Normally Finland hasn’t been in the headlines of global media, since Finland is mostly known for being the happiest country in the world (according to The World Happiness Report) and having one of the best education systems in the world.
Now Finland and our president has been put in the spotlight. During the Ukraine war, president Sauli Niinistö has been interviewed repeatedly by global media, like CNN, Fox News and Financial Times. The British newspaper Sunday Times called him the Putin whisperer. In global media he’s been portrayed as the level-headed and cautious president, who is well known about his good relations with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He has met Putin several times over the last 10 years.
However, when Niinistö spoke about Putin in the morning of Russia´s attack on Ukraine, it was clear that relations are no longer good. He said:
“Now the masks have been taken off and only the cold face of war is visible.”Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö.
In an interview with CNN, Niinistö spoke about the war and Finland’s geopolitical position as we share a 1340-kilometres-long border with Russia. During this interview, journalist Christiane Amanpour asked if president Niinistö is scared. His response gained a lot of attention: ‘’No, I’m not scared, and Finns are not scared. But surely, we’re fully awake.’’ Because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Finland is now leaning towards NATO membership more than ever, despite prior lack of interest.
In an interview with the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Yle, Niinistö was asked if NATO membership would bring enough security for Finland. ‘’I don’t think there is more security than that. It would be sufficient at least.’’
Recommended by 9 out of 10 Finns
The Finnish media presents president Niinistö as an easily approachable President of the people, Sauli. His behaviour supports this image. For example, he can be seen doing his shopping at a corner shop without security guards or make a call at radio programme introducing himself only by first name.
Niinistö’s family dog, Lennu, became an internet phenomenon in 2017 and it was covered by some international medias like New York Times and Huffington Post. Reuters also mentioned the birth of Niinistö’s third son, whom he and his wife Mrs. Jenni Haukio welcomed in 2018, when Niinistö was 69 years old.
In a poll conducted by Helsingin Sanomat in 2021, the biggest newspaper in Finland, Niinistö´s popularity amongst Finns was at a whopping 90 percent. He’s been called the father of the nation even by a Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. He has a diverse history that goes beyond the image portrayed in global media.
The public image was not always the same. During Niinistö’s time as a minister of finance (1996-2003), Finnish media often presented him as short-tempered and even blunt.
Niinistö’s character in a political parody show the Autocrats was mean towards his colleagues, even making them cry because of his behaviour. The presentation was not entirely wrong either. A former minister told in an interview published in Finnish newspaper Turun Sanomat, that during her 10-year-career as a minister, Niinistö was the only person who managed to make her cry.
Niinistö’s character portrayed in a political cartoon parody show “The Autocrats”. / Rights: Yellow Film & TV
Hanging on to life in Khao Lak
In 2004, Finnish media covered widely an unexpected story on Sauli Niinistö. Niinistö spent Christmas in Thailand with his two sons, and the holiday got an unexpected turn, when the tsunami hit the coast.
Niinistö was just arriving at the beach with his son, when they first saw the water receding. In the next moment they were running away from a giant body of water and took cover behind a house. They saw a power pole nearby and they managed to climb the power pole. They hung there for several hours. This survival story was widely covered by the Finnish media and later referenced by Southeast Asian media.
Niinistö writes in his book, that while he and his son were hanging from the pole, they talked about the worst-case scenario. Niinistö lost his first wife due to a car crash in 1995 and with his sons he even discussed the possibility of reuniting with her in the afterlife.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE: Ida Erämaa, Niko Stenvall & Tuulia Kuusela, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Finland.