Finland is officially home to the freest press in all the land, according to Reporters Without Borders. The group's Press Freedom Index 2013 states, “For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country that most respects media freedom.”
The Scandinavian nation is some 30 spots higher up the list than the United States, which currently sits smack dab between Suriname and Lithuania. At least the U.S. climbed fifteen slots, recovering a tad after the press abuses during Occupy Wall Street protests kicked some dirt on the First Amendment.
But, Finland. How did it do it? How did a small nation mashed up between Russia and the Baltic Sea earn the distinction of harboring the planet’s freest press?
Well, for starters, Finns are major journalism consumers—according to the European Center for Journalism, 483 out of 1,000 regularly buy newspapers. And 76% of the population over 10 years old reads the paper. So there’s a big market for journalism, which incentivizes a better product. An interested, engaged audience begets better investigative reporting.
There's also a strong journalist's union that protects reporter’s rights—the Union of Journalists has 14,000 individual members, as well as 355 companies and six media associations. (Remember, there are only five and half million people in all of Finland.)
But the real reason that Finland scores big is that its government has made transparency and information availability—essentially, good journalism—an institutional prerogative. The Finnish government has actually adopted the explicit goal of making sure its citizenry are well informed. According to the EPC, "basic guidelines" were established in 2007, wherein the “special focus is to promote the information society in everyday life, aiming towards a ubiquitous information society.”
The government is, in other words, both taking care to safeguard the role of journalism and to expand it with new technologies. Finland was the first nation to make broadband access a legal right, and now it’s experimenting with crowd-sourced legislation—both in the interest of allowing citizens access to more and better information. No suprise, then, that the Ministry of Transport and Communications has adopted an explicit focus on promoting new information tech.
This is quite a different approach from the U.S., where our hallowed Fourth Estate prides itself on its separation from the government, and where subsidies to public journalism outlets like NPR are hotly contested.
You’d never see anything like this in the United States—an extensive, incredibly useful website designed by Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to help traveling journalists get their bearings. It contains of host of information: maps, history, a list of free internet hotspots, etc, and it directs you to useful contacts in parliament, important government bureaus, and unions. This isn’t puff stuff, either—the third link down delivers you a straight line to the President of Finland. Yep, here’s his email address. No, not for the Office of the President—that’s a separate addy—but the actual President of the Republic of Finland.
The respective U.S. State Department website, meanwhile, gives you a list of visa requirements.
Above all, Finland’s government itself is clean and transparent in all manners of its operations. It took top honors, along with Denmark and New Zealand, in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Index, which came out last month. In other words, it’s just about the least corrupt nation in the world. No wonder the nation’s politicians and bureaucrats go to such lengths to promote free press—when you’re running such a tidy shop, you want the people to know about it. They do: an impressive 90% of Finns believe their public sector is free of corruption.
And a government with nothing to hide has little reason to fear the press.