the Helsinki District Court regarding whether or not he had the right to protect sources who contributed to a story about a military intelligence research centre.

The verdict in the earlier case itself is sealed, but the supreme court's ruling means that the journalist cannot be convicted solely on the basis of protecting a source.

At the time the journalist, who was interviewed as a witness in the case, declared that he would not answer certain questions posed by police investigators, citing the right to protect his sources as well as their right to make anonymous statements.

Witnesses who refuse to testify can under Finnish law be fined or sentenced to up to six months in prison.

He was interviewed by police after Helsingin Sanomat published a story in 2017 about a secret military intelligence research centre.

The HS reporting raised eyebrows in defence circles because it partly relied on highly-classified and in some cases secret documents as a source. Following the HS story, the Defence Forces filed a criminal complaint with police for suspected disclosure of classified information, following which an investigation was launched.

However when investigators attempted to question the reporters during a preliminary investigation, they refused to respond to certain questions.

The Supreme Court said on Monday that the permission to appeal the previous Helsinki District Court decision centres on whether or not the reporter had the right to refuse to answer some of the questions put by the police.

Two suspected offences

The Supreme Court had previously handed down rulings relating to the preliminary inquiry. In August 2019, the court found that a police search of another reporter’s home and subsequent confiscation of items found were legal.

That reporter called on the court to rule that the seizure of the items had lapsed and should therefore be quashed. However both an appeal court and the Supreme Court rejected her claims.

In December last year, the Supreme Court then decreed that a flash drive seized at the reporter’s home should not be used in the criminal investigation because it could compromise the reporter’s source.

That decision overturned a previous ruling by the Helsinki Appeal court relating to the use of the storage device in the investigation.

The National Bureau of Investigation is investigating two suspected offences in the case: disclosure of security secrets and breach of professional secrecy.