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Finland – (C6) Practice of access to information

Score in short:

The existing law provides extensive access to public information, but problems remain in practice.

Score in detail:

Finland has a long tradition of open access to government files, starting from the world’s oldest freedom of information law that was enacted in 1766, when Finland was part of Sweden. The current law, known as The Act on the Openness of Government Activities (1999), is considered to provide citizens extensive access to public information. In practice, there are some reports of differences between the principles and practices.

The Act states the principle that all documents are public unless there is a specific reason for withholding them enacted in another law. There are no privileges for journalists in accessing public information. Instead, everyone has the right to access any official document in the public domain held by public authorities and private bodies that exercise public authority. Those asking for information are not required to provide reasons for their request or to verify their identity unless they are requesting personal or otherwise classified information. The law specifies 32 categories of secret documents that are exempt from release according to a variety of potential harm tests depending on the type of information.

The journalistic experiences of the freedom of information legislation and the use of official documents have recently been examined in a research project (Kuutti 2009). In an “accessibility test” designed to assess the behavior of individual officials to information requests, officials were often slow to reply and reluctant to provide the information requested (ibid.). Problems seem to arise from inconsistent legal interpretations of public and non-public issues, from negative attitudes of the authorities providing information requested, and partly from the journalistic practices. In some cases, journalists are not aware of their rights to access information. In the interviews with editors-in-chief and experts, it was also suggested that rather than the legislation, more critical questions have to do with the skills and resources of journalists to find and access relevant information. The interviews also suggested that journalists often face problems in gaining information about issues in preparation, which hinders public evaluation of the forthcoming plans of the authorities. overall, most respondents acknowledged that the existing law gives journalists and the general public relatively broad access to public information.