Finland’s prime minister has become embroiled in twin rows about media censorship and corruption that are weakening his centre-right coalition and casting doubt about the Nordic country’s reputation for press freedom.
Juha Sipila, a millionaire former businessman who became prime minister last year, had already been hurt by a long-simmering scandal about how a company belonging to his uncles and cousins was awarded a contract from a struggling but state-backed mining company.
The scandal escalated on Wednesday as the centre-right head of government was forced to deny allegations of press censorship after admitting he had sent several “emotional” emails to a journalist at state broadcaster Yle complaining about its coverage of the affair.
In one email published late on Wednesday by Yle, the prime minister wrote to the journalist: “My respect for Yle is now exactly zero, which of course is no different from yours for me. So now we’re even.”
In a shaky press conference, Mr Sipila denied he had been trying to influence Yle’s coverage but said he had not been given time to comment on the story involving Terraframe, a mining company formerly known as Talvivaara into which the Finnish government recently injected €100m.
“I wanted to intervene regarding the issue that I was not given a fair chance to comment on the story. There was not the slightest intention at any stage to limit the freedom of the press or to influence what Yle says or does not say . . . I admit to having reacted emotionally,” Mr Sipila said.
Government officials said the incident showed the political neophyte’s inexperience in handling the media as he reportedly sent 20 emails. “He is not used to real pressure. He’ll survive, weakened though,” said one insider.
The three-party centre-right coalition government has lost popularity steadily since its election in April 2015 amid sluggish economic growth in Finland. Mr Sipila’s Centre party is vying for the lead in opinion polls with the opposition Social Democrats.
The email affair is particularly piquant as Finland regularly tops the list of countries with the best press freedom.
Antti Rinne, head of the Social Democrats, called for Mr Sipila to publish the emails he sent to the reporter. “Finland is a leading country in press freedom. If the claims about Sipila hold true, we will be facing a serious crisis,” he wrote on Twitter.
According to Suomen Kuvalehti, a Finnish website, Mr Sipila sent dozens of emails to a reporter at Yle starting on Friday night, stating that he had no confidence in the state broadcaster. In his press conference, the prime minister said his confidence in Yle was “quite OK”.
Yle then stopped several stories about the prime minister’s emails, according to Suomen Kuvalehti. The state broadcaster denied it had bowed to pressure from Mr Sipila and stressed it had led the news for four days with news of the affair but had then decided to scale back coverage. Ruben Stiller, a TV presenter, said he had been warned not to discuss Mr Sipila’s emails but later added that the warning had been lifted.
“It was quite shocking for people here this morning. Some people said: ‘I went to sleep in Finland and woke up in Poland’,” said Teivo Teivainen, professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki.
“It is clear there is some damage to the image of the country and government. [Mr Sipila] has come under heavy criticism.”
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