The freedom of expression commission appointed by the Norwegian government in 2020 has recently published its report (read the report of Norway’s freedom of expression commission here). Denmark’s freedom of expression commission published its report in April 2020. Does Finland need a freedom of expression commission?
Denmark’s government appointed a freedom of expression commission in 2017 to assess the state of freedom of expression in Denmark. The commission had 11 members, who included professors, a chief editor and experts from thinktanks. Its task was large, and included for example describing the historical evolution of the right to freedom of expression in Denmark.
An important part of the Danish commission’s work was a survey of different population groups’ opinions and experiences related to freedom of expression. According to the survey, freedom of expression has strong support in Denmark, but the survey also showed for example that immigrants and their descendants from countries with Muslim majorities value freedom of expression significantly less than the rest of the population.
In its report, Denmark’s freedom of expression commission found that there is a strong basis and good conditions for freedom of expression, but warned that there are many challenges. Terror, violence and threats directed at people because of their expression or beliefs forms the greatest threat to freedom of expression. The commission also expressed its concern about widespread harassment.
The commission emphasised that wider understanding and acceptance must be achieved that freedom of expression does not protect only harmless and neutral expressions.
Denmark’s freedom of expression commission also emphasised that today’s challenges should not be met by more legislation that restricts freedom of expression.
Norway’s freedom of expression commission was also tasked with assessing the state of freedom of expression. The commission had 17 members, who included professors, journalists, a musician and representatives of various organisations. Norway’s freedom of expression commission had a more detailed mandate than Denmark’s. Norway’s for example included compiling experiences and views of various groups, such as children and young people, and ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual minorities.
Norway’s freedom of expression commission concluded that the state of freedom of expression in Norway is very good. More sanctions and prohibitions are not the solution to the challenges in public debates. According to the commission, discussions about hate speech and harassment can give the impression that hate and harassment dominate public debates, but the research mapped by the commission does not support such a conclusion.
Norway’s freedom of expression commission presented more than 90 recommendations in its report. These included that the paragraph in the Constitution that addresses freedom of expression should be evaluated, which should include considering the possible addition of text relating to tolerance and diversity.
In Finland hate speech, harassment and the negative tone of public debates has raised many concerns in the last few years. Disagreements about the limits of freedom of expression are often part of these discussions.
Could a commission on freedom of expression help clarify the limits of freedom of expression in today’s society? That would depend on for example the commission’s mandate, its composition, its working methods and its resources.
Should Finland consider establishing a commission on freedom of expression? Yes. It is worth considering, because other initiatives that might improve today’s public debates and clarify the limits of freedom of expression are not in sight. This is particularly important now, when the national security situation has changed radically and democracy needs a strong basis (read the report Tarvitseeko Suomi sananvapauskomission? here in Finnish).
Joy Hyvärinen is a member of the working group on freedom of expression in the digital age and a member of Finnish PEN’s board