Finnish media watchdog accuses PM of pressuring state broadcaster

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland’s media watchdog accused the prime minister on Thursday of putting pressure on state broadcaster YLE by sending it a series of angry emails and texts over a story about the awarding of a state engineering contract.

The Council for Mass Media also scolded YLE for caving into Juha Sipila’s pressure by making changes to an online story after receiving his complaints.

The case has caused a particular stir in the Nordic country, ranked as the global leader in press freedom by media rights group Reporters Without Borders.

Sipila acknowledged on Thursday that his messages had been a “mistake”. YLE’s editor in chief, Atte Jaaskelainen, called the watchdog’s criticism of the broadcaster “harsh” and said his conscience was clear.

The prime minister sent his complaints after YLE reported in November that Katera Steel, an engineering company owned by Sipila’s relatives, received a half-million-euro order from a state-owned nickel mine, around the same time that the mine received a cash injection from the state.

Sipila, who was cleared of any conflict of interest by Finland’s parliamentary watchdog in February, complained that he had not been given enough time to comment on the story before publication.

“The amount and the tone of the prime minister’s messages can be considered exceptional, and can be interpreted as an attempt to pressure (YLE)”, the watchdog said in a statement.

YLE then changed the structure of the online story, edited the text and removed a graphic, actions that effectively “surrendered its editorial decision making to an outside party,” the watchdog added.

”I already apologized for sending the emails in November, it was a mistake, but I still think I had the right to be heard” Sipila told reporters at the parliament.

YLE’s Jaaskelainen described the watchdog’s rebuke as “a harsh decision,” in an interview on YLE television news.

“I will not resign. I have made a decision based on my values, to promote responsible journalism. Even now that we received the council’s notice, my conscience is clear,” Jaaskelainen added.

The council, a self-regulating body made up of publishers and journalists, comments on good journalistic practices but has no legal powers.

The state-owned nickel mine involved in the story, Terrafame, said the order had been placed ahead of the government’s financing decision and it would have been awarded even without extra funds.

Reporting by Tuomas Forsell; Editing by Jussi Rosendahl and Andrew Heavens