Janne Huuskonen: The authorities must respect the law

Freedom of expression allows criticism of those in power. Politicians have a broad right to freedom of expression, perhaps even broader than that of ordinary citizens.The preceding statement is true. In Finland in particular those who hold power may be criticised. The central provisions that safeguard freedom of expression can be found in the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights, which interprets the convention on human rights, has emphasised that politicians have the right to make statements that offend, exaggerate and provoke. Politicians are allowed to speak! In the Plenary Hall members of parliament have even broader freedom of expression. Statements cannot lead to charges unless five sixths of parliament support it.

Lately a wish to question the positions taken by the Deputy Chancellor of Justice in overseeing the legality of the government’s actions has emerged. And no, it has not been a question of criticising the actions of the Chancellor of Justice’s office in general, but of attacking a specific official. A key factor has of course been that the Deputy Chancellor of Justice’s views did not please all representatives. One politician wondered if one person can really just like that put a stop to the government’s proposal. Another one suggested that it should result in dismissal.

And what did the official do? He was filling in for the Chancellor of Justice, who was travelling at the time, in other words he was fulfilling his role monitoring the legality of the government’s decision-making. In his opinion there were not legal grounds for closing all the border crossing points on the Eastern border.

But what is the problem with a member of parliament from one of the parties in government demanding that the Deputy Chancellor of Justice be fired? Doesn’t he or she have the right?

The fundamental right to freedom of expression is the human right that makes it possible to defend all other human rights. Freedom of expression in the world is only realised in states that respect the rule of law. Rule of law means in practice that those in power act according to the law, respect democracy and fundamental rights and are overseen by independent courts. In a state that respects the rule of law everyone has the right to public services, abuses are prevented effectively and people trust the authorities. In a state that respects the rule of law everyone has a voice.

Of course members of parliament from parties that are in government can criticise the views of the Deputy Chancellor of Justice if they wish. But in general it would be desirable to respect mandates, as the officeholder – who has official responsibility – is looking after the rule of law. In attacking the officeholder the member of parliament is also undermining the fundamental pillars of freedom of expression. 

History shows that democratically elected decision makers can destroy the institutions that protect democracy. Because of this, politicians in particular need to be on the alert and protect the delicate balance of the rule of law.

If lawmakers are concerned about freedom of expression, as they should be, a change of law would be needed. The freedom of expression of members of parliament is well supported, but the Supreme Administrative Court’s tax-related ruling in December showed that investigative journalism could be in deep trouble if the tax legislation is not changed. A professional journalist cannot be held responsible for the costs, if a story approved for publication by the chief editor results in criminal charges. In the worst case, this can lead to self-censorship, which significantly weakens citizens’ right to receive information about issues of societal importance.

Janne Huuskonen

Janne Huuskonen is a writer and journalist and member of the board of Finnish PEN.

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