Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Esko Saastamoinen's "Somali-free" room request akin to apartheid

A lot has been said and written about hate-mongering, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the Finns Party, Finland's anti-immigration and nationalist political party. The party's sympathizers and members on the other hand claim that there is a witch-hunt against the party. But news that one of the party's councilors demanded a "Somali-free" meeting room adds to a long list of intolerance-related scandals, and supports the view that the party in fact has racist components.

A Finns Party politician in the eastern town of Lieksa, Esko Saastamoinen, demanded - according to Yle - a new meeting space for his delegation because the current room was also used sometimes by Somalis. Saastamoinen reportedly told the city secretary that his party's councilors might catch an infectious disease if they continue to use the same room with Somalis. Another Finns Party member reportedly said the room should be "fumigated" -- in order to disinfect it.

Somalis, it is worth mentioning, are among the largest groups of immigrants in Finland and according to a poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat are among the groups most affected by racism and intolerance in the country. The same poll showed that Finns Party members are most willing to concede negative attitudes  towards minorities. In 2010 and 2011, the risk of unemployment was higher among Somali speakers than among any other foreign language group in Finland, according to Statistic Finland. The Director of Immigration Affairs for the City of Helsinki stated in 2010 that employer discrimination accounts for the high rate of Somali unemployment in the capital.

In my view, Esko Saastamoinen's request for a "clean" room is plainly racist and akin to apartheid and racial segregation. It is reminiscent of a low point in history when blacks were segregated in public transportation, restaurants, neighborhoods, hotels and other public places. The request is despicable and highlights the negative perception of Somalis and people of African descent in modern-day Finland. It speaks volumes about the composition of the Finns Party and what some of its members would like to achieve. The fact that Saastamoinen continues to serve as deputy chairperson of Lieksa city council shows that racist views are tolerated in the party.

I welcome the move by a Somali group in Lieksa to file a criminal complaint in relation to the request by Finns Party councilors, and the decision of the local police to investigate suspected discrimination and incitement against an ethnic group. In my opinion, the request for a "Somali-free" meeting room on grounds that the African group is "infectious" is derogatory, slanderous and amounts to incitement against a vulnerable minority group.

Timo Soini, leader of the nationalist Finns Party said on Hard Talk in February 2013 that there is no strand of racism in his party. The words of high level members of his party, including parliamentarians and city councilors like Esko Saastamoinen debunk his claim. The "true" Finns party, in my view, has racist elements.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Finland's immigrants most affected by online hate crimes in 2012

The Police College of Finland (Polamk) annually releases the country's hate crime report. The 2012 hate crimes report shows that immigrants were most affected by online hate crimes in 2012. This revelation is by no means surprising to anyone who follows and participates in or reads comments posted in some Finnish online discussion forums, blogs, social media and news websites - where immigrants are commonly demonized and reviled. 

The police college defines hate crime (in Finnish) as a crime against a person, group, property, an institution or its representative - motivated by prejudice or hostility against the victim's real or perceived ethnic or national background, religious belief or view of life, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or disability.

Out of all the groups vulnerable to hate crime, immigrants were most targeted in 2012. According to Finnish police, 732 suspected crimes were classified as hate crimes by the police academy in 2012. Majority of the hate crimes - 641 cases - had racist traits. Most hate crimes in the previous years also had racist traits and the most common manifestation of hate was through assault. Hate crimes are also committed online.

According to Marko Forss, internet police officer in Helsinki, of all the hate crimes reported last year, 26 were classified as internet hate crimes. Most of the crimes were committed on Facebook and Suomi24 - one of Finland's largest online social networking sites. Most victims were immigrants. Other cases were related to victims' religious belief and sexual background.

It's worthy to note that only a small number of hate crimes are reported to the police - as clearly stated by Tero Tihveräinen, researcher at the police academy. Hence hate crime figures paint an incomplete picture.

In my view, it isn't surprising that immigrants were most affected by hate crimes. Finnish public discourse on immigration is sour -- compounded by the spread of anti-immigration sentiments and extreme nationalism. The media also puts immigrants in harms way by, for instance, highlighting the background of "foreign" suspects of alleged crimes -- while on the other hand not mentioning the background of non-foreign suspects. Ita-Sanomat for instance reported a bizzare home intrusion in Rovaniemi by a "foreign man". The next day, the same tabloid reported another crime in which a man allegedly assaulted teenagers in Vaasa. The background of the man in the second case was not mentioned -- perhaps because it wasn't a foreign man.

