Swedish MPs to vote on changed 'free press' rights in constitution

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Swedish MPs to vote on changed 'free press' rights in constitution
The Liberal party leader Johan Pehrson (back) voted against the proposal along with his party in the spring, but has now shifted position. Photo: Stefan Jerrevång/TT

Sweden's parliament is set to vote on Wednesday on a new law on "foreign espionage" which will limit the constitutional rights to press freedom and free expression for media organisations and individuals which publish "secret information".


To change the constitution in Sweden, parliament must vote through the proposal twice, once on either side of a general election. As parliament already passed the controversial law for the first time back in the spring, Wednesday's vote, if it (as seems likely) is in favour, will mean the changes take place. 

Under the new law, 'gross foreign espionage' comes with a potential jail sentence of up to eight years, with a lesser punishment of four years in prison for the less serious crimes of 'foreign espionage'.

Under the new proposal, publications which reveal secret data which impacts on Sweden's relationships with international organisations such as the UN, or Nato, or those with another country, and so aids a foreign power, could be viewed as guilty of foreign espionage.

The law covers anyone who "aids a foreign power or equivalent through conveying, leaving or disclosing a piece of secret information", which has come about within the framework of Sweden's cooperation with another country, international organisation, or organisation of which we are a member".


Ulrika Hyllert, chair of the Swedish Union of Journalists, told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that the new law risks criminalising Swedish journalists and newspapers who report information provided by international whistleblowers. 

"Journalism is dependent on there being brave people who dare to speak out about serious issues, but we see a big risk here that they will no longer dare to talk to journalists because it is unclear what you can go forward with and what source protection will look like." 

She said that under the new law a foreign military commander might be able to decide which information is classed as "secret", and as a result criminalise any Swedish journalist who reports on such information. 

"It will then be illegal to spread the information further even if you are a journalist, which will mean that irregular conduct such as, for example, sexual assault, will not reach the general public."


But Sweden's justice minister, Gunnar Strömmer, told SVT that the change was necessary to "fill in the gaps" in Sweden's anti-espionage legislation and bring it in line with that found in similar countries. 

"The aim is to have the same protection as other Nordic countries, but it is clear that any journalistic investigations or whistleblowing will not be affected by the law," he said, pointing to an "escape clause" in the legislation that means that publications and journalists should not be punished for making "defensible" decisions to publish secret information. 

The Left Party and the Liberal Party voted against the law in the spring, and the Left PArty and the Green Party on Tuesday called for the vote on the law to be postponed by a year. The Liberal Party has now changed its position with its MPs now likely to vote in favour. 

"We think that we would have liked to see "defensible" clause aspect made clearer, but now we are faced with the proposed law as it is, and we have nothing else to vote for, and in this difficult situation we are supporting the overwhelming majority in the parliament which back this proposal," the Liberals' leader, Johan Pehrson, told TT newswire. 

In a joint article in DN, the press freedom group Svenska Pen, Swedish Union of Journalists, the heads of SVT and SR, and representatives for other publications, said that the new law "risked having an inhibitory effect on whistleblowers and other important sources for investigative journalists". 

They named the decision of the Swedish UN diplomat Anders Kompass to blow the whistle on UN troops raping children in the Central African Republic, the SVT investigation on UN troops torturing prisoners in the Congo, and SR's story revealing the Swedish Defence Research Agency's plans to help Saudi Arabia build a weapons factory as stories which might not have been possible if the new law had been in place. 

"With a change in the constitution like this, even Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be able to dictate with the Swedish media can publish or not publish," they wrote. 




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