The Media Today

Overclassification, the Finnish way

February 7, 2023
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In December 2017, Laura Halminen, a journalist at Helsingin Sanomat, a major newspaper in Finland, destroyed her laptop. Finnish law enforcement had just launched an investigation into an article that listed Halminen as an author, and she wanted to protect her sources and unfinished work—not least a story about Finnish law enforcement—from a possible search of her home. The search would soon come: in the process of smashing up her laptop, the battery caught fire, triggering a callout from the fire department, which in turn triggered police attention. Officers confiscated electronic devices belonging to Halminen. The officers were, at least, “discreet and polite,” she told me.

The investigation and search were surprising: For much of the past decade, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had ranked Finland as the best country in the world for press freedom. Even now, the group calls it “one of the few countries where the media is truly free,” a legacy dating to the 1700s, when Finland’s Swedish rulers adopted what were thought to be the world’s first laws guaranteeing freedom of the press. Yrsa Grüne-Luoma, the president of RSF’s Finnish branch, told me that she recently went looking for a precedent for the Helsingin Sanomat case and found only one: a 1940 probe after a news agency revealed the terms that ended the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. “This is totally peculiar to all of us,” Grüne-Luoma said.

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The Helsingin Sanomat story that came under investigation concerned the activities of a Finnish military-intelligence center; the center had shut down a few years earlier, but lawmakers were debating measures that would expand the surveillance powers of the intelligence services, and so the story was newly relevant. In 2021, prosecutors charged Halminen; the main author of the story, Tuomo Pietiläinen; and an editor—but not the paper’s top leadership, who made the final decision to publish—with revealing state secrets. (The trio were also charged, based in part on material for follow-up stories that officials found on Halminen’s devices, with attempting to reveal state secrets—charges, press-freedom watchers warned, that risked legitimizing prepublication censorship. Those charges were thrown out.)

Last month—following a trial that was conducted, in no small part, behind closed doors—a court found Halminen and Pietiläinen guilty. (The editor was acquitted.) Pietiläinen received a fine. (His lawyer declined an interview request.) Halminen got off without any formal punishment after the court agreed that her contribution to the article had been minimal; she had done more work on the follow-up stories. But she was convicted nonetheless.

The court rejected the argument that the article rose to the level of public interest—and yet it was deemed important enough to result in convictions for the journalists. The court accepted that the publication of the article did not harm national security—but argued that its authors could not have known beyond doubt that it wouldn’t. And no one I spoke to about the case could pinpoint why officials decided to make an example of this article, specifically, in a country with an otherwise glowing reputation for press freedom. It emerged during the trial that, prior to publication, Halminen showed underlying documents and, later, a draft of the story to a military source (a “normal interaction with a source” escalated into “a situation with a counterintelligence unit on my back,” Halminen told me). A senior military intelligence official subsequently warned Halminen of the legal risks of publishing—a warning, she has said, that her immediate colleagues disregarded—but military leaders did not reach out to senior editors with their concerns, despite knowing what the story would say.

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Helsingin Sanomat and its journalists also argued that, even if information in the story did come from classified documents, the details were all also available in the public domain at the time of publishing; the paper presented the court with a dossier that it said proved this on a line-by-line basis. This, too, is complicated—the paper initially splashed its article as revealing classified secrets, a discrepancy noted by the court in its verdict—but, as Antero Mukka, the paper’s current editor in chief, told me, sensationalistic journalistic framing “is not a crime.” When I asked Mukka if he felt that the information in the story was wrongly classified in the first place, he replied that it’s “quite obvious” that the Finnish military routinely classifies information without considering whether it should be classified. If there were a restaurant in the intelligence center that Helsingin Sanomat wrote about, Mukka said, “even the menu would be classified.”

If all this sounds familiar, it should: in recent weeks, the US media has had its own debate over the excessive classification of documents, triggered by the discovery of classified records at homes and offices linked to Joe Biden, Mike Pence, and Donald Trump. Even high-level government officials agree that far too many documents—over fifty million per year, by one count—get classified in the US, Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute and a leading voice in the current debate, told me. (Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, has acknowledged repeatedly, including in the wake of the recent news, that the American classification system is broken.) “Some things are classified because their disclosure would embarrass somebody or because their disclosure would inconvenience somebody,” Jaffer said. “And, with many of the things that are appropriately classified in the first instance, soon those secrets become stale. But the secrets are nonetheless classified for many, many years.”

When I asked Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, whether overclassification is also a problem in Finland, he replied, “Oh, yes,” adding that defense officials sometimes admit as much on the record. “Part of it is probably bureaucratic inertia,” he said. Even by European standards, Finland’s military has historically been highly secretive, several observers told me. In Finnish media, Halminen said, there is “no culture of quoting ‘sources inside the national security apparatus who wish to remain anonymous,’ [like] I’m pretty used to reading from the Washington Post or the New York Times.”

