Background and legislation
Finland has a relatively long tradition in government openness as the first version of current Act on the Openness of Government Activities was passed already in 1951 with the most recent inclusions made in 2002.
In addition to the Act itself, there is a separate Decree on the Openness of Government Activities and on Good Practice in Information Management which provides guidelines for government officials working with information management and FOI issues.
The right for gaining an access to public information is also stated in the Constitution of Finland, newest version of which dates from 1999.
The main principle of the Act is that official documents are in the public domain unless specifically otherwise provided for. Basically all state authorities are subject to the Act, including state administrative authorities, courts of law, state enterprises, municipal authorities and parliamentary agencies and institutions. The Act applies to both documents created by an authority and those delivered to an authority.
Making a FOI request is free of charge and it can be made by phone, mail, e-mail or in person. Government official may however ask a small fee if the requester asks information in a paper format. Requests can be made anonymously and thus the official has no right of demanding any personal details of the requester, nor the reason why the request has been made.
An official has to provide the information as soon as possible, not later than two weeks after the request was received. If the request contains several documents or requires excess amount of work, a time limit for submitting the information is one month from receiving the request.
A citizen may request a classified document as well, but in this case the purpose for gaining classified information must be explained. If a request is denied, an official must always give a justified reason for doing so. If the requested document contains only some secret information, access is granted to the public part by covering the parts to be kept secret. Also, if the request has been made in writing, the negative decision has to be made in writing as well.
If the requester is not satisfied with the arguments for denial of FOI request, they may complain to administrative court, which will then give its verdict.
There is a list of exclusions to the principle of openness, which mostly consists of documents concerning national security, foreign relations, criminal investigations, financial policy and personal privacy. For example all documents of the security police are to be kept secret, unless “it is obvious that access will not compromise State security”. There is no executive veto in the Act and the dubious or controversial issues are decided by administrative court or even the Supreme Administrative Court.
According to the registry of the Ministry of Justice, due to the vast amount of requests and the fact that most of the requests are made by phone there are no statistics available on the exact number of requests.
FOI issues that gather the interest of media and wider public are usually related to foreign relations and political history of Finland. Currently a hot topic has been the possible disclosure of a document that Finnish security police gained from West German intelligence service in the early 1990’s. Document consists of names of Finnish individuals who were suspected of keeping in contact with East German security police during the 1980’s.
Recently Finland’s Supreme Administrative Courtdecided against the imminent disclosure of the document. Court argued that a disclosure of a document given by an intelligence service of another country would diminish the capability of Finnish security police to work internationally because it would not be seen as trustworthy partner as it should be. Consequently, document will be disclosed in the year 2050, as documents of security police are to be kept secret for 60 years.
Another debate concerns the annual disclosure of tax statistics. It is possible to request details on how much each individual pays on tax, which has arisen questions on the discrepancy between public accountability and personal privacy.
The Finnish equivalent to UK’s expenses scandal is the ongoing debate on MPs’ election funding. In 2008 it was revealed that several frontbench MPs and cabinet ministers had failed to disclose the necessary information on the funding of their 2007 parliamentary election campaigns. Later journalists found out - by examining public documents - that there were many MPs who got significant sums of money from certain entrepreneurs who were hoping to expand their businesses on the constituencies where MPs were campaigning.
Recently there has been discussions whether Finland should broaden its scope of transparency by opening up all public information for a free reuse. The UK model of data.gov.uk is currently seen as a possible example on how to implement such a wider transparency scheme.
In general, the idea of FOI and access to public information is already firmly established in the Finnish society. This might be a reason for the lack of statistics on the amount of requests and the profiles of requesters. FOI is seen as an integral part of the society and the emerging information on governmental wrong-doings is not particularly seen as a triumph for FOI but more as an argument for fundamental faults on political culture.