Discrediting or “targeting” of officials is becoming more common
Published 19 October 2020
Coercion, threatening emails, malicious phone calls, discrediting on the web, or unfounded complaints and claims for damages. Issuing a negative decision to a customer can start a treacherous chain of events targeted towards a specific official. The targeting of officials has become more common, and it should be made into a punishable offence.
Targeting focuses on an individual, but in many cases the goal is to influence society more broadly. Targeting aims to undermine trust in the authorities, erode the principle of the rule of law, and limit the constitutional right of freedom of speech. The ultimate goal is to limit public discussion and public action.
Targeting may involve threating an official directly or indirectly, digging into their private life or falsifying information about them. However, criticising a public authority or a specific official act or utilising the standard legal remedies available to citizens are not considered targeting.
The goal of targeting an official may be to make them abandon their official duties. Officials subject to targeting include police officers, prosecutors, enforcement officers, tax auditors and other auditing officials. Just the fear of being targeted can cause an official to limit what they say or do.
New ways of coercing and harassing officials
Some of the authorities involved in combatting the grey economy have experienced an increase in targeting related to their operating area in the past few years. They feel that the increase has been moderate but that the harassment has become more threatening.
Using social media to discredit a specific official has clearly become more common. For example, photos of officials may be spread online in negative connections. Some of the online campaigns to discredit officials in Finland repeat formulas that are familiar from other countries. However, there are no indications that the campaigns have been organised by international parties.
Targeting erodes trust and puts the official in an unreasonable position
Targeting often causes mental and physical stress and reduces working capacity. It may even cause fear in the targeted official. The negative impact of discrediting may also spread to the official’s family members and friends. In the most extreme cases of targeting, the official may even receive threats on their life. Such cases affect occupational health and safety and the atmosphere at work.
Example: An official had been called as a witness in a criminal trial. During the presentation of evidence, it was revealed that the official's personal data, such as their medical history, their entrepreneur background and the entrepreneur background of their family members, had been researched in order to undermine their expertise, objectivity and reliability as a witness in the case.
Example: After an official made a decision, they became the target of a massive harassment campaign that was supposed to pressure the official into changing the decision. For example, the official received oppressive phone calls from an undisclosed number. The caller either did not say anything or left a voicemail saying that the official’s home address and the location of their office were known to the caller. Someone also called the office a number of times, asking whether the official was currently at work or at home. Furthermore, an unfounded complaint on the official’s work was submitted to the agency’s Director General. In addition, there were attempts to change the decision by pleading a process error and by trying to use public pressure and MPs as leverage.
Unfounded information can spread quickly, especially in social media. Investigating and intervening in the matter quickly often requires the cooperation and resources of several branches of government. If standard legal remedies are misused, for example by filing unfounded complaints or falsely reporting an offence by an official to the police, the authorities have fewer resources available for their other duties.
Example: A customer wrote confrontational and degrading posts on discussion forums, mentioning the auditor’s name. The posts were later deleted by the administrator after having received a notice about them.
Society and employers must firmly oppose the targeting of officials
Different authorities may have different instructions and practices on how to address threats towards officials. Sometimes the investigation of a matter requires the cooperation of several different units. In many cases, the investigation involves the targeted person’s supervisor, the unit’s legal counsel, the labour protection delegate, the communications unit and the security unit. Occupational health care services may also be involved in the process. If the case is serious, the employer or the targeted official will contact the police. Since targeting is a topical phenomenon, many authorities are in the process of updating their instructions concerning the matter.
Harassment and threatening of an official may already meet the statutory definition of several complainant offences. However, obtaining evidence of violence or the threat of violence may be difficult. At present, if the case proceeds to a criminal procedure, the official may be forced to handle the legal proceedings alone, even though the case started with the official handling their official duties. The official is only a means for the targeting party to reach their goal. Authorities widely support making targeting a punishable offence subject to public prosecution.
The phenomenon was studied by the authorities responsible for situational awareness on the grey economy in August 2020. Public institutions that shared their experiences included the Finnish Tax Administration, the Customs, the Police of Finland, contractor obligation and immigration control units of the Regional State Administrative Agencies, the Finnish Food Authority, the Office of Bankruptcy Ombudsman, and the enforcement authorities.
Government intensifies actions against the grey economy with a new strategy and an extensive action plan
11.6.2020 Ministry of the Interior
The Government has issued a resolution on a strategy and action plan for tackling the grey economy and economic crime in 2020–2023. Actions against the grey economy and economic crime will focus on prevention, clarification of powers, improving authorities’ access to information, and promoting cooperation between authorities.
The strategy for tackling the shadow economy and economic crime aims to:
1) promote healthy competition between companies and a fair labour market,
2) prevent the grey economy and economic crime,
3) ensure the ability of authorities to combat the grey economy and economic crime, and
4) develop measures to combat the grey economy and economic crime and improve cooperation between authorities.
The means to implement the strategy and to strengthen the fight against the grey economy are listed in the 20-point action plan.
“The plan focuses, among other things, on the prevention of undeclared work. In addition, the aim is to examine new ways for intervening in intentional or grossly negligent underpayment of wages. Cooperation between authorities will be increased in the fight against identity misuse and food fraud. Anti-corruption efforts will also be intensified,” says Chief Superintendent Juha Tuovinen from the Police Department of the Ministry of the Interior.
Other actions set out in the action plan include, for example, introduction of tax numbers in the shipbuilding sector and increasing the availability of information on the payment of taxes and charges. Communications and access to information will also be developed.
“A communication campaign aiming to promote responsibility among employees and employers will be targeted at immigrants and those just entering working life. Securing the tax authority’s access to information from third parties reduces the opportunities for grey economy activities,” says the director of the Tax Administration's Grey Economy Information Unit, Janne Marttinen.
Work led by the steering group on combating the grey economy
The steering group on combating the grey economy, chaired by the Minister of Employment Tuula Haatainen, is in charge of implementing and updating the strategy and monitoring the implementation of the plan.
The executive group on combating the grey economy and economic crime, composed of ministries and authorities, reports to the steering group on the progress of the action plan and, if necessary, proposes changes to the strategy or action plan.
Combating the shadow economy prevents illegal activity and ensures tax revenue – the results are encouraging
The statistics on the prevention of shadow economy and economic crime in 2019 have been published. The experiences gained from the new procedures and law amendments to combat the phenomena more efficiently are positive.
Based on the statistics, the co-operation between authorities in combating the shadow economy and economic crime is efficient and works well. For example, the Finnish Tax Administration gave other control authorities close to 750 tips on misconduct related to matters other than taxation discovered during its own control activities.
‘The statistics show successes. The Action Plan against the Shadow Economy and Economic Crime has offered new tools for identifying and preventing these phenomena,’ says Janne Marttinen from the Grey Economy Information Unit of the Finnish Tax Administration.
The current and previous action plans have been in force almost continuously since 1996. The preparations for a new action plan are nearly complete.
‘During difficult times, the importance of combating the shadow economy is emphasised. The work done to combat the shadow economy ensures tax revenue and public financing,’ Mr Marttinen continues.
New phenomena challenge the traditional operating methods
The rapidly progressing digitalisation and increasingly international operating environment have presented new challenges to combating the shadow economy.
For example, the growth of the platform economy and the popularity of e-commerce, as well as virtual currencies and the related misuse, have expanded the need for control and guidance.
‘In the future, identifying new phenomena and co-operating when responding to them will be increasingly important,’ Mr Marttinen says.
Link: Shadow economy prevention statistics, 2019