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Swedish parliament gives green light to new pandemic law

Sweden's parliament on Friday voted in favour of a new pandemic law giving the government power to close certain businesses or limit visitor numbers and opening hours, which will come into effect from January 10th.

Swedish parliament gives green light to new pandemic law
Sweden's Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren speaks at the parliamentary debate. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Parliament was recalled from its Christmas recess for the first time since 2005 in order to debate the coronavirus bill.

“We know that Covid-19 is in the society and will be here for a long time to come. More precise measures are needed, that are possible to maintain over time,” Health Minister Lena Hallengren said. A similar law in place over the summer expired without being used or extended, and the government has said this was too blunt a tool to be used effectively. 

The new pandemic law gives the government the possibility to shut down businesses, but Hallengren stressed that this is not the main goal of the legislation.

It also introduces extra measures, such as the possibility to introduce limits on visitor numbers or opening times in order to reduce the risk of infection spread.

These measures could be applied to places including public transport, shops and shopping centres, restaurants and bars, cinemas and theatres, museums and other cultural or sport venues. Although the government will not be able to set a limit on the number of people who can meet privately, the measures could be extended to limits at public parks, beaches, and premises such as the rooms available in many apartment blocks for private events and parties (festlokaler or 'party rooms').

The bill was slightly adapted after criticism from the opposition that it lacked clarity on compensation available to businesses affected by these limits. It now states that the government must look into the financial consequences on affected businesses, but future policies on compensation will be passed separately.

“Of course if you have shutdowns, you need to make sure to provide support. But we can not say exactly how much or what that support should look like,” Hallengren said.

Asked by public broadcaster SVT if the law would be used soon, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said: “It will be used in the near future.” 

Any measures introduced using the new law would be legally enforced. This means people could face sanctions and fines for violating them, which is not the case with the Public Health Agency's recommendations, the main tool used thus far as part of Sweden's non-coercive coronavirus strategy.

So far, Sweden has had to adapt other laws to make these kinds of changes, for example by banning the sale of alcohol after 10pm, then 8pm, and reducing the number of people allowed per group in restaurants to eight, then four. But this is a more time-consuming process, requiring each change to be put to parliament. Under the new law, it will be possible for the government to make these changes much faster.

The measures permitted still have limits however.

The government would not be able to introduce measures as restrictive as those in most countries, such as a curfew or limit on individuals leaving their homes.

The pandemic law will come into force on Sunday January 10th and applies until September 30th 2021.

If you have questions about the new pandemic law you would like us to try to answer, please email [email protected].

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CRIME

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

Sweden's new law against foreign espionage will alter passages in Sweden's constitutional laws governing freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The Local spoke to Mikael Ruotsi, senior lecturer in constitutional law at Uppsala University, about the new law.

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

What was wrong with the previous law?

Sweden’s previous espionage law only covered Sweden’s national security, while the new law expands this to cover information that could harm Sweden’s relations with other countries or international organisations. Ruotsi said that Sweden’s last government, together with the then opposition parties, had felt that Sweden’s current spy law was too narrowly drawn, and also was less extensive than those of many of the country’s international partners.  

“What it aims to do is to encompass situations, for instance, where Swedish Armed Forces are working within UN peacekeeping operations, and classified information is divulged, which might harm the peacekeeping operation or other participating countries’ national interests, but not Swedish national interest,” Ruotsi said.

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Under Sweden’s existing laws, leaking information in this sort of scenario might be considered “divulging classified information”, but that he said is only a relatively minor crime.

Under the new law, it will become a more serious offence, with a maximum prison sentence of eight years for “aggravated foreign espionage” and four years for “foreign espionage”. 

Ruotsi said that the law had been in preparation for six to seven years and had nothing to do with either Sweden joining Nato, or with the decision by the Swedish diplomat Anders Kompass to blow the whistle in 2014 about a report into child sexual abuse carried out by French Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic between December 2013 and July 2014. 

Kompass was then field operations director at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and is now ambassador to Guatemala. 

“We can be fairly sure that this has nothing to do with the Anders Kompass situation,” Ruotsi said “I think it’s more of a reaction to Sweden being more involved at the international level in UN missions and things like that, and that there is increased international involvement with the Swedish Armed Forces.” 

How does the new law change the constitution?

Rather than a single written constitution, Sweden has four constitutional laws. The new law changes two of them: the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, so that sharing secret information that damages Sweden’s relations with another country is illegal.

In order to criminalise an act of speech – for example, divulging national security secrets – that change in the criminal law needs to be mirrored in a change to the constitutional Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. 

Similarly, in order to criminalise the disclosure of information obtained through espionage, changes need to be made to the constitutional Freedom of the Press Act. 

“They are basically just mirrors of the criminal code, so if you want to make something criminal to say in a newspaper or on TV, then you have to criminalise it both in the criminal act and in those two constitutional media laws,” Ruotsi explains.

Is it concerning that the constitution is being changed?

Ruotsi said that because changing the Swedish constitutional laws requires a vote either side of an election, the four constitutional laws tend to undergo significant changes after every general election.

“They have a specific, very detailed nature, and they need to be kept up to date,” he said of Sweden’s constitutional law. “So there are changes every four years, but it’s not very common that you introduce a new crime or a new criminal sanction.”

Are there any good reasons to be worried about the new law?

One concern around the changes to the constitution is that they may make sources less willing to speak to the media or to pass information about critical matters on to journalists.

While the preparatory work for the new law does include provisions for the sharing of information that is of value to the public, for sources with sensitive information about Sweden’s dealings with other countries, the fear of what Ruotsi calls “criminal sanctions” may compromise their willingness to speak with journalists and with the press.

The law includes what Ruotsi calls a “public interest override” that states that publications or leaks that are “defensible” should not be prosecuted under the law. 

Even though he concedes this is “phrased a lot more vaguely” in the Swedish law than it could be, he argues that the preparatory work for the law makes it clear that this is intended to protect whistleblowers and investigative journalism.

“If you look at the preparatory works, it’s quite clear that they mean to exclude from criminal responsibility things that are of value to the public and in particular the media,” he said. 

“It’s somewhat unclear how this new law will be interpreted, but it’s obvious that the purpose of the law is not to criminalise the Anders Kompass situation, it’s to make sure that if we have Swedish military personnel or other civil servants working abroad on international missions and they turn out to be spies, that we can sanction them. That’s the main idea.”

By Shandana Mufti and Richard Orange

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