Sweden Decides Against Changing Press Act

12 April 2012

By Staffan Dahllöf

This article first appeared on Wobbing Europe.

The world’s oldest access law will remain Swedish parliamentarians have unanimously agreed not to propose a recast of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act, the first law in the world to grant citizens access to public information.

Backed by an overwhelming public opinion politicians from all parties in the Parliament except one (right wing Swedish Democrats not present) have decided not to put forward a suggested overhaul of the country’s historical press law from 1766, and the much younger Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, from 1991 covering ether media.

The decision was taken by a preparatory committee which had been given the task to investigate possible changes of the laws. The committee has now decided to basically stick to the present legislation, partly disobliging it’s instructions given by the government.

The instructions were to investigate whether the historical laws have been outdated by new media forms such as web portals, blogs and text messages, and to find ways to reduce conflict areas between Swedish law and EU-legislation.

But the price for replacing the existing laws with a new legislation would be too high, the members felt. There was a widespread fear in the committee that a new legislation would be more difficult to defend if criticized in an EU-context.

And there was a fear that a new legislation would weaken existing rights for citizens.

”The committee was asked to reinvent the wheel, so it did and decided to give it a round shape,” comments Nils Funcke, one of the secretaries in the committee in a blog post (in Swedish only).

The fear in the committee stems from the fact that the Swedish media laws are atypical, and sometimes considered extreme, compared to similar legislation in other countries:

* Access to official documents is a constitutional right and a general presumption, although there are many exceptions for secrecy in other laws.
* The laws prohibits all kind of censorship.
* The laws contains a kind of whistleblower right for public servants (”meddelarfrihet” – freedom to pass information). This makes it a constitutional crime to investigate any oral leak from a public institution. Leaking classified documents is a crime though.
* In court cases on freedom of expression only the publisher can be punished, never the journalist/writer, the printer or any other persons involved, and there are special court rules making it difficult on purpose for the prosecutor to get a conviction.

These conditions have on several occasions given Swedish governments a hard time in EU as it has been forced to ask for constitutional exceptions from EU-law. Incitement to terrorism is a crime defined by an EU framework decision adopted in 2008. This crime is more or less protected for prosecution by the Swedish law on freedom of expression.

A recent example is the suggested new regulation on data protection, which threatens to overrule the Swedish version of access to information.

The decision by the committee not to propose any drastic changes of the laws will not make the conflicts with EU-legislation go away.

But the unanimous decision indicates that the elected politicians are prepared to take each battle at the time to defend access rights and the other specific conditions, rather than adopt a more EU-streamlined legislation.

Footnote:

The committee has its own website (in Swedish only). At the time to writing no reference is to be found on the crucial decision not to propose a new legislation.

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