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Opinions Divided Over PM's Media Poll Gag Order

Centre Party Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has asked cabinet members not to respond to opinion polls from the media. Vanhanen himself has refused to comment on the memo, but the opposition says he is stifling open discourse.

Vanhanen does not want ministers in his government commenting on issues that fall under the jurisdiction of cabinet colleagues. According to the Prime Minister's special adviser on political issues, Timo Laaninen, the PM last week re-issued the same admonition he gave ministers just before the last elections.

Vanhanen's instructions for ministers to not respond to media opinion polls and to remain silent on unfinished government business have divided politicians. Those in the cabinet are understanding, while the opposition says the PM is stifling open discourse.

"The Prime Minister said this spring that the government should not publicly discuss unresolved issues, and I think that's backwards," SDP chair Eero Heinäluoma told YLE Radio. "While things are being worked on, that's the time for public discussion. It is a pretty important part of democracy."

"It's important to know what issues are being prepared [in government], and in real social discourse different opinions will come up against each other. This is the way opinion is refined," he added.

Minister of Justice Tuija Brax defended Vanhanen, saying that the premier is not discouraging public discourse.

"I think that from the citizens' perspective, it's good that ministers only comment on the issues they are responsible for," she says. "If, for example, the Justice Minister gave her own opinions about schools, it could give the impression that schools are being developed along those lines, even though this might not be true."

Brax notes that ministers did not usually respond to media polls during SDP chair Paavo Lipponen's terms as prime minister, either.

Sensitive Poll Precipitated Instruction A debate about Vanhanen's instruction to cabinet members came up when the newspaper Aamulehti polled leading politicians and former cabinet members for their views on whether or not information on the contacts the East German spy agency Stasi had in Finland should be made public. Only two government ministers are said to have responded, while many pleaded ignorance. Earlier this summer Vanhanen announced that cabinet members should not discussed unfinished government business in the press. Stasi documents unpublished

Aamulehti did find support among politicians for the release of documents concerning Finns who spied on behalf of the East Germans during the Cold War, the so-called "Rosenholz files". The Foreign Ministry has classified them public, but they are still being withheld by the Finnish security police Supo.

The release of the documents for research purposes has the backing of the conservative speaker of parliament Sauli Niinistö, former centrist prime minister Esko Aho, the former Social Democratic justice minister Johannes Koskinen, and the prominent Green MP Heidi Hautala.

Niinistö has said that it would be good to examine how pervasive "Finlandisation" was during the Cold War. For his part, Aho has said that the only risk he sees is that the documents could be used against the people named in them. Hautala's stand is that it is high time to clear up this issue and that the cabinet should act to do so.

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