Finland’s national security outlook has drastically changed following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The two countries share a long border, and Finland has now become NATO’s newest member. Russian interference within Finland is a present danger. Finland is wary of hybrid threats coming from Russia, which may include cyberattacks, economic pressure, sabotage, political interference and hostile information campaigns.
Finland must protect itself against hostile information campaigns by combatting misleading narratives. At the same time, it must also do so in a way that does not infringe on Finnish citizens’ legitimate right to freedom of expression.
Hostile information campaigns and free expression
Hostile information activities, such as deliberate spreading of false information and conspiracy theories, aim to destabilize and weaken states. Campaigns target democratic institutions and processes through activities such as election interference and messages that aim to reduce trust in government.
The term “disinformation” describes deliberately shared false or misleading information, while misinformation is used to refer to false or misleading information that is shared without harmful intent. As Global Disinformation Index explains, even technically true information can easily be presented in a way that conveys messages that are false and harmful.
The threat is well-known. The Finnish Security and Intelligence Service has identified Russia and China as currently posing the most significant threat when it comes to state-sponsored influencing operations. Finnish authorities are preparing themselves. The country hosts the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, created in 2017 by the European Union, NATO and nine states including the US and Finland.
The threat is greater now than ever. The growing capabilities and availability of artificial intelligence tools have opened up new possibilities on an entirely new scale for hostile actors.
Responding to hostile information campaigns is challenging and includes the risk of response measures impacting freedom of expression. For example, the EU’s decisions to stop Russia Today, Sputnik and later other Russian media outlets from distributing content within the EU raised widespread concerns about state censorship of media.
A new government in crisis creates more risks
Finland’s April 2023 elections led to the formation of a new government. It has been facing difficulties that could provide more opportunities for hostile influencing activities.
The new government includes the anti-immigrant Finns Party, which successfully captured 20.1% of the vote. The Finns Party has been beset by racism scandals. The party’s leader, Minister of Finance Riikka Purra, has been embroiled in trying to explain why her blog contains extraordinarily racist and violent statements. Economic Affairs Minister Vilhem Junnila had to resign following revelations about questionable “jokes” and his 2019 speech at a rally that included neo-Nazi organizations. Wille Rydman, his replacement, has had to defend his own extremely racist private messages.
The situation has led to calls for resignations and criticism of the prime minister and the parties that were willing to join the coalition with the Finns Party as a partner. It has sparked much-needed debate about overt and covert racism in politics.
The Finns Party often presents itself as a defender of free speech. As a consequence, some voters have begun to think of free speech as a right-wing, anti-immigrant agenda, rather than a constitutionally protected right that belongs equally to all Finns. The debacle may provide fertile ground for bad actors interested in deepening societal conflicts and undermining trust in democratic institutions.
The framing of debates about free expression
Public debates tend to be dominated by headline-grabbing media stories about opposing views and opinions from extreme ends of the spectrum. Stories and debates focus on issues such as hateful speech, provocative statements, victims and villains. Strong disagreements feature heavily. This environment makes it easy for hostile actors, agents provocateurs and useful idiots to drive disagreement and deepen divisions in society. Well-meaning ordinary citizens may end up playing along with a hostile influencing agenda that hides behind a debate about free expression.
What gets lost in the debate is that freedom of expression is itself an essential component of national security. We must not attack freedom of expression out of a desire to attack disinformation. Free speech is a democratic right and benefits all citizens, not just those on the extremes who tend to dominate public attention.
The right to freedom of expression is fundamental for democracy. It protects the public debates and expressions of diverse opinions that are essential for democracies to function. But it also provides opportunities for hostile actors to influence and distort societal debates.
Finland is party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression. The convention allows states to restrict free expression only if certain conditions are met. The restrictions need to be based on law, and they must be for one of the purposes mentioned in the convention—for example, national security or protecting the rights of others. The restrictions must be “necessary in a democratic society” (Article 10).
In 1976 the European Court of Human Rights considered the right to freedom of expression in the case of Handyside v. the United Kingdom. The court found that the “necessary in a democratic society” requirement implies that freedom of expression applies not only to expressions “regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” The court added, “Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’.”
The case is a reminder of how essential freedom of expression is for democracy. Safeguarding freedom of expression is part of national security, not opposed to it.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.