Petri Jääskeläinen has issued a reprimand to a criminal sanctions supervisor at Riihimäki Prison for having decided that a sealed letter addressed to the opinion column of the daily Helsingin Sanomat by an inmate could be opened and read. This action grossly violated a core area of the freedom of speech that is guaranteed by the Constitution and human rights conventions.
In the report that it gave the Ombudsman, the justification that the prison advanced for reading the letter was that the prisoner was suspected of committing criminal slander against prison officials in it. However, the suspicion proved to be unfounded, so the letter was forwarded.
The prison reported that the reason for suspicion was that the inmate had felt that he had often been treated wrongly. He had been in contact with the prison oversight authorities, but felt he had not had his case fairly resolved.
It is not directly clear from the prison's report what action had been envisaged if the content of the communication had been as suspected. The Ombudsman finds that the letter would then obviously been withheld, because it was forwarded to its recipient "after the suspicion had turned out to be baseless".
"The regulations on reading prisoners' correspondence and withholding a letter do not give an authority permission to itself prevent criticism of its official actions. That is the case also when the criticism is suspected of satisfying the hallmarks of criminal slander", is the Ombudsman's assessment. The media bear their own responsibility for the content of a publication.
The Ombudsman points out in his decision that the purpose of freedom of speech is, inter alia, to guarantee open public discussion and the opportunity to publicly criticise the exercise of power. Freedom of speech includes also a prohibition on advance impediments. The Constitution gives everyone the right to express, publish and receive information, opinions and other messages without anyone preventing this in advance.
When the possible retention of a prisoner's letter, for which reason reading is most obviously done, would not have been acceptable, reading it could not be considered lawful, either, in the Ombudsman's view.
Freedom of speech can be restricted by law, and that has indeed been done in the case of prisoners. However, these regulations must be interpreted in a manner amenable to fundamental rights so that freedom of speech is the main rule and any restriction of it is an exception.
The European Court of Human Rights has likewise stressed that statutory restrictions on freedom of speech must be interpreted narrowly. Although also officials have the right to enjoy protection of their honour, the limits of criticism directed against power are broad.
In this case, however, what was involved was, as the Ombudsman sees it, not only a situation of interpreting the law, but clearly also an unlawful act.
Additional info will be provided by Legal Officer Anu Rita, tel. + 358 (0)9 4321, (Eduskunta switchboard).
Case nos: 2703/4/09, 2915/4/09, 4356/4/09, 4357/4/09, 3830/4/10 and 313/4/11.