Animal rights activists who secretly filmed Finnish pig farms two years ago may now face prison
Prosecutor calls for custodial sentences for activists Saila Kivelä and Karry Hedberg for defamation and disturbance of the peace
By Veera Luoma-aho
Just before Christmas 2009, an uproar involving pig farming in Finland took centre stage in the Finnish media.
For a couple of weeks, colourful headlines were splashed across the flyers and front pages of the country’s tabloid newspapers:
“Dead animals, bitten-off tails - shocking pig house photos taken by animal-rights activists”.
“Minister Anttila: There are no grounds for my resignation.”
“Activists' lies were too much - pork farmer’s world collapsed.”
The furore centred around video-clips filmed by animal rights activists at night on 30 different pig farms.
The clips were aired by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE in its weekly current affairs programme A-Studio.
The videos in question were part of a campaign by the animal rights organisation Oikeutta eläimille (Justice for Animals).
The campaign included, among other things, a website entitled sikatehtaat.fi (Sikatehtaat = pig factories, see link below).
In the videos, which were not pleasant vieweing, pigs appeared to live in cramped and dirty conditions with little stimulus to their existence. Some of the animals had fight wounds and bedsores. Some dead pigs were also seen in the pens.
The images received wide attention. They were commented on by MPs, the then Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Sirkka-Liisa Anttila (Centre Party), the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK), and veterinarians, as well as by Animal Welfare Act experts.
The activists called for Anttila’s resignation.
Promises were made to inspect the farms most urgently.
Two years later, in October 2011, the handling of the case will commence at the Finland Proper District Court. However, the pig farmers will not be the ones seated on the bench reserved for the accused.
According to the inspections carried out at the farms, no animal rights regulations had been violated.
Instead, two activists who took part in filming the controversial videos, 27-year-old unemployed vegan chef Karry Hedberg and 24-year-old political science student Saila Kivelä, will be charged for ten cases of disturbance of the peace and 12 cases of aggravated defamation.
The charges are serious: the prosecutor's office is calling for a custodial sentence for Hedberg and a suspended sentence for Kivelä.
In addition, the prosecution is demanding that the duo - plus two members of a support association of the Oikeutta eläimille organisation - should pay jointly and severally around EUR 180,000 in damages.
How did this all happen?
In August 2011, Kivelä and Hedberg commented in a Helsinki restaurant that in their opinion the accusations against them were “absurd” and “nonsensical”.
The pair deny any disturbance of the public peace, because before the videos became public the farmers had not even noticed that their farms had been visited. Hence the visits could not possibly have caused any harm. Not one lock had been broken, not one animal had been touched.
The defamation accusations they consider utterly incomprehensible, because nobody denied at any stage the correctness and authenticity of the videos.
“How can you defame somebody by showing something that is true?” Kivelä asks.
”Applying the same logic, the media houses could also be taken into court. People are not equal before the law”,
laughs Hedberg, and he says that does not see himself as a future jailbird.
“It would be outrageous if someone who brings to light an important civic issue ends up in prison because of doing so.”
According to district prosecutor Kari Lamberg, the activists implied that crimes would have been committed on the farms, and this turned out not to be the case.
“At no stage did we ever suggest that the activities carried out at the pig farms were illegal. On the contrary: We wanted to show that this sort of operation is legal in Finland, despite the fact that it upsets many people”, Hedberg insists.
All the same, the sikatehtaat.fi website reads: “Furthermore, at many of the farms the Animal Welfare Act was grossly violated”. Why such a statement?
”Our aim was to point out that the Animal Welfare Act is very noble and idealistic, but in practice many of its decrees enable such animal husbandry that is in direct conflict with the aim and spirit of the law”, Kivelä formulates.
What made the two confess that they had filmed some of the controversial videos?
One reason was that in 2007, activists had filmed 101 animal farms, anonymously.
“Facelessness always raises suspicion. Back then attention started to shift from the real issue to the identity of the nocturnal sneakers. We wanted to rid animal rights activism of this sort of cloak of mystery. After all, we are fairly ordinary individuals.”
The strategy worked: this time around the media’s attention remained with the wellbeing of the animals, rather than focusing on the identity of the activists.
But the fuss around the pig farms came and went, the farms continue their operations as before, the animal welfare legislation has not been amended, and the activists themselves may end up being the ones in the cage.
Was it worth it?
”Absolutely”, Hedberg and Kivelä say in unison.
The two mention a survey carried out by the Finnish meat advisory organisation Lihatiedotus.
According to the study, last year twenty per cent of women in the 15-24-year-old bracket said that they did not eat meat, when just two years earlier the corresponding percentage was only three.
“Largely it is a question of perception, for most of us have become estranged from how food is produced. Even ordinary tasks performed at the production farms may seem strange”, Lihatiedotus director Riitta Stirkkinen commented on the study in an YLE interview in March.
Kivelä and Hedberg are satisfied if they have managed in some small way to alter people’s perception of domestic meat production.
But have they themselves become alienated from the realities of food production?
“I believe that the perceptions of the food producers and the activists are quite similar”, Hedberg says.
“Many other people’s fond ideas of how animals are kept are from the 1970s, however. The reality is that the number of individual farms has dropped dramatically, and even in rural areas people no longer recognise animal production. It has become an industry that has little to do with the countryside, or with anything natural.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.8.2011
Previously in HS International Edition:
Police to investigate reports of serious animal cruelty at Finnish farms (30.11.2007)
Three Finnish pig farms may face charges over violation of animal welfare legislation (4.3.2008)
Anttila promises extensive improvements in conditions on pig farms (26.11.2009)
Agriculture Minister promises improvements at pig farms (21.12.2009)
Extensive changes demanded in animal welfare rules (10.12.2009)
VEERA LUOMA-AHO / Helsingin Sanomat