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Wednesday's papers: Tackling terror threats and easing checks on alcohol sales

Terror and threats were two of the main words splashed across Finnish dailies Wednesday. Papers delved into the details of a national security operation to foil a suspected terror attack in Helsinki earlier in the week and provided new insights into the drama. Running a close second in the race for media real estate is a breakthrough agreement among government MPs to loosen restrictions on alcohol sales.

Poliisioperaatio Etu-Töölössä Helsingissä.
Police staged a major operation last Sunday in a bid to detain possible suspects in a potential terror plot. Image: Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva

Leading circulation daily Helsingin Sanomat headlines new information about a highly-visible police operation that sought to head off a terrorist attack at the Church of the Rock, or Temppeliaukio in Helsinki’s Töölö district earlier this week. The paper quotes chief inspector Tero Haapala of the National Bureau of Investigation as saying that the seemingly-impregnable structure was "a clear target."

"When we received information about the threat, a broad group of experts considered whether we should close the church or allow it to continue operating," Haapala told the paper. That expert group included officers from the Helsinki police department, the National Bureau of Investigation and the security and intelligence police Supo.

HS reports that the church had already featured in 2016 in a magazine known as "Dabiq", known to be part of the propaganda machinery of the extremist group ISIS. The article in question displayed an image of the church, accompanied by the caption, "A pagan church in Finland." The text was written by a Finnish woman who had relocated to an area under ISIS control.

Haapala told HS that police were aware of the piece but said that Monday’s operation was not related to it. Rather he said that the measures were the result of new information coming from other sources. "I cannot yet say where the information came from," he added.

Interior Minister in the loop

HS also spoke with Interior Minister Paula Risikko, who said that she had experienced "one of the longest nights of her life" when she was informed of the threat against the Töölö church. She said she received the information "immediately", meaning late Saturday night.

The minister could not say whether or not the perceived threat facing the Helsinki church was the most serious ever encountered in Finland.

"The fact that the machinery started up quickly tells [us] that the situation was taken very seriously," Risikko noted.

Police call for wider use of bollards and other obstacles

Meanwhile in another aspect of its extensive coverage of the alleged terror threat, HS reports that police are calling for construction sites in the city to set up bollards, which are short pillars that block vehicular access, as well as other kinds of barriers to boost security. Temporary concrete barriers will also be introduced at mass outdoor events this summer.

Officials point out that barriers don’t always have to look obvious. For example, the picturesque squat, massive flower pots that currently adorn many cities may serve to block unwanted vehicles. More visible deterrents have included army trucks, which were used to block roads during the Power Cup volleyball tournament in Vantaa last week. They were also deployed during the funeral of the late President Mauno Koivisto in late May.

"When something new is under construction, it’s possible to do all kinds of things, either temporarily or permanently," said chief inspector Heikki Porola of Helsinki police.

He revealed that for the past few years police have focused on identifying and preventing "new security threats". Police said they will also more closely review security issues with city managers and event organisers when large structures are erected or when major events are planned.

Porola noted that event organisers are no longer being asked to step up security; they are now required to do so. "The audience expects security," he declared.

Tighter security in Tampere

Coming off the press in Tampere, Aamulehti writes that security arrangements will be stricter than ever for a Midsummer festival dues to take place in Himos Park over the weekend. Head of security Sauli Aitto-oja of security firm Turva Oy told the paper that preparations have been in the works since the early spring in the event of a terror attack.

Event security have paid particular attention to ensuring that it will not be possible for vehicles to drive through the large crowds expected. That means that heavy vehicles will be stationed at strategic points at entry gates. Additional vehicles will appear on the two main routes into the festival area.

Traffic arrangements will also change: speed limits on the busy Highway 9 will be reduced, more restrictions on overtaking will be in force, while chicanes (artificial s-shaped features) will be added to some routes to slow traffic.

"We aim to ensure everyone’s safety, both on the road and at the event. There are many summer residents in the area and there will be some disruption as we make arrangements. Fortunately, residents have been very understanding," Aitto-oja noted.

IL: Breakthrough in alcohol law reform

The other headline story in Wednesday’s papers focuses on the newly-reconstituted government’s success in agreeing to ease restrictions on the sale of alcohol. According to tabloid daily Ilta-Sanomat, it has taken no less than two years for MPs to reach consensus on the proposed changes to alcohol laws. The most divisive part of the debate has centred around a plan to allow ordinary supermarkets and other food retail stores to sell medium-strength beer and so-called alcoholic coolers. However the reform will also allow bars to stay open until 4.00am.

The ranks of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s Centre Party include MPs who oppose the sale of such beverages in supermarkets and they have cast conscience votes to oppose the relaxed legislation. However other members of the governing coalition have largely backed the measure. The compromise reached on Tuesday could allow food stores to sell drinks with a 5.5-percent alcohol content — if MPs vote in favour of the measure in the autumn.

When the bill does come before all MPs, they will have a free hand to propose a higher or lower alcoholic content for the threshold. MPs representing the government partners have committed to supporting the compromise measure and will not be allowed to vote against a final proposal if the final alcohol threshold is the agreed 5.5 percent alcohol content.

TS: Alcohol abuse concerns, bigger tax take, economic stimulus

The Turku-based daily Turun Sanomat also tackles the proposed reform to alcohol laws, and forecasts opposition to the measures agreed by the government partners on Tuesday. It spoke with Antti Lindtman, chair of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary group and the largest opposition group in parliament.

"When the result is a government that has not listened to the concerns of experts about the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse, it is difficult to see much support from the opposition parties," Lindtman noted.

He said however, that the SDP will try to find common ground on the proposal, but he did not say whether MPs will be allowed a conscience vote on the matter.

The reforms to alcohol laws are just part of a larger slew of legislative changes aimed at reducing bureaucracy, notes Kalle Jokinen, chair of the National Coalition parliamentary group.

"An important part of this is the potential for craft breweries to sell their products where they are produced. It will improve their business prospects and operating conditions," Jokinen stressed.

Chair of the New Alternative parliamentary group (former Finns Party MPs) Simon Elo pointed to the economic impact of the reform package, saying that relaxing sales of medium beer will generate more alcohol tax income. He added that the changes could generate up to 300 new jobs in the brewery sector.

Jokinen and Elo said that it is also important to give Finnish residents freedom to decide on their individual alcohol consumption.

"Working men and women have also earned their freedom in this respect," Elo declared.

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