Swedish Ambassador in Thailand on Freedom of the Press

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Staffan Herrström recenlty visited the province of Khon Kaen. On this occassion he held a speech on freedom of the press. Photo courtesy of the Provincial Public Relations Office of Khon Kaen.

During his recent visit to Khon Kaen, Ambassador Staffan Herrström held the following speech on the Freedom of the Press: Sweden’s experience. ScandAsia brings the full speech here:

“Freedom of the Press: Sweden’s experience” – Khon Kaen July 8th2016

“Dear participants,

I have been asked to share Swedish experiences in the area of freedom of expression – notably press freedom. That is what I intend to do today, and I do it bringing with me quite different perspectives.

I have been a politician. A journalist. A civil servant managing significant amounts of development aid. And an Ambassador for nine years resident in four different capitals, most recently Bangkok.

First and foremost however I am a citizen of Sweden. Our democracy has evolved gradually over a long time. The full right to vote for both women and men was enacted around 100 years ago.

The freedom of the press has however a much longer history. December 2nd this year we celebrate the 250th Anniversary of our first Freedom of the press-act, which makes it the oldest legal instrument of its kind.

250 years have passed since that remarkable day. Not 250 years of the fully fledged freedom that we experience today. But the Freedom of the Press Act in 1766 was a starting point, abolishing censorship, guaranteeing the freedom of establishment for the media and providing for public access to information. The establishment of this pillar of democracy on which our country is based upon today didn’t occur automatically, however, but eventually it proved to be quite difficult to halt the development. When one newspaper was prohibited, a new one with a similar name was created. When that one was prohibited a third one emerged.

Freedom of the press – and the broader concept freedom of expression – is a human right and a fundamental element in our democracy. In any democracy. It is intrinsically linked to the possibility to participate in public life. It is also a prerequisite for the full enjoyment of other human rights such as freedom of assembly and association. Thus – it’s an integral part of our shared, global norms. Not only Swedish norms, not only European norms. Global norms clearly established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Democracy is not all about elections. People in power needs to be scrutinized and held accountable. A free debate is a necessary prerequisite for that accountability. And for so many other mechanisms in a modern, innovative society as well.

How does our system work today? And what’s in it that could be of general interest for others?

1. Our two fundamental acts in this area, Freedom of the Press Act for print media and Freedom of Expression Act for other media are parts and parcels of our constitution. To change them, there need to be two decisions in the Parliament with elections in between. Hence, you can’t make hasty decisions limiting freedom of expression in a tense situation.

 2. Censorship against the press is totally prohibited. Anyone has the right to convey information to media. Media are not allowed to reveal their sources. And public authorities don’t have the right to search for informers. To do that is a crime.

3. One person only can normally be held accountable: the responsible publisher. Not the individual journalist or anyone else writing an article.

4. There is a possibility to limit freedom of expression without needing constitutional changes (through ordinary law). The possibilities are narrowly defined and must not go against democratic principles, nor the right to express oneself freely. Also, worth noting that religion or politics can never be used as an argument to limit these rights.

5. What could constitute an abuse of these freedoms? These cases arespecifically spelled out in these constitutional acts. Some are very special like espionage. Defamation is another one – but it is very difficult to win such a case in court. Most of the ethical issues in media are managed within the media sector itself through a self regulatory system.

6. We have a special court system including a jury managing cases related to freedom of the press. This system is designed to favor the freedom rather than the limitations.

7. And finally: The right to information is extremely wide, particularly through the principle of public access to official documents. That principle was first established 1766 and is now deeply entrenched in our administration. Everyone has the right to read official documents. You don’t have to state your name and any reason for your request. Exceptions can be made only with reference to very specific articles in the law.

Apart from being a right it is also a tool to fight mismanagement, nepotism, corruption, waste with taxpayers’ money – and simply bad decision making.

Let me give you an example: I spent nine years as Regional Director for Eastern Europe at our development agency, Sida. Every day I knew that the way we managed aid money from Swedish taxpayers could be scrutinized through the files in our archive. We had visits from such journalists quite regularly. One of them was often sitting hours and hours with our documents. And from time to time he published critical news about us, based on the documentation that we had provided him with. I was held accountable.

As I should.

Investigative journalism is obviously crucial for democratic accountability. And through this system, investigative journalists can start by claiming their right to information. Like right now, we can read in the largest Swedish morning daily about an exchange of e-mails between the National Audit Office and another public authority. These are no legal acts, only e-mails referring to a specific case that the journalists are scrutinizing. But they are regarded as official documents. The journalists have asked for the e-mails and they have got them.

So these are, to some up, in my opinion some key characteristics of our system:

– Constitutional protection

– Very specific exceptions

– Clearly stated legal preference for freedom rather than restriction

– Publisher’s responsibility

– Well-functioning managing of ethical guidelines within the media sector itself

– Radical right to information legislation through the principle of public access to official documents

 Thank you for your attention.”

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