Self-censorship hit fast in early 70s
Newspaper edition pulped, editor sacked over editorial mentioning Soviet human rights violations
By Vesa Kaartinen
At the turn of the year 1972-1973, Finland was recovering from the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the Soviet Union, and preparing to raise glasses for the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (FCMA).
Businessmen were dreaming about the Kostamuksha project (the construction by Finnish companies of a mining community in the Soviet Union near the Finnish border as part of Finnish-Soviet bilateral trade). President Urho Kekkonen was working to persuade the Kremlin to give its blessing to a free trade agreement between Finland and the European Economic Community.
When the United States launched extensive bombardment of civilian targets in Vietnam, 300 renowned Finns signed a petition opposing the bombings.
At the same time, in the editorial offices of Insinööriuutiset (a professional publication for Finnish engineers), on Yrjönkatu in the centre of Helsinki, the paper’s first edition for 1973 was under preparation.
At the beginning of each year, editor-in-chief Heikki Ranssi was in the habit of writing about world events of interest to engineers on a more general level than in other editions.
This time, the paper’s journalist Paul Serko offered a text as background, criticising the US bombing in Vietnam. Ranssi had something else in mind.
Ranssi wrote an editorial touching upon the war in Vietnam, as well as violations of human rights in the Soviet Union.
“The war in Vietnam involves a power struggle between two ideologies and two power blocks”, he wrote in his piece, which was given the headline “Balanced condemnation”. Ranssi compared the “negotiation bombings” by the United States in Indochina with how the Soviet Union acted toward Finland during the Second World War.
Then came some text of a kind that had rarely been seen on the pages of Finnish newspapers since the wars. Ranssi took up the treatment of Soviet dissidents, including torture and prison camps. He wrote about “terrorism that is practiced in the Soviet Union against its own citizens”. He added that the Finnish press had also remained silent on the matter, even though 1972 had again been a year of a rising wave of terror in the eastern neighbour.
This was too much for the publishers.
The forces behind Insinööriuutiset were Finnish, and Swedish-language engineer organisations. The biggest of them was the Finnish Technical Society. Its executive director was Matti Kaario, whose task was to promote the interests, reputation, and honour of the owners.
After reading Ranssi’s editorial Kaario decided that the entire edition of the paper was to be scrapped. The editor himself was given the task.
With the precision of an engineer, Ranssi got to work. The paper was to have appeared on Friday, January 5th, 1973. As usual, the paper was printed the previous evening. When Ranssi was given the order to destroy it, the entire edition of 46,000 copies had already started its journey to subscribers around the country, in bundles arranged according to postal codes.
Ranssi rushed to the main post office in Helsinki and got in touch with the head of distribution, who wondered if the edition might have contained pornographic pictures. At that time, there was an intense debate on pornography in Finland, that had reached the halls of Parliament.
“I made a mistake and said that there was nothing like that. There was just an editorial that was not to the liking of the board of the publishing company”, Heikki Ranssi recalls.
“I probably should not have said that. Word quickly spread at the post office that the text criticised human rights violations in the Soviet Union. That speeded things up.”
A postal strike force quickly got back most of the edition. The censored edition only reached a few thousand subscribers in the Helsinki region.
Ranssi brought a lorry to the main post office, onto which the bundles were loaded. The truckload was to have been taken to the Vuosaari landfill. Unfortunately the dump was closed for the weekend. “All I could do was to ask the driver to park in front of my home to wait for the opening of the final storage area. That is what I had to look at all through the weekend”, Ranssi says.
On Monday he faced a real surprise. The newspaper’s board of directors had convened in the morning in a rapid meeting and drawn its conclusions. Holger Liljestrand, managing director of the publisher, Insinöörilehdet Oy told Ranssi that the editor had a couple of hours to collect his things and go. The decision to sack him was made easier by the fact that the publisher had discussed the competence of the editor before.
A new editorial was written, and the paper was quickly reprinted. The headline was “Year of decisions”. The text was about “dealing with the labour policy of the engineering community to the contract level”. It was signed by Jaakko Liede, executive director of the Union of Engineers. The contact information box in the issue also contained the name of a new acting editor-in-chief: Holger Liljestrand.
