Finland's tax authorities threatened to raid Yle’s premises and journalists’ homes in order to gain access to a data leak known as the Panama Papers, an executive for the broadcaster claimed on Friday. The data includes information on shell companies suspected to have been set up by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to aid tax avoidance.
Finance minister Alexander Stubb has previously demanded that the tax authorities gain access to the data, but Yle has refused, citing article 14 of the guidelines for journalists published by the Council for the Mass media and the Journalists union.
That article is about source confidentiality, and the principle that journalists should not willingly hand over information that could lead to the identification of a source. Af Björksten says that the tax authorities have nevetherless warned they could secure search warrants to raid Yle premises and journalists’ homes in pursuit of the data if the company does not comply with their request.
"This is quite an unusual request, not only in a Finnish context but also in a worldwide context," said af Björksten. "As far as we know there have been no requests like this in other countries. And we can't see any reason to give them this information at this stage."
The demand was also unprecedented in Finland according to af Björksten, who said it was important that Yle now tries to reiterate its case to the authorities.
"We have tried to explain why we can't give this material, but maybe we have to explain once more, because it's maybe not very easy to see what could be the consequences if we were to do this," said af Björksten. "It could affect freedom of expression, it could affect the investigative journalism in Finland--not only Yle, but all the Finnish companies. Because who would like to have Finnish journalists in their networks when they know that the authorities can come at any time and demand this material?"
"Between Yle and the taxman"
Finance Minister Alexander Stubb has been vocal in expressing his hope that the Panama Papers might be made available to tax authorities. On Friday he said that he supports Yle’s right to protect its sources but also reiterated that he wanted the tax authorities to be able to use the data to pursue miscreant taxpayers.
"It's a decision that Yle has to make itself," said the National Coalition party leader. "I think that for the authorities to try to suss what has happened, and who has done what in the Panama Papers it would be quite useful. But there's nothing the Finance Minister can do about it, it's an issue between Yle and the tax authorities. I think we need to work on legislation which prevents tax evasion. I think the more information we have on the types of tax evasion that exists around the world, the easier it is for us to legislate. But again, it's a question of protecting your sources, and Yle takes that decision independently and I respect it."
The international Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which is co-ordinating the international effort to report on the data, has also said it will not hand over the documents. Yle’s access to the material is conditional on agreeing to the ICIJ’s conditions, which include the stipulation that no data will be handed over to officials.
The tax administration refused to comment on Yle’s refusal. The organisation’s head of communications Mikko Mattinen said that the Tax Administration does not comment on individual customers’ tax affairs.
That principle also applies when the customer is a media organisation like Yle. For now, af Björksten says that she's concerned about the signals Finnish authorities are sending.
"Finland is still, for the seventh year in a row, at the top of the list of countries for freedom of expression, and we hopes it stays there, but this is of course a worrying sign," said af Björksten.
When asked during an interview with Yle on Friday about the issue, Stubb played down his previous demands for the documents.
"The bottom line is that it's between the authorities and you guys," said Stubb.