Dialogue as a Communication Right – A Draft

book project, Research

This is an English-language draft summary of my chapter for a book by a group of Finnish  scholars (Ala-Fossi, Alén-Savikko, Hildén,  Jääsaari, Karppinen, Lehtisaari, Nieminen) on operationalizing communication rights in the Finnish context. I am struggling with terminology: How to call the right to be heard by those in power in the time of multiple ways of communicating and communication?


While the word dialogue seldom appears in laws or in mission statements of media organizations, it is strongly rooted in democracy theorization in political science and as utilized in communication studies. We understand dialogical rights as citizens opportunities and activities to engage in dialogue. Dialogicality also entails the idea that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard.  The digital era has has lowered many barriers of direct public participation, specifically in three types of dialogical relationships:

  1. Direct dialogues between citizens,  the government and public administration, made possible with digitalization (often phrased as active inclusion, public engagement, and/or eParticipation);
  2. Dialogues with and via institutional, legacy media (often discussed as audience participation and interactivity); as well as
  3. Direct mediated dialogues between citizens, on digital platforms (peer-to-peer communication and other user generated content that can amount to civic engagement).

The Constitution of Finland secures freedom of expression but also stipulates that public authorities shall promote the opportunities for the individual to participate in societal activity and to influence the decisions that concern him or her. An example of a sector- and institution-specific legislation that supports these rights is, again, the Act on Yleisradio: it stipulates the public service broadcaster must support democracy and everyone’s opportunity to participate.

Digital dialogical opportunities between citizens and their government provide perhaps the most poignant case and the most optimistic reiteration of dialogical rights. They are also the most one-sided since those innovations have mainly been government-driven. This trend began in the 1990s with a multitude of national and supranational information society programmes. In these scenarios, concerns of social inclusion have been included although they have been primarily formulated to enhance economic competitiveness. This seems to be the case with the EU’s approach to eGovernment and eParticipation: Many initiatives and toolkits are created but at the core is effectiveness of the “digital single market”.

The foundations of digital dialogue between the public sector and the citizens were laid in Finland in 1997 when the government launched a “public engagement programme”, followed in the subsequent decade  by two other participation-focused programs in which digital technology played a central role. In 1999, an open access register on all  governmental initiatives was established, followed in 2000, by an inter-ministerial website to solicit citizens’ views. The site has since expanded into six different portals, developed by the Ministry of Finance under a program to enhance digital public services (2009-2015). In 2016, it was decided that electronic voting will be offered in addition to conventional voting. Currently, in 2017, one of the government’s five strategic priorities focuses entirely on “digitalization, experimentation and deregulation”.

Dialogical rights are realized in a very different way in the dialogue between media organizations and citizens. A basic effect of dialogue as accountability is monitored by an independent Council for Mass Media. It offers citizens the opportunity to file complaints requesting the investigation of a matter concerning breach of good professional practice or the freedom of speech and publication. In addition, individual media outlets often have their own direct channels and mechanisms for complaints. Digitalization has not drastically changed the news media landscape, in that popular legacy media dominate also online news. At the same time, digitalization, comment, and chat functions of legacy media outlets, in their own platforms as well as in common social media sites, have become standard practice. One special, and popular, service directly related to citizenship is different voting advice applications offered by different news organizations. However, these kinds of new services are not always without controversy. For instance, the net-based local and regional news services, as well as developing personalization services by the public service Yleisradio have been investigated as possible market distortions. A recent report found, however, that both are according to the remit of Yle in promoting democracy.

The most prolific digital dialogues can be said to occur between citizens — or so it may seem when observing social media activity and heated online debates. The reality in Finland is more moderate. Finns, traditionally avid newspaper readers, seem to be traditionalists in digital realm as well. They have not given up on old, legacy media organizations. Community media and citizen journalism have not gone mainstream in the country, even with plenty of digital opportunities. Also, voting activity has remained very steady in the past decade (around 70% in parliamentary and EU elections). Approximately three quarter of all Finns follow the media via the Internet, some 40 percent read blogs, but only six percent have their own blogs or web pages. Facebook is the main source of news for 35 percent of the Finns, but only one tenth uses social media for political participation, and only 15 percent takes part in memes, campaigns, and other participatory phenomena. Even when the government’s activities to enhance digital dialogues are  plentiful, the citizens’ responses have not been overly enthusiastic. While these portals exist civil servants hardly utilize them in decision-making; neither are civil society organizations keen on participating in them.  

Unfortunately, the kind of political participation that has become more common and visible is online hate speech. One key motor for this is the alt-news site MV-lehti that offers news with a heavy anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-legacy media slant and that fuels plenty of related commentary and dialogue. One communication right related to dialogicality could be said to be the negative right not be exposed to hate speech. In fact, in 2015, Finland instituted a new law on equality that has secures equality in the workplace and for public services, regardless of age, language, sexual orientation, and so on. While it does not single out the media, it stresses that hate speech and other disrespectful behaviour is against this law.

Another entirely new form of dialogue could be seen in the use of open data in decision-making.While data can be used by policy-makers for efficiency, as stipulated in the Open data policy for 2015 – 2020 of the Finnish Government it also works in reverse: Citizens can monitor and hold policy-makers and others accountable.

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