The greatest amount of media attention came from Ajankohtainen kakkonen, a current affairs television programme of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). One of the programme’s journalists came to Ranssi’s home to interview him. His young wife Paula was so frightened by the situation that during the interview, she walked around a nearby park with their child.
Ranssi recalls that he suspected that there might be some ulterior motives behind the interview. He was afraid that comments would be taken out of context and turned against him.
“I tried to talk fast without commas or full stops, to make it as difficult as possible to cut the responses on television. It succeeded. I was surprised in general at how appropriate the attitude of the YLE people was toward my comments”, Ranssi said.
In the interview, he was humble and did not speak against his former employer. He said that he understood the situation, and the reasons for his dismissal quite well. He defended the editorial itself by referring to his Christian convictions.
Matti Kaario, who gave the order to destroy the whole edition, still remembers the morning when he got the paper, hot off the press.
“It was quite clear that Ranssi deviated from the editorial policy line that had been determined by the publisher. We wanted to concentrate on technical and scientific topics in the editorials”, Kaario says.
“In the midst of social upheaval, we had to be careful to avoid excesses.”
Reflecting on the matter in hindsight, Kaario says that the editorial might have been acceptable without special actions, if the policy line of the paper had not been clearly defined in advance. “Today something like this would bring no more than a warning.”
However, in the early 1970s all texts making reference to the Soviet Union carried weight which exceeded the amount of column space that they took. Professor Emeritus Esko Salminen, who has studied press censorship, says that the decision to sack Ranssi was not surprising. In fact, it depicted the state of Finnish freedom of expression quite well. “At that time, the heavy hand of the Soviet Union hung over the Finnish press. The greatest blows of postwar [self-] censorship occurred in 1973", Salminen notes.
“Finland lived in a pit of Finlandisation and cow-towing. Self-censorship had reached the subconscious level. The situation was ultimately not even recognised by the journalists or the readers. If some enlightened individuals with special expertise noticed it, even they would generally go with the mainstream in order to protect various interests.”
For instance, in 1973, the Soviet Embassy complained to the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs about articles in 12 Finnish publications that were seen as hostile to the Soviet Union. The list ranged from the conservative daily Uusi Suomi to the soft porn magazine Ratto. It was only the quick action that spared Insinööriuutiset from being the target of such a complaint.
Esko Salminen sees the Insinööriuutiset affair to be a refreshing deviation. “Self-censorship of the mainstream media had gone so far that an equivalent text could hardly have been written elsewhere.”
The sacking of Ranssi is a good example of how different groups were conscious of the need to consider the interests of the eastern neighbour. Leaders of Finnish engineer organisations would also be invited for sauna evenings at the Soviet Embassy. The hosts were interested in politics, but the guests meticulously tried to stay in the realm of technology and science.
Especially active in establishing contacts was Sergei Sidoroff, and assistant to the Technical Attaché at the embassy, who was finally expelled from Finland because of industrial espionage. Matti Kaario recalls that it took considerable efforts to convince him that Finnish engineers should not be expected to organise a seminar with the Soviets, marking the centenary of the birth of Lenin.
After Sidoroff left, contacts between the Soviet Embassy and engineers’ organisations decreased.
Ranssi still refuses to see himself as a victim of Finlandisation. He was satisfied with his severance pay, and a couple of weeks later, he got a job as a journalist for Rakennuslehti, a publication of the construction industry. The new job paid as well as the old one.
“Of course I knew that the topic was a sensitive one. The limits of what can be written about are in the back of the mind of each journalist. At that time even asking the wrong questions could be seen as an insult to the Soviet Union. However, I was just over 30 years old. At that age the consequences do not scare a person very much”, Ranssi says.
Now retired at 73, Ranssi regrets that he acted as quickly as he did. “I could have dragged my feet a bit in cutting off the distribution”, he ponders.
Ranssi was also very efficient. None of the censored copies are to be found in the archives of Insinööriuutiset (now called Tekniikka & Talous - “Technology & Economy”). None can even be found in the National Library. Only scattered copies are left. A columnist for the newspaper Karjalainen made a forecast in February 1973: “If readers have a copy, it should be handled like a valuable rare object. Nobody knows what someone will pay for it some day, albeit that money is not the appropriate measure of value in this.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.1.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Aamulehti: Historians call for thorough examination of Finlandisation era (8.10.2007)