Press freedom is still far from being guaranteed in a country widely seen as a model of respect for this freedom. This is the conclusion of a report entitled “Swedish Public Service Media Under Fire” that has just been published by RSF Sweden.
In Sweden, as in other European countries, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the public media’s importance and revived the debate about their independence. This is seen in the number of viewers for the public TV channels SVT1 and SVT2, which rose by 36% and 14% in April, compared with the same month last year, demonstrating the trust that Swedes place in their public service media.
But the public media are under political pressure, especially from Sweden’s right-wing ruling coalition, which is calling for stricter control, budget cuts and a narrower mission. During the (liberal-conservative) Moderate Party’s conference in 2017, some members even called for the complete elimination of the three state-funded broadcast entities – the TV broadcaster SVT, the radio broadcaster SR and the production company UR. Linus Bylund, a politician who is a member of the far-right Sweden Democrats party and who is also a member of the public broadcasters’ ownership foundation, suggested in February that public service journalists should be held personally accountable for the content they produce and should be subject to salary deductions or even dismissal if found lacking in impartiality.
Cases of direct political meddling in the public media are even more disturbing. The line was crossed in February when a parliamentarian submitted a request to the Parliamentary Committee on Culture for the heads of public media to be summoned to defend content that his party considered lacking in impartiality and objectivity. The request was finally rejected.
At the same time, online harassment and attacks on journalists have increased as the public debate has become more polarized. Erika Bjerström, a former US-based correspondent and current climate correspondent at SVT, is one of those journalists who have discovered how important their choice of words or expressions can be. After a critical comment about a speech by Greta Thunberg in Madrid in December 2019, she was subjected to a wave of virulent attacks on social media that included accusations of being neo-liberal and affiliated with the oil industry. She was eventually forced to close her Twitter account.
“Observing the situation in Europe, we see that the public media are threatened by a lack of funding and growing political control,” RSF Sweden president Erik Halkjaer said. “We must safeguard free and independent journalism in Sweden. This is why we must protect their independence by enshrining it in the Swedish constitution.” Constitutional protection for the public media and their editorial independence are the subject of a parliamentary commission appointed by the justice minister in 2018.
The RSF report also recommends maintaining the current of system of editorial independence and responsibility, and calls on the authorities to systematically investigate all threats and attacks against journalists and to prosecute those responsible.
“Sweden, which is ranked 4th in RSF's World Press Freedom Index, is supposed to be a model in Europe,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “Guaranteeing the independence of the Swedish public media is a way to set an example for many other countries such as Poland, which – on the eve of its next presidential election – is using its public television as an election campaign tool."
Sweden is ranked 4th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.