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Sweden’s parliament votes through controversial espionage law

Sweden's parliament on Wednesday voted through a new law on foreign espionage that controversially alters passages in the constitution on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

Sweden's parliament votes through controversial espionage law
Demonstrators against the new spy law outside the parliament on Wednesday. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The law passed with a huge majority, with 270 MPs voting in favour and only 37 against. 

Before the vote, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson defended the changes as necessary to improve Sweden’s ability to cooperate internationally, stressing that it “states explicitly in the law that it is not about constraining the work of journalists, but about an express will to hurt these interests. 

He said that the need for the law had become increasingly apparent. 

“It has been pointed out to us for a long time that there is a gap in Swedish law which makes it more difficult for us to work together with other countries in international operations,” he said. “It is therefore reasonable, if Sweden wants to be a party of those operations that we have the same laws as other Nordic countries have, and which take a significant account of journalistic work and public expression.” 

During the debate, the Left Party MP Jessica Wetterling, said that the new law was “opening Pandora’s box”, by putting new restrictions on the freedom of expression and of the press. 

“This is going to lead to enormous uncertainty over what you can publish and people are going end up self-censoring and not dare to be whistleblowers,” she said. 

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The new law will create new crimes of “foreign espionage”, “aggravated foreign espionage”, and “disclosing secret information in international cooperation”. 

These offences will require changes to Sweden’s press and freedom of expression legislation, putting new limits on the these constitutional rights. 

This means that it could be a punishable crime in some situations to disclose secret information which comes about as a result of Sweden’s international cooperation which could harm Sweden’s relationships to another country or international organisation. 

Under Sweden’s current espionage legislation, secret information obtained, disclosed or passed to another state must directly harm Sweden’s security. Under the new law, it is enough for it to damage relations with another country. 

As the new law required changes to Sweden’s constitution, it needs to be voted on twice, with a general election in between the two votes. 

Wednesday’s vote was the second, following an earlier vote this spring, meaning the changes are now part of Swedish law. 

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  1. So now if government decides to give Ardogan what he wants no one can raise the flag because it will “damage” our relationship with a dictator?

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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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