In my opinion, media reports that highlight the foreign background of suspects incite negative sentiments against immigrants and perceived foreigners - as evidenced by some readers' comments under the home intrusion Ilta-Sanomat news report. One reader actually commented that, "thank you [Iltä-Sanomat] once more for giving me a good reason to hate...". Such reports go a long way to contribute to the way immigrants are perceived and treated.

I submit that immigrants were affected by hate crimes partly because they are perceived and portrayed as threats to Finnish society. Hate crimes against immigrants would reduce significantly when the media and other players, including members of far-right and populist political parties and groups stop demonizing immigrants.

The highest number of racially motivated hate crimes in Finland were recorded in 2011 than at any other time in more than 10 years.

Friday, November 8, 2013

N-word comment by Junes Lokka - Muutos 2011 MEP candidate

Less than a week after it came to light that one of Finland's candidates in the 2014 election to the European Parliament referred to a news manager as a "whore", the candidate used another derogatory word in a comment in response to criticism of his conduct. The comment puts to rest any doubts about how the candidate views minorities, including dark-skinned people and immigrants.

On November 6 2013, Junes Lokka, aspiring Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and member of anti-immigration and anti-Euro Muutos 2011 political party, expressed xenophobic sentiments and used the N-word in a comment he posted in response to my blog post related to the case in which he referred to a news chief  as a "whore".

Junes Lokka became known to the public for the wrong reason -- when he referred to a Yle news manager as a "whore". His action in the Yle case outraged a cross section of the public and attracted condemnation. For instance, a young activist argued (in Finnish) that Junes Lokka's behavior was immature. On my part, I supported the immaturity argument and added that there should be legal and political consequences for such behavior. I concluded that the MEP candidate isn't ready for the European Parliament-- since in my view the parliament is no place for people who make no secret of their sexism and other forms of prejudice against minority groups.

In response to my take on the Yle "whore" scandal, Junes Lokka used the N-word and asked me to "go back" to my country of origin -- as seen in the screen shot.

In my opinion, Junes Lokka's response - besides being racist and xenophobic - once again falls short of what is expected of a would-be MEP. The budding politician is on the wrong side of history. MEPs represent Finland in the European Parliament and I think the good people of Finland won't appreciate a sexist, racist and xenophobic representation. No person of good conscience - and there're many of them in Finland - would vote for a candidate who uses derogatory words to abuse, bully and demean people on grounds of sex, race, gender, origin, ethnicity or other grounds.

It's worth mentioning that the N-word comment was not approved because it violates my blog rules and regulations, hence it doesn't appear under the article in which it was posted. However, I thought the Finnish electorate has the right to know the abhorrent comment posted online by Muutos 2011's European Parliament candidate - less than a week after the "whore" comment. By their words we shall know them.

Muutos 2011 reportedly considered Lokka's dismissal from the party. According to Iltä-Sanomat, the party also deliberated his European Parliament candidacy. Dismissal, in my view, is unlikely - considering the fact that the party admitted James Hirvisaari, one of Finland's most controversial MPs who was dismissed by the Finns Party.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cameroonian Dr. Georges Bwelle for 2013 CNN Hero of the Year

A Cameroonian is among this year's Top 10 CNN Heroes. There're lots of phenomenal people on the list working selflessly to change the world, but the story of a doctor offering free health care in a country where health care isn't free and many people can't afford even the most basic care hits home.

Every year, CNN honors ordinary people doing extraordinary things around the world. CNN Heroes - everyday people who dedicate their lives to serving others - are nominated by third parties inspired by their cause. After nominations, CNN selects 10 heroes and invites members of the public to vote for their favorite -- to be named CNN Hero of the Year.