Not everyone agrees with Helsingin Sanomat’s contention that the information in its article shouldn’t have been classified—not least the court, which considered the claim and ruled that it only applied to small parts of the story. Nor is it yet clear whether the documents found in the possession of Biden, Pence, and Trump should still be classified or not; reporting has suggested that Trump, at least, took legitimately sensitive documents to Mar-a-Lago. And there are, of course, differences between the classification and broader legal climates of the US, Finland, and elsewhere. Jaffer noted, for instance, that even countries with similar classification systems protect different levels of rights when it comes to reporting on them.

Still, it’s worth remembering—as the word “classified,” with its connotations of spy missions and nuclear codes, floods the news cycle—that it applies, too, to facts that are or should be a matter of public record, and that this isn’t a purely American problem. And a broader question raised by the recent cases in both the US and Finland is universal: What actually constitutes a secret, anyway? “What Finland has contributed to Ukraine is a secret,” Salonius-Pasternak said. “But all of us can open YouTube…and see what Finnish equipment shows up.” Finnish reporters have done as much without facing prosecution.

Increasingly, what one country decides is a secret is all of our concern. This has long been true of the US, with its many overseas entanglements; Finland, long nonaligned in foreign policy, has pivoted since Russia, its neighbor, invaded Ukraine, and is now trying to join nato. Grüne-Luoma, of RSF, feared that this tense climate might have led the court to crack down even harder on the journalists from Helsingin Sanomat; “Everybody is a little bit more scared right now,” she said. In the end, their punishment could have been harsher. But the case, everyone I spoke to told me, has already had a chilling effect on Finnish journalism about military matters, at a time when those are front and center in the news. The court ordered Helsingin Sanomat to take down its article, even though it’s now been online for five years.

The case isn’t done yet. There will likely be appeals; Grüne-Luoma expects it to end up before Finland’s Supreme Court. And already, it has taken a heavy toll on those involved. “It’s now been over five years of all kinds of libel and hate speech and [it’s] still ongoing on a weekly basis,” Halminen told me. In Finland, the military enjoys strong levels of public support, and the reaction to Helsingin Sanomat’s article, and the official investigation that followed, was not one of unbridled support for the newspaper. “I’ve nearly forgotten what it was like,” Halminen said, “to live a life without some sword of Damocles—from either the police, the attorney general, some court, or scorn from the public—hanging above me.”

Other notable stories:

  • According to Politico’s Eli Stokols and Lauren Egan, Biden “appears to still be weighing” whether to sit for the traditional presidential interview with the network hosting the Super Bowl, given that that network is Fox this year. Biden sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt last year, but he hasn’t otherwise given regular formal network interviews as president and has yet to sit down at all with Fox News; a Super Bowl interview would reach a big audience, but “tough questions on subjects that animate Fox’s conservative audience” could distract from the economic message that Biden hopes to center this week, starting with his State of the Union address tonight, Stokols and Egan report. Also for Politico, Adam Cancryn spoke with David Kessler, a recently departed Biden covid adviser who wishes he’d gone on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show to stake out “common ground.”
  • In media-business news, Penske Media, the owner of Rolling Stone and Variety, will inject a hundred million dollars into Vox Media, becoming that company’s largest shareholder. Per the Times, Vox “​​could use the money to make acquisitions to expand its business.” Elsewhere, the scandal-plagued National Enquirer sold to “a joint venture involving an executive who has been the subject of a federal indictment,” the Washington Post reports. (We profiled the Enquirer in 2019.) And the Daily Beast has fresh details of a new media venture from Jimmy Finkelstein, the former owner of The Hill, that has been likened to a hybrid between the Washington Post and the Daily Mail.
  • Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein checked in with c-span, which won widespread plaudits for its unfettered coverage of the drama that preceded Kevin McCarthy becoming Speaker of the House last month but has since seen its congressional camera rights constrained, despite bipartisan calls for the network to be given more access on an ongoing basis. (Outside of occasions like the Speaker vote, Congress controls the cameras.) c-span has heard “absolutely nothing” since asking McCarthy to give it freer rein, Klein writes.
  • Last month, Martinez Zogo, a journalist in Cameroon, was found dead. Yesterday, police investigating his killing arrested Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga—a well-connected businessman and media magnate, whom Zogo had accused of corruption—as well as a journalist at one of Belinga’s titles and Belinga’s father-in-law. RSF has more details.
  • And Gillian Anderson will play the former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis in a forthcoming Netflix movie about Maitlis’s car-crash 2019 interview with Prince Andrew.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.