Full speech by Ambassador Staffan Herrström

Introductory remarks by Ambassador Staffan Herrström at the Press Freedom day in Bangkok 3 May 2018.

Almost 15 months ago I was standing here, making introductory remarks to a similar event. A celebration of the world’s first Freedom of the Press Act covering Sweden and Finland – enacted just over 250 years ago.

It meant four fundamental changes:

-State censorship was abolished.
-The principle of public access to official documents was created. Transparency became the rule, secrecy the exception.
-A major shift was made: to permitting everything that wasn’t explicitly prohibited.
-And freedom of the press was guaranteed in a fundamental law, in our constitution.

At that event, 15 months ago, I shared two major lessons learned:

1.Freedom of expression has been a decisive factor in developing innovative creative societies, like our two countries. New ideas have been welcomed, criticized, adapted, adopted, revisited, revised. Not top-down but bottom up. Without free media it would never have happened. Never ever. That innovative capacity has been a major driver behind the rapid development of what you could call – with a language borrowed from here: “Sweden 4.0”.

2.The principle of public access to official documents has been a major tool in the efforts to eradicate corruption, obviously one of the major obstacles for economic development all over the world.

In both these areas – innovation and lack of corruption – Sweden comes out very high in international rankings. As we do in press freedom - just recently ranked nr 2 in the world according to Reporters without borders.  

We have a strong code of ethics among journalists and media actors and a broadly accepted self-regulatory system, which works well in asking for accountability and justice without government interference.  

However, the media landscape in Sweden is changing as it is in other parts of the world. We see a shift towards new media forms and arenas for sharing views and opinions, and for media to operate within. Social media platforms have opened doors for wider participation in public debate and the sharing of views and opinions, political as well as non-political. This is in general a positive development. But it also poses new challenges to the Swedish society in the form of false news and a lack of source criticism, which are phenomena that are apparent threats to a healthy public debate. 

Sweden will hold general elections later this year. Media, information and communication are fundamental components in any election campaign. 

The recent social media developments come with new challenges for anyone going to the polls and trying to make up his/her mind on what to vote for. How is it possible to distinguish false news, defamation campaigns and harmful propaganda from proper facts and real stories? Who can be trusted? Who is telling the truth?  

Yes, it is a balancing act, but our firm belief is that freedom of expression, media freedom, qualified journalism and adherence to proper ethics are the strongest weapons in this battle. We believe in people’s ability to take proper decisions if they have a chance to get access to all sides and can challenge ideas and make up their own minds. Strong independent journalists with proper training and allowing for the diversification of media outlets are crucially important to make sure that all voices and perspectives can be heard.  

I spent 9 years of my professional life working with the aftermath of the liberalizing wave over Central and Eastern Europe – and indeed most of the world – that followed the fall of the Berlin wall 1989.  

I met people, individuals, silenced and oppressed for so many years, now liberated and empowered. Today the tide has turned. Not in all aspects and everywhere. But the space is shrinking in several ways.  

I think a sentence in the Executive Summary of the Global report which will be presented today (and where my country has been providing support) is telling:  

“Across the world, journalism is under fire”.  

We see it in various forms and motivated with various arguments. It might be anything from verbal abuse, over sweeping legal restrictions using broad, unspecified language that could potentially prohibit almost everything to enforced disappearances and killings.  

Just a couple of days ago we saw ten journalists killed in Afghanistan. Just horrifying. 

Sometimes you might hear very simplistic reasoning motivating authoritarian behavior. Like. “We allow freedom of expression – except of course for people who are breaking the law.” Well, tha problem is: what does the law or the decree look like? 

Sometimes, on the other hand, you might see real challenges, digital or non-digital, addressed but in a way that is totally disproportionate such as wide criminalization and indiscriminatory surveillance to restrict the freedoms as such, including the right to privacy, and could be used against both serious offenses and legitimate criticism.  

I say digital or non-digital to underline a fundamental principle that needs to be repeated: The same rights should apply on-line as off-line, which is a globally recognized principle by the Human Rights Council. 

To criticize people in power is as legitimate on facebook as it is in a town hall. And harassing people with racist hate speech is as appalling when it appears in a public square as when it is communicated on twitter.  

Sweden led the establishment of this international norm at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012, and is still leading the work with the resolution on human rights and the internet, supported by a cross-regional core group. The resolution has been presented three times and we are very happy and proud that it has been adopted by consensus every time.  

I started these introductory remarks with some references to our history of press freedom and some very practical arguments for freedom of expression. Its effects on innovation and freedom of corruption.  

But let me just end with emphasizing what we here might all agree upon but what many strongmen and authoritarian rulers in the world beyond us would object to. There are some rights and some wrongs here – and they are crucially important when developing humane, decent societies.  

Individual human beings have rights. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are among those fundamental rights, clearly expressed in the UN Universal Declaration now celebrating its 70th Anniversary.  

These are not Swedish values, these are not European values, these are not western values. They are global norms formulated after one of the darkest periods ever experienced by mankind.  

It is not only right to promote those norms. It is our moral duty.  

Yes, journalism is under fire. Yes, the space is shrinking. Yes, we are living in challenging times. But there is no natural law making that happen. It happens because there are power structures and oppressive rulers making it happen. And the tide can turn again, needs to turn again.  

It is incumbent upon us all to make sure it happens.

Last updated 04 May 2018, 10.21 AM