When journalist Sami Sillanpää made a routine call to the Netherlands about Finland's role in the ongoing MH17 crash investigation, he thought it was a straight forward assignment.
”The story I was looking for was that Finland helped investigators get crucial information. I thought that would be great news”.
But Sillanpää's investigation for Helsingin Sanomat blew a Finnish state secret wide open; forced President Niinistö to call a hasty Friday afternoon press conference; and prompted frantic phone calls between Foreign Ministers in Helsinki and The Hague.
Sami Sillanpää tells his story on the new episode of Newsmakers, HSTV's English-langauge current affairs show.
Last week, Sillanpää read that Dutch police had sought Finnish help in their investigation into the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014. The Boeing 777 was shot down near the Russia-Ukraine border with the loss of almost 300 passengers and crew.
Dutch police investigators had focussed on the role of a Russian-made Buk missile, and asked for assistant from the Finnish police. Finland is the only western military to also use the Buk surface-to-air missile system - given by the Russians to Finland at the end of the 1990s to help pay some debts.
The Finnish military detonated one of their Buk missiles, and passed the information to the Dutch police investigation. The information they got likely helped determine what kind of missile was used in Ukraine.
But while the Finns shared their findings with the Dutch police investigation, they did not respond to a request to share the information with the international criminal investigation which is parallel to - but separate from - the Dutch police investigation (confusingly, the two distinct investigations are headed by the same Dutchman).
Those revelations, which Sillanpää published early afternoon, had almost immediate repercussions.
”It was not known in Finland. Not in the media, not in the public”, explains the veteran foreign correspondent. ”We tried to get more information [...] and absolutely everyone refused to say anything which was really really strange. It seemed like there was a big secret in Finland and nobody wanted to talk about it.”
Information about the Buk missile test had been known only to top leaders in the current and previous governments. Neither parliament's foreign affairs committee nor defence committee knew about it.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö was forced to call an urgent press conference on Friday afternoon to explain what happened. But it's here the Finns have to walk a diplomatic tightrope. They can't be seen to not cooperate with an investigation into the deaths of the passengers and crew on board flight MH17; but they also don't want to get too involved in a criminal investigation which the Russian government sees as political in nature.
”Suddenly it was a diplomatic mess”, says Sillanpää. ”This particular topic is of high political sensitivity to Russia.”
”I think the reaction from the President tells you how sensitive the whole thing is. This is something they had kept in secret for two years, and now the news came out and they felt disappointed and the reaction was accordingly”, he explains.
Those Finnish sensitivities date back to the Cold War. ”Finland, as an independent country, tried to balance between East and West. But the Soviet Union had a strong influence on Finland”, says Sillanpää. ”The level of secrecy show how politically sensitive the whole thing was”, he adds.
At his Friday press conference, President Niinistö explained that Finland had informed the Russians when they started the Buk missile tests; and the Dutch had been the ones to request confidentiality over the testing.
”Probably there's no obligation [to inform the Russians] but it makes sense”, says Sillanpää.
”I think the Finnish leadership has been both pragmatic and aware of the political sensitivity.”