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'Swedish police should prioritize crimes against freedom of speech'

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'Swedish police should prioritize crimes against freedom of speech'
Sweden's Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT
12:41 CEST+02:00
The Local speaks to Sweden's Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke about the government's plan to crack down on threats and hate against politicians, journalists and artists.

This interview is part of our Sweden in Focus article series. Read the main feature here:

The government has presented 'Defence of the Free Word', an action plan to combat threats and hate against journalists, elected representatives and artists. Could you explain the background?

Threats against journalists, elected representatives and artists have been highlighted in a series of studies, and also through reports from victims. Apart from the fact that the government has commissioned and financed surveys to ensure that the measures we invest in contribute to positive change, we have also learned from studies and intense roundtable discussions with everyone from editors-in-chief and journalists to artists and organizers – because another thing that has been noted is that when a museum for example invites an artist to put together an exhibition they have received more and more threats in recent years linked both to the artist but also to the theme. There have been concerning signs and discussions about museums and organizers risking self-censorship because of security costs.

We have been talking about this and I have also travelled around the country to meet many of the various groups being targeted. That's the background why we adopted this action plan against hate and threats.

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Swedish artist Lars Vilks has been threatened on multiple occasions. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Many others have reported being threatened in their line of work in the past 12 months: one in five librarians, four out of ten police officers, and so on. Why does the action plan focus on these professions in particular? 

Journalists, artists and elected representatives work on the basis of those freedoms and opportunities that free speech offers. So when they are threatened, free speech is also threatened. That's the simple explanation, because there are other groups in society who are also exposed to a lot of threats, everything from social workers to environmental health inspectors in restaurants and so on, but this is for professionals working with free speech.

What does it mean for society if these voices are silenced?

It is extremely serious. The consequences of a journalist either being completely silenced or choosing not to investigate a tip because of threats directed at the journalist or their family is terrible, because that means that something risks not being investigated, that we as citizens lose the chance to gain knowledge and form an opinion. And parallel to this there is a development that more and more choose to form their perceptions of reality based on information that is not journalism, that is, does not follow those principles and guidelines that journalism does. Unfortunately it is also the case that many people believe that what you read on for example Facebook is journalism, and that is not always the case. It may very well be, it could be linked to journalistic articles where there is a publisher responsible for the articles, but unfortunately that is not always the case.

Many of those we've spoken to say that threats are not the only problem, but also hateful comments in e-mails and elsewhere online that may not necessarily be illegal in the eyes of the law. How do you tackle this?

That is also a big problem, and the action plan we've now got in place is by no means a cure-all. It is part of systematic work by the government, but in society as a whole we need very many different actors using our respective platforms to create a better climate for conversations, because just as you say, the tone of conversations and that hostile tone that is all too often used on social media is not always criminal as such, but can still contribute to people choosing not to participate.

That is also something we're highlighting in the action plan, where some of the measures are targeted at support for, say, a blogger – that's also a group that's extremely exposed to hate and threats – or people in general who express opinions or thoughts and the more threats and the more hostilities they face, the narrower and smaller the space for public conversation becomes. And we all lose out when the climate is not inviting and generous – even when we do not at all agree with people's opinions it still benefits all of us in the end when they are given the space to express those opinions.

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Alice Bah Kuhnke, right, taking part in a march for diversity in Visby, July 2017. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Surely people must be allowed to express negative opinions too, so where do you draw the line between limiting hate speech and protecting free speech?

Democracy is not a simple matter. Fortunately, we live in a state where the rule of law applies, and the line is drawn when the rule of law is threatened and when the justice system decides what is legal and what is not legal. But until you reach that external line our freedoms come with a great deal of responsibility.

Unfortunately those forces that do not want or do not protect our freedoms also use our freedoms. They take advantage of the fundamental rights we have for generating discussions and affecting the development of society, and they are advanced in how they use those freedoms to silence and limit other people's freedoms. That's incredibly saddening and provocative, and at the same time I remain convinced, convinced, that I want to fight to preserve and consolidate our freedoms and that that is also the best tool to fight those who want to limit them.

Politicians and journalists are not always innocent, and there have been cases in Sweden and elsewhere where individuals from both professions have been criticized for spreading hate, or indirectly spreading hate by posting something online that is then backed by trolls who stir things up even more. Do we also need to think more about how we express ourselves?

Yes. I as a politician very much have to raise my own awareness and pay attention to what tone I use in discussions with other politicians and other politicians' opinions and political proposals. We should not throw stones in glass houses, and that is kind of what I was hinting at when I said that we need to be many different actors doing a lot to create a better environment for conversation and opinion formation, but also to build a better society because that is based on us having information that we can then break down and wrestle with.

Some of those targeted claim that the justice system is not doing enough. Why was this action plan put forward by yourself and the culture ministry rather than the interior ministry, which is responsible for the police and the justice system?

This is put forward by the government, and the police are part of the action plan, because as you say this is something that has been highlighted. All various actors describe the frustration of not feeling and not knowing that those reports to the police (are taken seriously). It should be said they are few, there is likely a large number of incidents that go unrecorded because many of the victims have normalized the hate and the threats, but they have clearly explained how it quite simply has not felt meaningful to go to the police.

So that's why the Swedish police should now prioritize crimes against opinion-formation and freedom of speech and with the action plan we will now ask the police to report back how they're working, how they're prioritizing and show the government that they are doing this. And not least we are emphasizing the importance that local police forces prioritize relationship-building but also security work for local newspaper offices.

There has been talk in many parts of the world about threats against journalists from leaders themselves. Even in the US, President Donald Trump was accused of advocating violence against journalists when tweeting an edited video where he was beating a person whose head had been replaced with CNN's logo. How did you react to that?

It is extremely distressing that we politicians who are trusted with governing our states spread or grow mistrust of journalists and journalism which is the fourth estate and whose main task is to investigate us. It makes me appalled and deeply saddened, but also inspires me to continue the work we're doing in Sweden. The day we do not have investigative journalism, the day we do not have journalists investigating people like myself, then… then… well, that's the downfall of our society.

This article is part of our Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at what makes this country tick. Read more from the series here.

Edited for length and clarity.

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