I watched 'The Post' the other day. The movie tells the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers. This classified study documenting the lies of several US administrations about the Vietnam war had been leaked to the press by Right Livelihood Award Laureate Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.
The Nixon administration got an injunction against the New York Times to stop publication of the papers. But in its landmark 'New York Times Co. v. United States' decision, the US Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the press, guaranteed by the First Amendment. Since then, no US administration has tried to get an injunction against a publisher. The closest was Donald Trump threatening last month to take legal steps against the publication of 'Fire and Fury', the book revealing the chaos prevailing in the Trump White House and election campaign.
The press is more acutely threatened in Sweden than in the US
'The Post' evokes one of the greatest challenges to press freedom in US history and has widely been interpreted as a comment about the situation of the press under President Trump. Director Steven Spielberg says that “this wasn't something that could wait three years or two years – this was a story I felt we needed to tell today”.
Here in Sweden, the movie is even more chillingy topical. Twenty years after the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutional guarantee of press freedom in the above-mentioned decision, in 1991, Sweden introduced a new fundamental law, Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen (The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression) to complement its Tryckfrihetsförordning (The Freedom of the Press Act) from 1765, which Swedish politician and diplomats like to brag about as the oldest law for press freedom in the world.
But in June 2016, the Swedish government commissioned an official investigation to analyse whether “information about Swedish international cooperation for peace and security” needed “improved protection”. The choice of investigator, a former chairman of a military intelligence court, made it clear which answer the government was expecting… and he delivered:
Published in September 2017, the investigation proposes to weaken both Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen and the Tryckfrihetsförordning and to introduce a new criminal offence called “utlandsspioneri” (foreign espionage), defined as acquiring or disclosing classfied information that could damage Sweden's relationship with another country or international organisation. With this vague kind of language, a reporter investigating Swedish wrongdoing in the context of say UN operations or a source disclosing information about flaws in Swedish development or secuirty policies would risk four years' imprisonment, if the government and its investigator get their way.
Daniel Ellsberg outside the federal courthouse in Boston on June 28th, 1971. Photo: AP
Shoot the messenger
So a picture like the one above – Daniel Ellsberg having to turn himself in to court for being a source to journalists – might become commonplace in Sweden in the future. Both he and another Right Livelihood Award Laureate, Edward Snowden, have witnessed the US Espionage Act being used to prosecute courageous acts of whistleblowing which have nothing to do with espionage. Their cases, and many others from a variety of countries, show that these kinds of legal powers are, more often than not, misused by governments to suppress information that is not a threat to national security, but embarrassing to those in power, and thus vital for the public to know.
To shoot the messenger if the message is embarrassing is not worthy of any democracy. And least so, one might think, of Sweden, a country that prides itself on its high standards of transparency and civil rights. But upon closer look, these standards rest on very thin ice in our country. Nixon's blatant abuse of state power in the case of the Pentagon Papers was stopped just a few days later by the US Supreme Court. But Sweden has no Supreme Court and no codified set of civil rights that new laws would have to comply with. It is therefore even more important in our country for the public and the press to scrutinise the implications of new proposed laws on our freedom and basic rights.
Unfortunately, in this case, this has hardly happened. The protest, so far, has been sporadic at best. And there might be a risk that the government will try to rush the decisions through parliament before the next election in September. The hope now is for the Swedish media and civil society to wake up and make sure that, rather than sneaking through in silence, this assault on our civil liberties and press freedom will be and defeated during the election campaign.
Ole von Uexkull. Photo: Right Livelihood Award Foundation