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Who will defend the defenders of free speech? How Sweden is tackling threats against politicians and journalists

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Who will defend the defenders of free speech? How Sweden is tackling threats against politicians and journalists
Much of the threats and hate is spread online. Photo: Lise Åserud/NTB scanpix/TT
12:40 CEST+02:00
Why Sweden, considered one of the world's top countries for free speech, is worried about attacks on politicians and journalists.

This long-read is part of our Sweden in Focus series. Read more here.

We also sat down to interview Sweden's Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke for this feature:

Gustav Ericsson was only 19 years old when he was elected councillor for the centre-right Moderate Party in Hedemora, a small town in Sweden's Dalarna region, three years ago.

A leader of the party in opposition in Hedemora, he was seen as a rising star and it may have come as a surprise to many when in July he announced he would be stepping down.

"As many of you probably know I have on a number of occasions in the past few years received hate and threats and have also had my car egged. A few days ago, while I was on holiday, a written threat arrived at my home, aimed at me but also indirectly at my family. I can handle threats against myself, but I don't want my family to endure threats because of my political commitment. After thinking about it for a few days I have realized that this is where I have to draw the line," he tweeted, describing it as a difficult decision.

He is not the only elected politician who has stood down in recent years for reasons ranging from fear to caution to simply an overwhelming fatigue from a never-ending stream of hatred and harassment.

Almost three out of ten elected officials (28 percent) told Sweden's National Council on Crime Prevention (Brå) in the election year of 2014 that they had faced harassment, threats or violence that year, compared to 20 percent in 2012. This does not necessarily indicate an overall increase, as such incidents tend to peak during election years, but with only a year left before Swedes again go to the polls, it is highly relevant.

Pierre Esbjörnsson left his post as Social Democrat mayor of Skurup in southern Sweden last year after his car was gutted in an arson attack while his family slept in their home just metres away. A neo-Nazi logo had been sprayed on the house. The police investigation was dropped.

Figures show they are not alone. Sweden may be the world's second-best place for press freedom, but Reporters Without Borders warns of increasing reports of threats against journalists. One in three members of journalists' trade union SJF said in a Gothenburg University survey that they had been threatened in 2016.

More than one in five artists and one in three authors have at least once been exposed to threats, harassment, theft, violence or vandalism linked to their career, according to KRO/KIF, an organization for professional artists.

Håkan Slagbrand, a journalist with regional newspaper VLT in Västerås, was assaulted in his home earlier this year, just weeks after an arson attack on his car. Both police investigations were dropped after officers failed to track down a suspect.

Regional newspaper Eskilstuna-kuriren was forced to step up security after it published an investigative report this year showing how far-right hate and xenophobic fake news spread via coordinated online campaigns, and found itself inundated with harassment from right-wing extremists.

The relative of an imam in the city of Gävle was handed a suspended sentence and a fine by an appeals court in spring 2017 for making death threats against the editor-in-chief of Gefle Dagblad, Anna Gullberg, after her newspaper investigated the city's mosque.

Widely described as attacks on free speech, these are just some of the incidents that have sparked debate in Sweden in the past year, and before summer the centre-left coalition government presented an action plan focused on combating hatred and threats against specifically politicians, journalists and artists.

Speaking to The Local, Minister of Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke says she is concerned that free speech is at risk for everyone when the people who are meant to defend it do not dare use their voice.

"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," she says.

Read our full interview with Alice Bah Kuhnke here:


Alice Bah Kuhnke. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

'It's a bit like someone opened the floodgates'

Her concern is not unfounded.

One in four politicians told Brå they have censored themselves because of threats and abuse, and more than three out of ten journalists told the SJF survey that they had at some point chosen not to cover certain issues due to a risk of threats. Ten percent of reporters said they no longer published their byline on certain articles; 16 percent of those who have been threatened said they had considered quitting journalism.

"I know several people in my own party who have said no to political positions or left them because of the hateful climate and the kind of polarization marked by elements of violence in the language. And that's beginning at lower levels where the worst-affected are those working on social service boards," Nils Karlsson, deputy mayor of Malmö City Council with a special focus on democracy, equality and human rights, tells The Local.

"There are very few real threats – I've had about four or five. Most are instead people who call to say 'you're an idiot' and hang up, or send messages on social media – Facebook's messenger app is very popular – wishing your family dead and things like that. When hate and threats are targeted at female colleagues there is also a strong element of sexualized threats that I am fortunate enough to avoid."

Much of it takes place online. Here are more statistics: according to a government-commissioned report carried out by the Gothenburg-based SOM Institute, which researches society, public opinion and media, 43 percent of Swedes aged 16-85 publicly express an opinion on an issue affecting society at least once a week. Of those, 15 percent have been exposed to threats, harassment or violence in the past year. Looking at those who express their opinions online and in social media, this figure increases to 24 percent.

