BY Cilla Benkö

Free speech not a given on World Press Freedom Day

 In Sweden, we have a long tradition of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but it can never be taken for granted.

At a time when journalists are being intimidated into self-censorship and states are controlling media freedom, we have a great responsibility to stand up for free speech – today and on all other days.

What happens to a society when its voices fall silent? This is a question that concerns us all.

The number of threats and amount of hate speech directed towards individual journalists has increased significantly in recent years. At Swedish Radio, we receive as many as 10 threats or incidents of hate speech every day via email, phone and on social media.

While the threats and hate are extremely unpleasant on a personal level, they also have serious consequences for democracy. We are seeing from our experience that they can lead to journalists choosing not to cover certain subjects and areas – though not all of those who receive threats and not always consciously. But we are seeing that it does happen – and that is very serious. What this means in practice is that we are all deprived of in-depth and investigative journalism and impartial reporting that sheds light on injustices and uncomfortable truths in society.

According to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, which was released on 18 April and which annually measures the situation for press freedom around the world, a new climate of fear has emerged. The most obvious trend in this year’s survey indicates that the hostility, violence and hatred directed at journalists by political leaders has led to general increases in self-censorship among journalists and the media. This is a very worrying development. When elected politicians start vilifying journalists, it makes it legitimate for others to do the same.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are under enormous pressure – in in Europe and in Sweden as well as in the world at large.  Globally, we are seeing that the list of countries where it is becoming impossible for journalists to work is getting longer and longer. Countries where basic democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not guaranteed, and where journalists and editors just trying to do their job are being imprisoned, harassed and murdered, are becoming more numerous.

Last year, 99 journalists were killed around the world, according to UNESCO. This is a very chilling figure. When journalists fall silent, crucial context and perspective are taken out of the picture and propaganda is given free rein. The winners are those who want to shape the way in which the world is viewed and therefore see journalists as a threat that needs to be silenced.

Even in Europe, free speech is being challenged. Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had exposed many instances of misconduct by politicians in Malta, was found dead in her car in 2017. Viktoria Marinova, who had reported on corruption and the misappropriation of EU funds, was brutally murdered in Bulgaria in 2018. That same year, Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak, who had investigated corruption linked to the Italian mafia, was found murdered with his partner in their home in Bratislava.

In April, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén spoke in the European Parliament, emphasising the importance of a strong, independent media and an equally strong and independent judicial system. He also urged the EU member states to remember the fundamental common values on which the EU was once built: “The EU can only be a strong voice for democracy in the world if all of us member states stand up for the principles of democracy at home," he said.

It is good that the Swedish government is taking the matter seriously and is pursuing it in Europe where we have seen increasingly authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary, which would like to see a media loyal to those in power. Laws that restrict media freedom have been passed, the editorial task has been recast, media executives and journalists have been fired and replaced, and newspapers have been bought up and closed down.

Closer to home, we are also seeing a worrying development. In Denmark, a political deal has resulted in the public service broadcaster DR having its budget cut by 20 percent and being given a narrowed down, slimmed down remit that notes DR’s "roots in Christianity" and its mission to "spread Danish culture and Danish cultural heritage”. This change to DR's task was applauded recently by commercial broadcaster Bauer Radio's European CEO Paul Keenan at the international conference Radiodays in Switzerland. This was a surprising and disappointing stand to take, in my view.

High-level representatives of the media like Swedish Radio need to stand together – whether we represent public service broadcasters or commercial media. Attacking public service broadcasting is just the first step for politicians who want to control the media; the next step is the country’s commercial media companies. We must therefore stick together. Because what will happen if we don’t?

The very tangible outcome will be fewer voices, fewer perspectives and less critical, investigative and independent journalism. Such a development is not in the interests of anyone.

So what can be done to improve the situation for free speech?

Internationally, it is important that those in power continue to stress how crucial media freedom and freedom of expression are for a functioning democracy. The uncomfortable questions must be asked during high-level visits. Reporters Without Borders has proposed that the EU should appoint a special commissioner with responsibility for freedom of the press and independent journalism. It’s a good suggestion.

A proposal to strengthen protections for threatened journalists is now being worked on in the Committee on the Constitution (KU) in Sweden, which is also a welcome development.

As Director General and CEO of Swedish Radio, I have chosen to invest significant resources in security. Almost all employees who work in news reporting have received security training. We report all threats received to the police and encourage all our employees to report harassment such as repeated hate speech. This is important – not least because it shows that we don’t bow down to such threats and harassment.  A further important element is legislation. The police need new tools to be able to act forcefully and prosecute those who threaten journalists.

We must safeguard free speech at all times and in all situations. That way, we will also safeguard democratic society.

Cilla Benkö is the CEO and Director General of Swedish Radio and an INSI board member. This article was previously published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Image by AFP