Self-censorship has always encouraged censorship
Finn Anders Chydenius saw limits of "the state" in the 18th century
By Jukka Luoma
The uproar over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad is, in the eyes of politics, an Eastern peculiarity, which requires special action.
The problem with the West is, that once the opportunity is ripe, "cases" increasingly turn into "special cases".
With their apologies concerning the cartoons, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and - as an opinion leader - President Tarja Halonen, call to mind self-censorship, in which Finland has had both a theoretical and practical grounding.
Finnish clergyman Anders (Antti) Chydenius (1729-1803) is the father of modern freedom of information, writes Stephen Lamble, an Australian researcher into freedom of expression and the press.
As Chaplain of Alaveteli and Vicar of Kokkola, Chydenius was successful at promoting freedom of information. Dr. Lamble says that it was primarily thanks to Chydenius that the Swedish law on freedom of the press was passed in 1766. He says that the law was the first in the world to stipulate public access to information.
Chydenius drafted a memo to politicians on freedom of expression.
"No evidence should be needed that a certain freedom of writing and printing is one of the strongest bulwarks of a free organisation of the state, as without it, the estates would not have sufficient information for the drafting of good laws, and those dispensing justice would not be monitored, nor would the subjects know the requirements of the law, the limits of the rights of government, and their own responsibilities. Education and good conduct would be crushed; coarseness in thought, speech, and manners would prevail, and dimness would darken the entire sky of our freedom in a few years."
The reference to "certain" freedom of the press is an indication of the true conditions of the Swedish society two and a half centuries ago. Nevertheless, Chydenius had a clear image of the powers of government.
Later, Finland got plenty of experience on censorship from abroad, when the Soviet Union was unwilling to admit that the press and other free expressions of opinion were independent of the state. Many Finnish politicians influenced what was brought out in public in Finland.
The differences in views involved power, as is now the case in the Muslim world, and also culture. The German diplomat Gustav Hilger explained in his memoirs concerning Moscow in the 1920s, that from the very beginning, the Bolsheviks saw "freedom of speech" as a weapon of capitalism.
The most extreme forms of censorship extending abroad have involved assassinations. Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov was poisoned with a stab from a specially-designed umbrella in London in 1978. Author Salman Rushdie has been under threat of death.
However, in the long run, censorship abroad can only work through the self-censorship of others. China, above all others, is teaching the world how to be flexible in the name of economic gain.
For instance, James Murdoch, the head of the global News Corporation communications group, defended China's tough action against the Falun Gong religious cult while speaking at a business seminar in the spring of 2001.
The views were received clearly at least in the United States. The American ABC television network quoted the conservative Wall Street Journal, which suggested that James's father Rupert had instructed his son "perfectly" in toadying to China's communist administration.
Chydenius would certainly have been saddened by conditions in China. Chydenius wrote that his inspiration for freedom of information actually came from China, from the information policy of Taizong (627-649), the enlightened Tang dynasty emperor.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.2.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Vanhanen apology over Muhammad pictures was Prime Minister´s own decision (16.2.2006)
JUKKA LUOMA / Helsingin Sanomat