A Cameroonian medical doctor, George Bwelle, is among 2013 Top 10 CNN Heroes. Inspired by difficulties, including lack of neurosurgeons and inadequate equipment faced by his father and many other Cameroonians in receiving medical care, Dr. Georges Bwelle decided to do something about it. He became a medical doctor and started a non-profit organization that travels to rural areas in Cameroon on weekends to provide free medical care. According to CNN, the doctor and his team of volunteers have helped about 32,000 people in Cameroon - a country where there is reportedly only one doctor for every 5,000 people and where many can't afford seeing a doctor -- since two out of five people reportedly live below the poverty line and nearly three-quarters of the country's health care spending is private.

I think Dr. Bwelle should be CNN Hero of the Year. Cast your vote.

Personally, as a Cameroonian, I can relate to what inspired Dr. Bwelle to take action. Many people in Cameroon face untold difficulties in a bid to receive basic medical care and many end up dying from preventable causes. I lost my father in Cameroon as a result of a private car accident on one of Cameroon's bad roads. Perhaps my father's life could have been saved if we had a working health care system with ambulances and emergency responders. I can therefore relate to Dr. Bwelle whose father was also involved in a car accident that affected him for the rest of his life as a result of limited access to health care. To say the least - there is a desperate need for adequate, available and affordable health care in Cameroon and I appreciate efforts made by Dr. Bwelle and his team to give people access to medical care.

The Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2013 are outstanding men and women, but - without taking away anything from any of them - I decided to vote for Dr. George Bwelle. The good doctor is my favorite. He is doing a phenomenal job in his community, which happens to be in my country.

Vote for Dr. Georges Bwelle. It's possible to vote once a day, every day through Sunday, November 17, 2013. The 2013 CNN Hero will be revealed on 1 December 2013. Each of the Top 10 CNN Heroes will receive a sum of $50,000 to support their cause. The CNN Hero of the Year will receive an additional $250,000. Your vote could go a long way to help save lives.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Muutos 2011's Junes Lokka isn't ready for European Parliament

Voters across Europe go to the polls every five years in the 28 Member States of the European Union to elect their representatives in the European Parliament. The next round of elections is scheduled to take place in member states on 22.-25 May 2014 and Finland has a handful of candidates hoping to occupy seats in the European Parliament, including one who recently referred to a journalist as a "whore" -- based on the fact that she is a woman.

Between 2014 and 2019 Finland will have thirteen (13) seats in the European Parliament. Junes Lokka, a prospective occupant of one of the seats, referred to a journalist as a "whore". According to Ilta-Sanomat, the candidate participated in a TV programme in which he was referred to a blogger. He contacted the editor-in-chief to have his title changed from blogger to MEP candidate. He uploaded his recorded conversation with the editor to YouTube and referred to the editor as a "whore" in the title of the uploaded content. Yle is considering legal action against the blogger.

Junes Lokka is a member of Change 2011 (in Finnish: Muutos 2011) -- a nationalist political party whose main purpose is to promote Finnish "interest" through free speech and straight democracy. According to Helsingin Sanomat, the idea of the party originated from Hommaforum - a far-right, anti-immigration online discussion forum where the despicable language used by Lokka is common. The party has only about 250 members and it provided safe haven for disgraced parliamentarian James Hirvisaari -- a former MP for the populist Finns Party who was convicted for inciting hatred against a minority group.

Muutos 2011 seeks to achieve its goals through "free speech" -- even if it means speech that denigrates and incites hatred against minority groups. Some members of the party and other far-right ideologists would wrongly argue that legal action against Lokka for referring to a journalist as a "whore" amounts to an attack on freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech has justifiable limitations under Finnish law and international human rights law. A journalist in Greece was fined €25,000 for making a similarly derogatory remark against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In my opinion, the fine in the Merkel case was not a violation of free speech. There have also been hate speech convictions handed out by Finnish courts.

In my view, there should be legal and political consequences for Junes Lokka or anyone else who thinks a woman is a "whore" by virtue of being a woman -- or who uses freedom of speech to demean and denigrate individuals or incite hatred against a minority group. After listening to the phone conversation between Lokka and Yle's editor on YouTube, it is easy to conclude that the candidate is not ready to occupy a seat in the European Parliament. His conduct was immature and reinforced the belief that Muutos 2011 is made up of individuals who have little or no respect for minorities, including women, LGBTI people, immigrants and the Roma. The European Parliament is a "fierce defender of human rights"; it is no place for proponents of "blind nationalism" who make no secret of their sexism and other forms of prejudice against minority groups.

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