"It's a bit like someone opened the floodgates. The internet offers an opportunity to communicate that we didn't have before when you had to meet someone, or at the very least talk on the phone, so the established social codes embedded in our culture in Sweden don't work online because we haven't had any training there," says Karlsson.

"You can be anonymous, you don't have to meet the immediate reaction of the person you're talking to, which means that inhibitions can be dropped. Of course not all Swedes take part in online hate, I would think it's just a couple of thousands who are very active, but now they manage to get their message out. Previously it took time to tap out a letter to the editor on your typewriter and get it published in a newspaper, now it's enough to write 140 characters and post on Twitter that someone is an idiot whose family should be run over and that's about it. It has become much easier to express these feelings."

"Online hate has increased a lot but it has also changed in character; the kind of hatred and threats directed against the representatives of democracy, from politicians to journalists, and also lawyers among others, has become more crude and direct," explains Lisa Bjurwald, journalist and author of 'Skrivbordskrigarna' ('The Keyboard Warriors'), a book researching far-right online hate.


Nils Karlsson showing US video journalist Tim Pool around Malmö in 2017. Photo: Ola Torkelsson/TT

There appear to be few "safe" topics, and the people we speak to say they have been targeted based on anything from a council decision that did not go the aggressor's way to wider issues affecting society. Perhaps unsurprisingly in Sweden, where racism, immigration and integration have been among the country's most divisive issues in recent years, journalists writing about these topics attracted the most anger in 2016, according to the SJF survey.

“Those who get in touch with me are mainly interested in immigration issues or theological issues regarding Islam,” says Karlsson, whose Green Party is part of Malmö's ruling centre-left coalition and was vocal about its pro-immigration stance when Sweden took in more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

"That being said, one of the actual threats I received that the police took seriously came from the left and was not about that at all but about privatizations," he adds.

According to Brå, more than half of the victims in the political sphere belong to Sweden's two biggest parties – the Social Democrats and the Moderates.

Looking at threats on a party-by-party basis, the Sweden Democrat party – known for its anti-immigration stance – comes top. Half of its respondents said they had been exposed to hate or threats, followed by the Left Party (33 percent), Moderates (31 percent), Liberals (30 percent), Greens (27 percent), Christian Democrats (25 percent), Social Democrats (24 precent) and Centre Party (22 percent).

"A representative democracy is based on discussion and conversation between our elected officials and the voters. Threats and hate aimed at silencing (them) must therefore be taken seriously," Sweden Democrat spokesperson Christian Krappedal tells The Local.

"We want stricter penalties for threats against elected politicians and for the crimes to be seen for what they are: crimes against democracy. It is important that society acts to increase the safety of the victims, and that everyone dares to stand up for free speech."

'Investigation was dropped after 20 minutes'

Lisa Bjurwald is a seasoned journalist who has researched online hate and extreme-right propaganda for years, but she also has first-hand knowledge. In May 2017 a woman was handed a suspended sentence and a 2,000-kronor fine ($250) for e-mailing anti-immigration death threats to Bjurwald and a colleague.

"It came as a relief and felt right since she had willingly admitted to the crime. The best part is that the verdict could lead to other people threatening journalists actually being convicted – which would reduce the sense of vulnerability in the industry," she says.

The verdict came just days after a well-known Swedish actor was found guilty of threatening a police officer, a judge and three journalists at tabloid Aftonbladet, after e-mailing and tweeting among other things that he would jump on one journalist's head "until it is crushed and the brain matter spurts out", according to court documents seen by The Local.

The two verdicts were hailed as something of a watershed moment. But rulings like these are rare. Many of the people targeted express frustration over failing to have their voice heard by authorities, and many do not even try. Only 19 percent of the latest threats against politicians in the Brå survey were ever reported to the police, with the majority saying they just didn't think anything would have come of it. 

"I think I've reported it to the police three times. Twice the investigation was dropped and once, when I actually got punched by a guy in the stomach, it was dropped after 20 minutes. So when I called the day after and gave them his name and address, because he had previously threatened people in a store and they knew who he was, I was told they had closed it. Then it was apparently reopened later at the request of the police's democracy and hate crime unit and I haven't heard anything since. This was in November so there's probably some weird pending investigation somewhere," says Karlsson.


Lisa Bjurwald. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Sweden's government has instructed police to prioritize crimes against free speech, says Bah Kuhnke. The measures include strengthening the support system for victims of threats and harassment, mapping the scope of the problem and looking into tougher punishments for violence against elected officials.

"It is a major problem," Marléne Lund Kopparklint, a Moderate Party councillor and deputy mayor of Karlstad Council in central Sweden, tells The Local.

