Executive summary

This scan provides an in-depth overview of civic space and the existing challenges and opportunities for its improvement in Finland.

Finland has a long-established commitment to democracy, human rights, and open government, all of which are underpinned by comprehensive legal and policy frameworks. Finland’s vision for enhanced civic space is supported by several interconnected strategies and agendas, outlined in the National Democracy Programme 2025, the National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights, the current government programme, and the open government agenda. Furthermore, Finland’s Open Government Strategy explicitly links open government reforms to civic space more broadly.

Finland’s perception of the relationship among these policy agendas has greatly evolved over the last two decades. While its commitment to openness was originally conceived as a fundamental value of the Finnish democratic model and as a core characteristic of the welfare state, its focus was primarily on building citizens’ trust in government. About a decade ago, it stepped up its efforts to create a two-way relationship between citizens and the state, highlighting the need for governments to trust in citizens and their representative groups. Today, Finland’s goal, as outlined in its new Open Government Strategy, is to continue to strengthen trust among all the different actors in Finnish society through increased dialogue and mutual understanding.

This scan unearths and analyses several impediments to civic space. Many issues discussed in the scan relate to two overarching issues. First, Finland has seen rapid demographic changes in its population in recent years, with 8% of the population now having a foreign background. Tensions relating to immigration as well as increased intolerance and discrimination from some sectors of society are directly affecting civic space. Second, inequality of participation in public decision making and public life – whether due to socio-economic status or a lack of educational and professional attainment – has further excluded some groups and is now one of the government’s key concerns. Thus, while Finland’s international standing on civic space is impressive in comparison to most other countries, it is crucial for Finland to continue to identify and tackle emerging challenges to maintain high standards.

Core civic freedoms, such as those of expression, assembly, and association, as well as the right to equality and protection from discrimination, are well established in Finland and are protected by the Finnish Constitution and in national legislation. These legal frameworks are primarily safeguarded by the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Office of the Chancellor of Justice. Finland also has a range of widely respected specialised oversight bodies, including the Ombudsman for Equality, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, the Data Protection Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman for Children. Finland must continue to invest in these institutions to ensure they fully achieve their important mandates.

This scan highlights a range of obstacles to people’s enjoyment of civic freedoms and civic space on an equal basis. Hate crimes and hate speech related to discrimination against targeted groups pose one of the most significant challenges, alongside discrimination and intolerance, persistent violence against women, and the social exclusion of indigenous and immigrant groups. A cross-government strategy to tackle hate speech and a more coherent and co-ordinated approach to address discrimination are recommended to counter these trends.

Finland has a long history of protecting press freedom. It was one of the first countries in the world to introduce legal protections in this area and is consistently ranked highly in comparative country assessments of the institutional and structural foundations required for media and journalism to flourish. Finland is, however, not immune to political, institutional, and economic intrusions into press freedom, or to the wider global trend of increasing hate speech and harassment targeting journalists. The high concentration of a small number of companies dominating each media sector is also an obstacle to a free and pluralistic media ecosystem. The criminalisation of defamation, while common in many OECD countries, also has the potential to hinder journalists’ freedom of expression, according to human rights bodies.

Finland is one of the European Union’s most digitalised societies, but there is still room to enhance access to information, embrace digital and user-driven government, and address data collection and privacy concerns. Moreover, while Finland has great potential and an ambitious vision to be a world leader in artificial intelligence, further legislation is needed to keep pace with the development of technology and to maintain the momentum required to achieve this goal.

Finland is dedicated to the robust democratic participation of civil society and the government actively consults and involves civil society organisations (CSOs) in public decision making at all levels and branches of government. The civil society landscape in the country is, however, changing and the government could take action to ensure that all forms of CSOs – as well as the informal fourth sector – are adequately included and represented in policy making.

While Finland supports CSOs both at home and abroad with significant amounts of public funding, several challenges are increasingly evident, including diminishing CSO autonomy, little strategic direction, insufficient impact evaluation, and heavy bureaucratic procedures for funding and fundraising.

Finland has a well-established system of government engagement with civil society and substantial guidelines on the development of legislation. The government also consults citizens and stakeholders through a wide range of committees, advisory boards, working groups, councils, hearings, and digital fora at the national and local levels. Furthermore, the Finnish government is firmly committed to experimentation and innovation in participatory initiatives. However, it also views growing inequalities in civic participation, especially the decline in voter turnout, as the greatest weaknesses of the Finnish democratic system. There is a clear need to engage those beyond the usual stakeholders and self-selecting members of the public in targeted participatory initiatives to channel their views into decision making.


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