Artillery Row

Free speech lives in Finland

The Helsinki court’s affirmation of free speech today is a much-needed beacon of hope

The triumph of free speech at the Helsinki Court of Appeal marks a great day for fundamental freedoms in a world facing increasing censorship. When I joined the Finnish Parliament almost 30 years ago, I expected challenges. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d one day face a four-year legal battle in 2019. With this victory, I’m all the more grateful that the Court has upheld my unanimous acquittal at the District Court and affirmed free speech for us all.

Back in 2019, I took to Twitter to ask my church leadership whether their official sponsorship of the Helsinki Pride Parade was really in line with the Bible’s teachings. I attached a photo of a couple of verses from the book of Romans. What followed sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel. 

I was interrogated about my convictions and my interpretation of Biblical concepts like “sin” by the police for a total of thirteen hours over several months. Then, I was charged by the Prosecutor General with three counts of “agitation against a minority group” for the tweet, a church pamphlet about marriage that I had written almost 20 years ago — long before the law I was being charged under was even in place — and an excerpt taken out of context from a 2019 live radio debate. Incredibly, the charges fall under the section of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the Finnish Criminal Code.

At the first trial before the District Court, the prosecutor pointed out a list of Bible verses to the judges with which she took issue. She then cross-examined Bishop Pohjola, an official of the Lutheran church, who was charged alongside me for publishing the 2004 pamphlet, on matters of theology. Lawyers with extensive experience in court proceedings said they had never before seen the likes of it in a free country — the Bible literally had been put on trial. 

Despite the prosecution’s best efforts to silence and punish us, Bishop Pohjola and I were able to celebrate a full and unanimous acquittal in March 2022. Our relief was short-lived, however, when the prosecution appealed the ruling, and we were dragged back to court in August 2023. 

The attempts made to prosecute me for expressing my beliefs have resulted in an immensely trying four years, but thankfully, the Court of Appeal now fully endorsed and upheld the decision of the District Court. My hope is that the result will stand as a key precedent to protect the human right to free speech.

By this point the world’s media rightfully had caught on to our case. While local to Finland, our prosecution should be of interest to all concerned with the basic human right to free speech. This is a matter far beyond my personal liberties, with direct consequences for the health of our democracy, and anyone who wishes to share their beliefs without fear of punishment — especially when they are deemed to be out of line with current popular worldviews. 

I’m far from the only one experiencing censorship at the hands of the state

I’m far from the only one experiencing censorship at the hands of the state. In Mexico, Rodrigo Iván Cortés, civil society leader and former Congressman, has been convicted of “gender-based political violence” for referring to a transgender-identifying Mexican Congressional representative as a “man who self-ascribes as a woman” on Twitter.  When Mexican Congressman Gabriel Quadri, expressed concern that men who identify as women have taken spaces in Mexico’s congress reserved for women in a Twitter post, he was similarly convicted as a political violator against women. And in countries such as Nigeria or Pakistan, expressing anything that can be interpreted as a critique against the dominant faith, can result in the death penalty for blasphemy, as in the case of Sufi musician, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to death for a WhatsApp message.

While it is both ominous and unfortunate that the Bishop and I have had to endure the silencing efforts of the state, the Helsinki court’s affirmation of free speech today is a much-needed beacon of hope in a world awash with censorship and religious persecution. There remains, however, much work to be done to secure everyone’s right to speak freely around the world. But for now, we can breathe a sigh of relief that free speech lives in Finland.

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