Reeta Pöyhtäri probably could have been a journalist.
Her grandfather and father were journalists and her parents regularly watched the news and read the papers. Indeed, the media has always been a part of her life.
“It left a mark on my thinking as well; I’ve always been interested,” she explains.
But rather than working as a journalist herself, Reeta instead dedicated herself to studying the “fourth estate” as a post-doctoral researcher of media and communications at the University of Tampere in Finland.
Even though Finland has ranked at the top of World Press Freedom Index for seven straight years, Reeta has nevertheless become an expert on assessing the safety of journalists, in part due to her research on cyber-bullying and hate speech.
Working on a project on the subject about five years ago really opened her eyes to the evolving threats to journalists’ safety as media production and consumption increasingly moved online.
“I came to understand that there are a lot of digital threats facing journalists,” she says.
Reeta’s early research on the subject led to an appointment as UNESCO’s Expert for Journalists’ Safety Indicators, where she studied hotspots like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and several other countries where press freedom is far from guaranteed.
“I think the safety of journalists isn’t just about their [physical] safety but about the rights of people in various countries to have access to information and express opinions,” she says of her continued passion for the topic.
“Whenever a journalist is threatened or killed it harms the core values of democratic societies.”
Growing digital threats
Although her work with UNESCO focused primarily on journalists in developing countries, she also discovered that journalists were facing threats all over the world – even in her own backyard.
“The surprising thing was that these issues are not only prominent there but also in societies that we think of as pretty safe to work in: traditional democracies like the Nordic countries,” she explains.
“There’s a growing problem with digital threats and hatred, which is also silencing journalists here. It’s another form of violence.”
While no journalists have been killed for their work in Finland or the Nordics specifically, hundreds of journalists have lost their lives in recent years covering conflicts or while investigating local criminal or violent activity.
“Last year worldwide it was the second most fatal year for journalists in the past ten years,” Reeta explains.
Indeed, there were 115 confirmed killings of journalists around the world in 2016, according to figures from UNESCO, second only to the 124 killed in 2012.
“In the past ten years, more than 800 journalists have been killed worldwide. And this trend of digital threats and hatred, surveys from the Nordic countries show that we’re facing it here, too.”
‘Inclusive, non-violent debate’
After concluding her work with UNESCO in August 2016, Reeta returned to Finland to resume her work on hate speech, which, she says, is a challenge facing Finland, the Nordics, and the rest of the world.
“Hate speech is only a symptom of something broader under the surface,” she explains.
She attributes the more hostile debate climate to the emergence of groups who think they can oppress other people’s rights or simply feel that “extreme outbursts” are the only way to express their frustrations.
She points to the election of Donald Trump in the United States as another, related phenomenon of “post-factuality”.
“It’s not the facts that speak anymore; rather it’s strongly voiced opinions and assumptions that drive political and societal debate,” she explains.
“Some people just don’t care [the facts]. This is what they want to hear.”
These post-factual populist winds can be found in Europe and the Nordics as well, she adds, cautioning against ignoring legitimate concerns simply because they are expressed in aggressive ways.
“Some of these worries shouldn’t be dismissed as not real without any further inspection,” she states. Nor does Reeta think clamping down on heated debates as the ultimate answer.
“People can access and follow a lot of different kinds of debates and information, which has broadened the range of arguments. This has been a positive development,” she says, advocating instead the need for “factual and decent” debate that incorporate many voices.
“We must keep on working on inclusive, nonviolent debates in society,” she says. “These venues are lacking at the moment.”
A broader Nordic perspective
Reeta believes the Nordic region’s approach to press freedom and open debate can be an inspiration for the rest of the world.
“I think the most important Nordic values are the understanding of individual liberty and freedom, a shared understanding of humanity and being equal with each other,” she explains.
Through her work in UNESCO and other international forums, Reeta senses a growing interest in Nordic values and what comes with them.
“There is a call for trust, equality and ability to negotiate. The world is facing conflicts everywhere. So there is a good reason have a Nordic approach,” she says.,
“But we shouldn’t get too arrogant. Even though we have some successful models, they are not the only ones that work.”