SHARE
COPY LINK
OPINION

FREE SPEECH

‘Sweden needs more free speech, not less’

In turbulent times, it is more important than ever to protect freedom of speech, writes Jonathan Lundqvist, president of Reporters Without Borders in Sweden.

'Sweden needs more free speech, not less'
A demonstration for freedom of expression in Stockholm in January 2015. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

There are many threats to free speech and open debate today: armed conflicts, far-reaching anti-terror legislation and digital surveillance to name just a few. But not all threats are as obvious. In fact, free speech is constantly compromised – even in western countries where it used to be a strongly defended principle.

The shots fired at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris almost exactly a year ago had hardly rung out before commentators and pundits scrambled to declare that freedom of expression had to be qualified. Naturally, they said, people should be allowed to say whatever they wanted, but then the next word out of these pundits’ mouths was “but…” Typically, a long list of restrictions followed, with freedom of expression described as problematic for this or that group.

Those who demand restrictions to freedom of speech in Sweden generally have good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. It is precisely when principles are put to the test that they need to be defended – with no ifs and no buts. Not least because tampering with fundamental principles risks backfiring.

Extending legislation in order to silence your opponents, no matter how much you dislike them, is not only morally wrong – it’s often counter-productive. This has been shown time and time again. Back in the 1930s, members of the British left used their influence to ban fascists from demonstrating only to discover, a few years later, that the same laws were used against them so that they, too, were prevented from practising their democratic rights.

Such a careless attitude to free speech is very dangerous because if we are not willing to defend fundamental democratic rights for those we do not agree with, then we should not be surprised if those rights are taken from us, too. The restrictions we are willing to enforce today – even if imposed with good intentions, for instance in order to avoid offending someone – will come back to haunt us tomorrow. It is not reasonable that one person’s hurt feelings should impact another person’s right to speak their mind.

Instead, we need to be reminded of why freedom of speech is worth defending; we need to be reminded of why this principle is so important that we should demand more of it rather than less.

THE LOCAL FRANCE: Charlie Hebdo one year after the attacks

Ironically, freedom of speech is rarely a tool that serve those in power. Members of the establishment always have the most to lose when their position is questioned. Free speech is a right that is not needed for people who say the 'correct' or 'accepted' things. It's a right for those who say the 'wrong' things. All societies, including the most repressive ones, enjoy a certain level of 'freedom of speech' but only for what is generally accepted and uncontroversial.

The true measure of free speech is how the majority treats those who fall outside the mainstream consensus: the provocateurs, the politically extreme, the satirists, the outsiders, the difficult and the stubborn. That is as true in China, Iran and Eritrea as it is in Sweden.

The defence of free speech begins within ourselves. It's not enough to reserve the right to say whatever you want to say. There’s also a responsibility to respect the right of others to do the same. Allowing somebody to enjoy their freedom of speech does not mean that you have to take everything they say seriously, however, or that you have to blindly accept every stupidity that is uttered. On the contrary, free speech includes a certain obligation to critically examine, counter and debate, and the proper response to vile opinions is more opinions – not fewer.

The life-blood of any democracy is the battle of ideas. That's where we get to test our own convictions and arguments. That’s our opportunity to influence others – and, who knows, perhaps we can learn something along the way? Free speech demands that we do not try to silence people, not with automatic weapons and not with laws – but neither with social exclusion, angry Twitter mobs or dishonest labelling.

It is incredibly dangerous to try to institutionalize truth and legislate in the name of good taste. By turning free speech into a privilege – which has to be earned! – instead of a right – which we all have! – we're undermining the entire democratic model.


Jonathan Lundqvist, Reporters Without Borders. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

We have to create an ideal where we, instead of looking for opportunities to feel offended and demand that someone be silenced, respect other people's right to speak. Sometimes that means having our ideas, beliefs and convictions contested or even mocked, but living in a democratic society means that we also have to be prepared to simply shake things off and move on. Upholding the fundamental principle of free speech trumps avoiding hurt feelings.

Values and world views that many of us take for granted today began as major provocations that cut straight through perceptions about what was seen as acceptable. Whether it was claiming that Earth is not the centre of the universe, demanding women's emancipation, fighting for the abolition of slavery or defending gay rights – none of those struggles would have been possible without the ability to express opinions.

We must feel safe in the notion that freedom of speech is the best guarantee we have to ensure that good ideas win over bad ones – and we need to rest assured that no society has collapsed because of too much free speech.

Jonathan Lundqvist is the chairman of the Swedish branch of Reporters Without Borders (Reportrar utan gränser). This is a translation of an article originally published by Göteborgs-posten.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

SHOW COMMENTS