"The tougher climate against us elected representatives becomes a vicious circle if we are forced to make ourselves more unavailable because of threats and hate. Then there's a wider gap between the voters and us, which in turn can lead to frustration and that leads to even more threats and hate crime."

"My family and I have received both threats and hate several times since I became a councillor in 2012. Subtle, veiled or direct, with varying degrees of crudeness. I have reported it to the police five times, even if it did not lead to anything."

Sweden's police chief Dan Eliasson promised in 2015 to clamp down on threats against journalists and many agree there have been some signs that incidents are being taken more seriously. Others say authorities have not yet grasped the extent of the problem.

"Of course we appreciate if the government wants to focus on working against threats and harassment against journalists. The action plan itself did not contain much newsworthy, but a plan in itself is of course valuable in these times. Personally I am most concerned about the knowledge gaps still shown by certain parts of the law enforcement authorities when it comes to our situation," says Jonas Nordling, head of SJF.

'I can't let it get to me'

But using the police and courts to crack down on threats is not easy since much of the abuse does not constitute actual threats in the eyes of the law. It is indirect – "I hope you die" rather than "I'm going to kill you" – but it is plentiful and it is constant. 

"It's difficult to legislate against things that are just hateful, and it is also a very dangerous road to go down to legislate what people are allowed to think," says Karlsson. "I think we have to talk about this and talk about how it affects democracy and public discourse so that more and more people understand what a huge influence this has on our democracy."

"I would say it's a major democratic problem if one condition for having a political role is to put up with hearing that you're an idiot who ought to go hang yourself. Of course it's a problem when politicians, or anyone really, are exposed to violence – but the profound democratic problem is that it scares people away from politics. This means we get worse politicians and politicians who also have to become more jaded and less empathetic, which also does not make for particularly good political decisions," he adds.

Many describe fear, concern or even just getting worn out by the sheer quantity of hateful comments, which leaves the victims with two choices: get out, or toughen up even more.

"As someone who has worked as a journalist for over 20 years, have had high-profile jobs where you're very visible and work professionally to train journalists in how to handle hate and threats, I am of course more hardened – I have, for better or worse, a higher tolerance threshold than those not previously affected and who perhaps even are new on the job," says Bjurwald.

"Unfortunately many journalists are so affected that they choose to stop covering certain topics, which is an extremely dangerous consequence; that these 'trolls' succeed in curtailing press freedom by way of threats."

Recommended reading:


Many described getting worn out by a flood of hatred online. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

"There's a harsh tone in social media and in newspapers' comments fields and there's been a normalization there. You scroll through comments without doing anything about them, even though they may be threatening," says Kopparklint, insisting she will not back down.

“Of course I get sad if the attacks are personal and of course I've felt unsafe when there have been real threats. At the same time I can't let it get to me, because then 'evil' wins and our entire political system risks breaking down. The risk is great then that we get people who don't want to get involved and that increases the risk of corruption. You have to feel safe and secure if you accept an elected position. There's probably no one who thinks it is worth it in the long run, if you or in the worst case your family members get threatened just because you are involved in politics.”

Karlsson on the other hand has announced he is standing down as Malmö deputy mayor after next year's election. He tells The Local he made a figurative list of pros and cons in order to decide whether or not to stay on.

"The most important reason was that I had succeeded in doing what I got elected to do, and then I may as well make room for someone new who has their own issues they are passionate about. But an obvious negative thing was the hate and those few threats you get – that was clearly in the 'cons' column," he says.

Recommended reading:


Marléne Lund Kopparklint. Photo: Private

'Being that hateful is an anti-democratic act'

Some have already begun to fight back against online hate at a grassroots level, with one of the most high-profile examples being the Facebook group #JagÄrHär (I am Here), where members actively take part in online debates to promote reasoned discussion instead of trolling, hate and fake news.

"We're noticing a big change, especially in the established media's comments fields. The more the masses dare to speak up, the less space the voices of hatred get," Magnus Dennert, one of the administrators of the group and the partner of Gothenburg-based journalist Mina Dennert who started the group, told The Local earlier this year.

But if previous indications that threats and hatred increase in an election year hold true, then it is likely that the debate is only going to heat up in the run-up to the country's election in September 2018.

The culture minister returns to the warning that if voices are scared away, more extreme voices might take their place, making it easier for so-called fake news and alternative facts to take over the public sphere.

"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," Bah Kuhnke tells The Local.

"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."

"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."

"There is a theory that the more you talk about this the more you encourage the haters," adds Karlsson.

"But I think we have already passed that stage where it is stoppable and instead we have to be very open about how allowing yourself to be that hateful is an anti-democratic act. I don't know. I don't have any answers for you that can be implemented immediately. But more openness, I would say."

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.

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