CIVICUS

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Last updated on 14.01.2019 at 15:43

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Confiscation of Nazi flag during independence march provokes debate in Finland

Confiscation of Nazi flag during independence march provokes debate in Finland

Police confiscated three Nazi flags during a far-right march on Finland's Independence Day, sparking heated debate.

Expression

During a far-right rally on 6th December 2018, Finland's Independence day, police confiscated three swastika flags, arresting some protestors in the process. Police also indicated that an investigation into the display of Neo-Nazi swastika flags in Helsinki was to be opened.

The incident provoked a wide range of reactions and much public debate, including calls to prohibit the public display of extremist symbols. Prime Minister Sipilä wrote on Twitter that:

“Nazi flags are not part of Finland. They do not represent the values of Finnish society in any way”.

The law on extremist symbols in Finland is unclear and, according to police, interpretation is problematic, especially in fast-moving situations. The police have thus called for more clarity around the law. In contrast to countries like Sweden and Germany, which ban the public display of the symbol, the display of the swastika is not forbidden in Finland. Police may however confiscate such symbols on signage if they are used for ethnic agitation, for example.

"If the laws were clear on what is legal and what is not, it would make it easier. Those who engage in unlawful activity would also be conscious of their offense," Chief Superintendent Juha Hakola from Helsinki Police said on Yle’s Aamu-TV. 

Police believed that demonstrators carried the swastika flags in a bid to provoke a public reaction, which in turn could have posed a risk to public safety.

"Even though the swastika has not been officially banned, it sends a very strong racist and intolerant message". Hakola added: “It’s a little bit of a problem. Here in Finland it’s not like in Germany. Of course this is against our morals, but it’s not directly in our law that it’s not allowed to carry a swastika”.

In contrast, Finland's Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen opposes a ban on swastikas, although he did applaud police for performing its duties well during the 6th December rally. 

"It is not necessarily helpful to start regulating signs and symbols. It's more important that the police have a way to intervene if needed...We would have to carefully consider which symbols would then be separated from the protected rights of freedom of speech and expression."

Finance Minister Petteri Orpo and Martin Scheinin, a professor of international law and human rights at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, both shared their points of view about the event on Twitter. Petteri Orpo wrote: "Finland's veterans did not fight so that Nazi flags could fly over the country. Finland fought for independence so that its citizens could live in a safe and peaceful country where human dignity prevails."

Martin Scheinin tweeted: “I’m generally opposed to one-point criminalisations, because what should be punishable is a criminal mind rather than the ways it manifests itself. That’s why I’d rather use the already criminalised ethnic agitation than add a new section on displaying swastika.”

Association

Everyone in Finland has the right to form an association without a permit, to be a member or not to be a member and to participate in the activities of an association.

Everyone in Finland has a constitutionally-protected right to form an association without a permit, associations can choose to register or remain unregistered. The requirements for registering an association are minimal and the process is quick and easy to follow. Associations and foundations are registered with the Finnish Patent and Registration Office and only registered organisations have legal capacity. Organisations are free to determine their objectives, management structure and activities. They can can seek and secure financial resources, including from foreign sources, and are free to be members of other associations and federations, whether national or international. Requirements for securing, managing and reporting on public funding are however becoming increasingly challenging, according to Finnish CSOs, 60% of whom reported challenges accessing funding in 2015, versus only 32% in 2014. The most common challenges cited by civil society in this survey were a lack of funding (33%), bureaucracy and workload (19%). Due to recent government cuts in public funding to certain sectors of civil society, and to the speed with which these were implemented, the work of Finnish CSOs is being compromised.

Peaceful Assembly

The right to freedom to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the Finnish constitution and respected in practice.

TTIP TiSA CETA

The right to freedom to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the Finnish constitution and is respected in practice. Legislation allows for restrictions to be imposed when there are concerns over public order or security, damage to health, property or the environment, the rights and interests of bystanders and unreasonable inconvenience to traffic. Organisers of meetings in a public place must give oral or written notification to police at least six hours before the beginning of the event. A shorter notification period is allowed in cases where there is no significant disruption of public order. Restrictions imposed on simultaneous assemblies have been reported in Finland however the media is guaranteed the freedom to monitor and report on all public assemblies. In April 2016, a complaint asked the Parliamentary Ombudsman to determine whether police had treated counter-demonstrations against anti-immigration protests incorrectly, thereby preventing them from being within ‘sight and sound’ of the related assemblies.  On 27th May 2016, hundreds of people marched in Helsinki against the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement. The demonstrators criticised the secrecy surrounding the TTIP talks and called for suspension of the negotiations. On 2nd July, a record 30,000 people took part in the Pride March in Helsinki to celebrate sexual minority rights and gender equality.

Expression

In Finland, everyone has the right to express, disseminate and receive information and opinions without prior approval.

In Finland, everyone has the right to express, disseminate and receive information and opinions without prior approval. Public access to official documents is also guaranteed, however, in practice, some civil society groups report limitations on the provision of timely information related to policy processes and documents held by public authorities. Such delays have implications for the effective participation of civil society organisations in policy- and decision-making processes. Finland has been ranked first in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for the last five years. Media outlets are free, independent and pluralistic however there is a high concentration of ownership in the sector, which some argue undermines the quality and diversity of information provided. There are also some indications that media spending cuts are having a negative impact on the quality of journalism in Finland. Defamation remains a criminal offence and public mocking or insulting religious doctrines or worship is also prohibited by criminal law. These rules also apply to online expression although internet access is widespread and unrestricted in Finland. Although prosecutions and sanctions for blasphemy and religious insult are rare, there is indication that these provisions have created a chilling effect on free expression. Some reported that a certain degree of self-censorship is experienced by the media and civil society, in particular on sensitive topics such as immigration.