1. Transparent governmental structure: at the demand of the King!
Sweden with its current population of 9.8 Million used to be a relative poor country, its wealth hasn’t been growing until 1870s. The King had to collect tax from very limited population to finance the consumption of his Government as well as his family—the reason why he demanded strictly that the tax, which local government officers/public servants collected, will be handed over with little loss to the loyal household. This demand from above—not from the bottom of the society—ended up in a governmental system of high efficiency, little corruption and a transparent tradition in this country.
Yet this cannot be seen as an inevitable result: compared to Russia. A tradition of making compromises has its roots deep in Swedish history. Kings in Sweden always had limited power. Representatives from 4 Estates- Nobility, Clergy, Burghers and Peasants- built a parliament (the so-called “diet”) back in the 15th century, with whom the King had to negotiate about taxation issues. Also in the court, the Jury was made of representatives of local farmers, businessmen, etc. And even back in Viking times, there has been democratic tradition similar to Greece. To balance interests of the society, Swedish Kings have mostly living a decent life, and this country has been lucky enough to avoid/prevent dictators.
2. Transparent Government with mini-bikini
In Sweden, all public documents are public, unless it´s marked “classified”. –While in many other countries, documents are not accessible, unless they are published by the government itself.
Every Swedish citizen shall be entitled to have free access to official documents, in order to encourage the free exchange of opinion and the availability of comprehensive information. Through a request to the government (personal visit, Email, letter, phone call…), and he will get an answer in a few days. The right of access to official documents may be restricted only if restriction is necessary with regard to:
1. the security of the Realm or its relations with another state or an international organisation;
2. the central fiscal, monetary or currency policy of the Realm;
3. the inspection, control or other supervisory activities of a public authority;
4. the interests of preventing or prosecuting crime;
5. the economic interests of the public institutions;
6. the protection of the personal or economic circumstances of individuals;
7. the preservation of animal or plant species.
(The Constitution of Sweden, The Freedom of the Press Act, Chapter 2. Link: http://riksdagen.se/en/SysSiteAssets/07.-dokument–lagar/the-constitution-of-sweden-160628.pdf/ )
All documents are public until it has gone through confidentiality test when someone requests it. From tax records to decision of board of a public school, thousands of documents are requested each day, it is impossible to hold an official statistics shows the number of FOI cases. Roughly speaking, 95% belong to public documents, although they are not automatically publicized.
To make it even harder for Swedish Government to hide any documents, each public office is obligated to keep a “transparency diary”, which keeps track of all activities and signed documents with clear “regards” of each document . Even the Government gets the documents classified, the diary remains open, so that the public are still aware of the subjects that the government is working on, even when the details are classified. It is a routine job for journalists to check this register and ask for documents according to it. (More details about this mechanism will follow in two weeks after another interview.)
3. FOI originally as a limit to the Kings power, but later also to the parliament itself
During 1718-1772, Sweden experienced its “age of liberation”. The Diet passed in 1766 the Freedom of the Press Act (Tryckfrihetsförordningen, TF for short). This remains a part of Swedish constitution until now. “The principle of public” (offentlighetsprincipen) was set since 1766, it entrusted the right to every Swedish Citizen to inspect public documents that are not secret and the right to attend court proceedings and decision-making political meetings. Strictly according to the law you have to own the Swedish citizenship, but this is now to be changed. As a matter of fact, it is almost always understood as a right of everyone in the praxis. Similar laws exist nowadays already in over 70 countries, yet 251 years ago, Sweden was the very first country in the world for this legislation, which is actually also a result of power balance.
Before the law giving, Swedish Diet could only react to measures taken by the monarchy. Yet this legislation allows the Diet pre-act to the authorities led by the King. As the monarchy passed his power step by step to modern political offices, the parliament itself, as well as other authorities, are now the main targets of the Freedom of the Press Act, and the King acts only as representative of the country.
4. Mechanisms: In case of delay or refusal
There is the possibility that requests from citizen get refused by the government. Sweden has four pillars to support citizens access to governmental documents: Parliamentary Ombudsman, Chancellor of Justice, court, and the media.
Parliamentary Ombudsman and Chancellor of Justice are responsible to supervise public authorities and officials observe the law and fulfil their duties.
Swedish “Delay” has a very different definition compared to Germany (30 days), a governmental office might get criticized by the Chancellor of Justice for not responding to a question in 2 days(!!!). This is great benefit for journalists to need governmental information and work under time pressure.
Chancellor of Justice often criticises openly the work of different apartments of Swedish government: http://www.jk.se/beslut-och-yttranden/ It has also the right to prosecute improper act of the authority, which is rarely exercised. In 2016 the Chancellor of Justice handled at total of about 7 933 cases. (More details follow after another interview with Parliamentary Ombudsman.)
If the authority still refuses to give a certain information without proper explanation, it could be prosecuted by the citizen in the court—FOR FREE!!! The complainant doesn´t have to hire a lawyer, so the cost could be rather limited. It takes about one or two months (in Germany this could be six months or more) until the judge decides fairly according to the law.
In addition, Swedish law protects the “Freedom of Whistleblowing” (Meddelarfrihet) – so that civil servants in public sector are allowed to leak illegal behaviour in a public sector, even when this involves classified information. This whistle blower is not supposed to talk to a random person but a journalist, with the purpose of revealing an illegal behaviour.
The journalist, together with the “responsible editor” of his news-agency, should decide whether to report. And the legal responsible editor takes full responsibility of the report. The journalist, as well as his sources, is well protected under the freedom of press, it is illegal if anyone tries to ask the journalist about his informant. Legal responsible editor is supposed to give a second option, but the risk he carries force him to be cautious. This could be seen as a kind of “self-censorship” to a certain level.
5. Has EU made Sweden a better place?
Documents and communications between different apartments of Sweden are transparent, but since Sweden become a EU member in 1995, it has to follow EU regulation when it refers to EU documents, EU refused to make exceptions for Sweden at this matter. The number of classified documents in Sweden has therefore been increasing. This has caused protests among journalists-not strong enough to cause “Brexit”, but the hope from Sweden, that the EU should increase its transparency, has to be considered by Brussel.
This report based mainly on a talk with:
Jonas Nordin (Professor of History, Swedish national library, May 8th)
Also enriched by talks with:
Tove Carlen (Ombudsman of Swedish Journalistförbundet, , May 9th)
Johan Hirschfeldt (lawyer, former President of Court of Appeal/Svea Hovrätt, May 18th)
and many thoughts from different sources
A lot of thanks!