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Justice chancellor criticises PM's reaction to Yle's Terrafame coverage

Weighing in on last winter's "Sipilägate" controversy, Finland's Deputy Chancellor of Justice issued a warning to the prime minister and other public officials, saying they must avoid acts that could be construed as attempts to guide, block or limit the publication of information related to the official use of power.

Pääministeri Juha Sipilä vieraili Terrafamen kaivoksella Sotkamossa 14.11.2016
PM Juha Sipilä visited the struggling Terrafame nickel mine - formerly known as Talvivaara - on Nov. 14, 2016. Image: Jonna Karjalainen / Yle

Deputy Chancellor of Justice Risto Hiekkataipale has criticised Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's actions regarding coverage of the Terrafame mining company last autumn by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle).

In a statement issued on Thursday, Hiekkataipale said "the prime minister's behaviour was not fully compatible" with the responsibilities of his post, noting that government officials have a responsibility to ensure the media's freedom of speech. 

In late November, Sipilä sent a large number of angry emails to Yle journalist Salla Vuorikoski and the company's Director of News and Current Affairs Atte Jääskeläinen, after the organisation published a story outlining Sipilä's relatives' ownership role in Katera Steel. Katera landed a major contract from the state-owned Terrafame, for which the premier had just approved a large tranche of additional funding.

Hiekkataipale declared that Sipilä had operated within the bounds of freedom of speech by sending the emails, and that it could not be shown that the PM's intention was to influence Yle's news coverage.

"Extremely unusual"

The Deputy Chancellor of Justice said however that "this kind of erroneous impression could reasonably have been created, as Sipilä's feedback method was extremely unusual and included some strong expressions".

Hiekkataipale said he had considered the case from the standpoint of the freedom of speech of both the prime minister and the media. In weighing these two values, particular emphasis should be placed on the government's mandate to ensure freedom of the press.

Therefore, he says, public officials have a responsibility to avoid actions that could be interpreted as attempts to guide, block or limit the publication of information related to the exercise of official power.

Hiekkataipale's comments came two days after Reporters without Borders cited Sipilä’s behaviour as a reason why Finland dropped from its top spot on the World Press Freedom Index after five consecutive years. In late March, the Council for the Mass Media in Finland criticised both Yle and the premier for their handling of the case.

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