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May 3 of every year is set aside for the celebration of World Press Freedom Day. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”. Sadly, citizens of many countries are robbed of the freedom of self-expression for one reason or another.

Helsingin Sanomat Editor-In-Chief Antero Mukka staring into the screen showing it strategy to get information to Russians. The strategy was unveiled during the world press freedom day celebration (Photo credit REUTERS/Anne Kauranen)
Helsingin Sanomat Editor-In-Chief Antero Mukka staring into the screen showing its strategy to get information to Russians (Photo credit: REUTERS/Anne Kauranen)

Russia conducted a massive crackdown on independent journalism in the country after what the government called “a special military operation” in Ukraine last year. Moscow banned free reporting and blocked Russians from gaining access to foreign media content.

Last year, Helsingin Sanomat started publishing some Russia and Ukraine-related news in Russia in defiance of the law, but access to their content from Russia was soon restricted.

“As we have been widely concerned about the press freedom situation and freedom of speech in Russia, we decided that maybe it’s possible to find some new channels to provide Russian audiences with some reliable, independent journalism, for example, about the situations in Ukraine,” the Editor-In-Chief Antero Mukka told Reuters ahead of the press freedom day.

Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day hid news reports about the war in Ukraine in a video game to beat Russian media restrictions. Mukka said the newspaper hid stories about the Russian war in Ukraine in Counter-Strike.

“While Helsingin Sanomat and other foreign independent media are blocked in Russia, online games have not been banned so far,” Mukka said.

Helsingin Sanomat found a way to exploit Counter-Strike’s popularity in Russia

The secret room in Counter-Strike with hidden news content from Helsingin Sanomat. It was unveiled at the world press freedom day (Photo credit: REUTERS)
The secret room in Counter-Strike with hidden news content (Photo credit: Helsingin Sanomat/REUTERS)

Counter-Strike is among the top 10 most popular PC games in the world according to Newzoo data. The popularity of the first-person shooter released by U.S.-based private game developer Valve Corporation in 2012 has grown over the years in Russia. Mukka estimates that 4 million people play there.

In the game, terrorists and counter-terrorists battle against each other in timed tournaments. Although the bulk of the tournaments takes place on about a dozen official maps or levels designed by Valve, the game allows players to create custom maps that anyone can download and use.

This was the opening that Helsingin Sanomat needed. The newspaper created a map of a fictional war-torn Slavic city called “de_voyna” in reference to the word “voyna” in Russia which means war. The use of the word to make reference to the conflict in Ukraine is prohibited.

The map created by Helsingin Sanomat has a secret room where the newspaper hid texts and images with details of the cruelties its photographers and reporters witnessed in Ukraine. Since Valve allows players to create maps, Mukka said the paper did not seek permission from Valve for the campaign.

“If some young men in Russia, just because of this game, happen to think for a couple of seconds what is going on in Ukraine, then it’s worth it,” Mukka said.

Where to find Helsingin Sanomat’s newsroom in Counter-Strike

The secret room in Counter-Strike with hidden news content (Photo credit: Helsingin Sanomat/REUTERS)

Helsingin Sanomat’s map was unveiled at World Press Freedom Day on May 3. To find the newsroom, players need to enter the basement of one of the apartment buildings that make up the Soviet-inspired cityscape. In the room, players would find the newspaper’s reporting on the Ukraine war from its correspondents in Ukraine written in the Russian language.

“In the room, you will find our documentation of what the reality of the war in Ukraine is,” Mukka said. “[This is] information that is not available from Russian state propaganda sources.”

The digital room is lit by red lights and news articles are plastered on the wall including pictures that depict the massacres in Irpin and Bucha, arguably the bloodiest Ukrainian towns. On one side of the wall, there is a map of Ukraine that details reported attacks on civilians.

The secret room in Counter-Strike with hidden news content Helsingin Sanomat REUTERS
The secret room in Counter-Strike with hidden news content from Helsingin Sanomat (Photo credit: REUTERS)

A recording in the Russian language plays Helsingin Sanomat’s articles in the background. Since its release on May 1, the de_voyna map has been downloaded over 2,000 times. However, the paper cannot track the downloads geographically.

“This definitely underlines the fact that every attempt to obstruct the flow of information and blind the eyes of the public is doomed to fail in today’s world,” Mukka said. “I think Russians also have the right to know independent and fact-based information so that they can also make their own life decisions.”

Earlier we reported that Ukrainian developers made a game while being under invasion. What is most fascinating is that the game was made in one year.

Why is World Press Freedom Day important?

While journalists walk freely in some countries, in others they are jailed, censored, discriminated against, and sometimes even killed for trying to speak their truth. Some governments have used various repressive tools and policies to close down media houses.

World Press Freedom Day helps to bring the plight of journalists around the world to the spotlight. It is also an important day to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the course of doing their duties.

The act by Helsingin Sanomat is heroic and should serve as an eye-opener to journalists on the need to be creative in trying to safely break down the barriers to a free press. As the theme of this year’s celebration clearly pointed out, without freedom of expression, there are no human rights.

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