”Sweden – stop bragging!”
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Swedish public records law. It will be recognized around the world, and Swedish politicians will bask in its glory. But the question is: What does Sweden really have to brag about?
In recent years, the transparency of our society has shrunk to a shameful level, Nils Resare writes in an Op-Ed.
Sweden is the world’s most open society. That’s what it usually sounds like in ceremonial speeches back home, and that’s what it has often sounded like in the many events that have been arranged this year to celebrate the cornerstones of Swedish democracy—the principle of public access to official records, or open records as it’s also called. But the question arises of how open this “most open society” really is, and if the world’s oldest open records law and its 250th anniversary are even worth celebrating.
In recent years, on a number of occasions, the law has failed to help those of us working with public records. Sweden has behaved just like other countries where politicians and officials conveniently hide sensitive information they don’t want revealed to the public.
A year and a half ago, I requested documentation pertaining to Swedish arms deals with the military junta in Thailand. It took more than three months for the request to be processed and when I finally got the material, it was nearly impossible to read—more than 70 percent of the content was blacked out with a permanent marker. All that was left in large sections were isolated words and sentences, which were extremely hard to put into any context. In some of the documents, even the file numbers and dates were blacked out. It was clear that someone wanted to keep the circumstances of this controversial weapons deal in the dark.
The case was first examined by the Attorney General (JK), who directed scathing criticism at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for violating the requirement to disclose documentation “expeditiously.” According to regulations, it is supposed to take, at the maximum, a few days to produce official documents—not three months. Then the case was tried by an administrative appeals court in Gothenburg. They too disapproved of how Foreign Affairs had handled the request and ruled that a new confidentiality assessment should be done. Among other things, the office of Foreign Affairs had to make dates and file numbers public.
It took the Ministry of Foreign Affairs another three months to carry out this assessment. When I finally received the documents again, they did reveal more information but were still hard to read and make sense of. But above all, the lengthy proceedings had made the issue non-news, and I no longer had any use of this information.
The handling of my request to investigate the material, which is also known as the “JAS-39 Gripen Deal” and had to do with Swedish fighter planes sold to Thailand, is just one of many examples of a growing dysfunctional Swedish public records law.
Nils Funcke, an expert on freedom of expression, has argued that Swedish transparency is about to crumble. The confidentiality provisions are growing, leading to narrower and narrower insight into foreign official matters. And, at the same time, officials see their right to share information with the public increasingly constrained.
During the 2000s, Swedish transparency was reduced in several areas. Among other things, the concept of “professional secrecy” has been imposed upon a vast number of governmental officials. That can reduce their ability to share with the media information about corruption and other abuses.
Also when it comes to foreign confidentiality policy, and in regards to relationships with other states, there has been a clear deterioration.
According to Nils Funcke, insight into foreign affairs has been lowered. In the past, ”minor disruption”, or ”irritation,” from another state was not considered to be sufficient reason for confidentiality. But with new provisions, the stance is that more confidentiality is needed for international cooperation between states, which leads to less material being disclosed.
The privatization of governmental bodies has also greatly complicated public record examination for us journalists. This involves everything from local power companies to international aid missions.
These private enterprises can easily hide behind business confidentiality, despite their being directly linked to Swedish authorities and their handling of taxpayers’ money.
Another troublesome part of the deterioration of Swedish transparency is insight into Swedish participation in military operations abroad. In recent years, access to such information has become pretty much impossible to examine.
All of this pushes Sweden into a shameful corner when it comes to foreign confidentiality. Yet, few people are protesting. And the 250th anniversary is celebrated as if Sweden was still the superpower of transparency.