BY Cilla Benkö

Sweden: journalists suffering hostility and hate

The election taking place on 9 September in Sweden has brought with it heated debate and intensified the public conversations taking place between citizens, politicians and journalists - both on and offline.

At Swedish Radio our aim is to bring forward a wide variety of voices and opinions and to be present where people meet: in our studios but also, very importantly, out in the communities where the debate is taking place. With that ambition comes a greater concern for the security of our journalists, particularly in the run up to the elections.

Despite a long history of legislative safeguards for freedom of the press, Swedish journalists are continuously experiencing threats – via email, social media and physically. Six out of 10 Swedish journalists say that they have been subjected to harassment, intimidation or violence in connection with doing their jobs. In August a member of the neo-Nazi party, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR), was arrested in the city of Sundsvall for allegedly plotting to kill two journalists. On his computer, police found folders with personal information about the journalists, including pictures of their homes.

During my tenure at Swedish Radio I’ve been forced to radically increase the safety budget, money that I would much rather have spent on making quality journalism. But due to the current situation in Sweden, with increased polarisation and an escalated hostile tone towards journalists, especially online, there is no alternative but to comply. For me it is of the utmost importance that reporters all over the country feel safe while doing their job, day or night.

A safe working environment brings the very best reporting. Swedish Radio works proactively by providing extensive staff training in safety and violence prevention and threat management. If an incident occurs despite these measures, our employees know that the crimes perpetrated against them will be taken seriously and pursued as an attack on democracy, which is in fact what such crimes are about.

We are keen to promote even better cooperation within our industry on safety training, safety and security procedures and to exchange experiences with others. Swedish Radio invites journalists from other media organisations to its training courses; has put together a social media handbook for journalists accessible to anyone who needs it; and has arranged a series of seminars on the toxic climate of online discussions.

We are also keen to discuss how law enforcement authorities can prioritise crimes where journalists are targeted – with faster investigations and harsher sentencing, particularly when attacks occur online where the vast majority and harassment is happening.

However it is important to do this without restricting free speech. Vital questions include: What can be done legislatively? Do we want anything to be done legislatively? These are questions without easy answers. Still, something needs to be done to promote ethical online behaviour.

The Swedish government has previously announced that it wants to invest in journalists’ safety and security for the sake of democracy. This is a laudable ambition. The Fojo Media Institute, working on behalf of the government, launched a new help desk on 3 September to advise journalists on how to handle and prevent threats, harassment and hate. This is a very good initiative indeed.

The police must be given better tools to act forcefully in relation to crimes against journalists, for example updating harassment legislation so that it can also be applied to hate mail. 

Otherwise we risk a situation where fear and self-censorship causes journalists to avoid publishing anything that might lead to intimidation, hate crimes and violence. We must not allow such a climate to prevail. Swedish journalists must feel secure in knowing that these crimes will be taken seriously by their employers, the police and legislators.

Cilla Benkö is the CEO and Director General of Swedish Radio and an INSI board member.