As the world’s first country to have adopted a press freedom law, Sweden traditionally holds media independence in great respect. Nevertheless, journalists continue to be targeted by threats, online hate campaigns and abusive lawsuits.
Five media companies own a large majority (Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet, TV4, etc.) of all newspapers in the country. The concentration of the audiovisual sector is even higher, with the market dominated by four television and three radio groups (this includes publicly owned media). At the same time, nearly one in five municipalities lacks the presence of local media which has led to new investments from both the public sphere and large private groups.
In 1766, Sweden became the world’s first country to adopt a press freedom law. Today, the media are independent of political power and hold politicians accountable in the public interest. Media ownership is separated from politicians in executive and legislative functions. No active politician can sit on the board of directors of public media outlets or media regulators. There is a consensus on the need for public media, even though there is an ongoing debate on their content and funding. In the past, politicians have verbally attacked public newspapers or have openly proposed ideas to influence their editorial content.
Public media are regulated by an independent broadcasting commission which is part of the Swedish Press and Broadcasting Authority, while an independent media ombudsman accepts complaints on ethical issues. Journalistic sources are legally protected and the principle of access to public information is a cornerstone of Swedish democracy. However, amendments to the Constitution – aimed at protecting information in the international relations sphere – have raised concerns about possible sanctions against whistleblowers and journalists who reveal wrongdoings.
Although it is relatively easy to launch new media outlets, competition is fierce due to the high concentration of media ownership. Local news coverage often depends on the investment and interest of the large media companies. Public subsidies are fairly easy to obtain without discriminating against newspapers with extremist political views – although this has however been criticised. In general, journalists in Sweden work freely and independently without any major constraints or risks of being bribed or fired because of their opinions.
Online threats and harassment are commonplace for Swedish journalists. Thus, almost one in five reporters say they have been a victim of such attacks in the past three years, and 40% of journalists who have received threats claim that these have deterred them from covering certain topics. Although the #MeToo movement has shed light on gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse in the media sector, much remains to be done to stem this violence. Employees of the public media have also signalled racist attitudes and race-based discrimination in this sector.
The risk of physical attacks against journalists in Sweden is low, although some media outlets have received bomb threats and reporters have suffered physical attacks hampering their work. Several journalists have recently been arbitrarily arrested while covering climate-related protests. Exiled journalists in Sweden face threats from the regimes of their home countries. Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak has been jailed in Eritrea for more than 20 years, while publisher Gui Minhai has been behind bars in China for more than seven years.