Sweden Expands Espionage Law, Endangering Freedom Of Journalists And Whistleblowers

Sweden Expands Espionage Law, Endangering Freedom Of Journalists And Whistleblowers
Riksdag, the parliament building in Sweden (Photo by Claudia Schillinger)

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Sweden’s parliament adopted a major espionage law expansion that will permit the country’s police to investigate journalists, publishers, and whistleblowers if they reveal secret information that “may damage Sweden's relationship with another state or an international organization.”

Journalists, publishers, or whistleblowers found guilty of revealing such “damaging” information could be sentenced to up to four years in prison under the new law.

The expansion was aimed at ensuring the Swedish government has even more control over what the public learns about the country’s cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, and the United Nations.

Specifically, the measure may help authorities ensure information about the war in Ukraine remains concealed and does not contribute to fatigue that has spread among the public. The measure also may reassure the United States military and security agencies that Sweden can be trusted as an ally to clamp down on leaks if information from their close partnership is exposed to scrutiny.

Two votes were required by the parliament to pass the measure, which was widely condemned by media organizations and press freedom groups in Sweden. The first vote occurred on April 16, 2022, and then after a parliamentary election, a second vote was held on November 16.

While the Left Party and Green Party recommended the second vote be delayed to next year, the right-wing Swedish Democrats, the Center Party, the Moderate Party, and the Liberal Party all believed that the bill granting the Swedish Security Agency more investigatory power was necessary.

As the Journalists Association in Sweden described, beginning on January 1, “Anyone who promotes, leaves or discloses information that is covered by the provision on foreign espionage can also be sentenced for unauthorized position with secret information. This means that the situations in which a journalist can be sentenced are expanded.”

“The provision on foreign espionage includes ‘secret information that occurs within the framework of a collaboration with another state or an international organization or in an international organization of which Sweden is a member.’ It is therefore not about all information about other states, but the decisive factor is whether they appear within the framework of a collaboration in which Sweden is included.”

Nils Funcke, a press freedom expert in Sweden, acknowledged that the measure has a small safety valve for media organizations. If publication was “justifiable,” outlets could escape penalties under the law. But Funcke noted that what is “justifiable” is up to the courts, which undoubtedly will be more inclined to see cases from the nationalistic perspective of security agents defending their prosecutions.

Officials, security agents, or military officers from outside Sweden, particularly the United States, could feasibly invoke the measure and pressure the Swedish government to bring a prosecution.

Consider this example from 2013: Sveriges Television (Swedish public TV) published details from documents disclosed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden that showed Sweden was a “key partner” in helping the US spy on Russia.

Revelations about the close relationship came from a document dated April 18, 2013, which indicated that “Sweden’s National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) had “provided NSA...a unique collection on high-priority Russian targets, such as leadership, internal politics.”

Under the expanded law, quoting a secret US document—as Swedish public TV did—could be construed by authorities as damaging to Sweden’s relationship with the US or the country’s standing in NATO, especially as it relates to the government’s ability to covertly pursue objectives viewed as critical to fighting Russia in Ukraine.

If one goes back to 2005, such a law would have hampered the Swedish media’s ability to expose the role of their government in the CIA’s rendition and torture of detainees in the “Global War on Terrorism.”

Johanne Hildebrandt, a Swedish war correspondent, warned, “The change could make war reporting from the field impossible. If I’m following Swedish troops and see the USA bombing a village so that civilians die, my reporting could be criminalized because it damages Sweden’s relations with the USA.”

“It’s hard enough to report from war zones. The law would lead to decreased insight. Who decides what could damage Sweden’s relationships? Officers and soldiers will say no to journalists out of the fear of making a mistake,” Hildebrandt added.

Swedish security agents are given more authority to launch raids against media outlets and seize electronic devices for the purpose of identifying sources that provided information to journalists.

In 2016, United Nations whistleblower Anders Kompass exposed child sex abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. He condemned the UN for failing to hold anyone accountable and for retaliating at him.

“The complete impunity for those who have been found to have, in various degrees, abused their authority, together with the unwillingness of the hierarchy to express any regrets for the way they acted towards me sadly confirms that lack of accountability is entrenched in the United Nations. This makes it impossible for me to continue working there,” Kompass declared.

Advocates believe if Kompass, who is from Sweden, had come forward after the law was expanded he would have faced legal jeopardy. His resignation and comments dealt a blow to the image of the UN in Sweden, and as the law states, anyone who releases information that may "damage" Sweden's relationship with an international organization could be targeted.

Arne Ruth Sigyn Meder, an advocate with the Julian Assange Support Committee in Sweden, highlighted the prosecution of Assange by the United States. His journalism exposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet he is being targeted by the US Espionage Act.

“Foreign and Swedish media, including SVT and Dagens Nyheter, published the information from Wikileaks, but have later largely remained silent about the gross legal abuses he was subjected to, which have been extensively documented by Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” according to Meder.

Publishing secret information like WikiLeaks did is the type of journalistic activity criminalized by Sweden through this law.

In fact, US Justice Department prosecutors have used the US Espionage Act to criminalize the disclosure of information that could cause "damage" to the US government's relationship with another state or an international organization." Even though the US military and government lacked clear evidence of damage, they charged Chelsea Manning, and now Assange, with Espionage Act offenses for releasing the US State Embassy cables.

Sweden's expanded espionage law may not entirely discourage Swedish media from reporting on Swedish military and security operations, including the close relationship that Sweden has with the United States. Journalists, editors, and media producers could still publish secret information that furthers the agenda of the US, NATO, the EU, and the UN.

However, those in the press who act independently and dare to scrutinize the shared goals and objectives of Western security partnerships or military alliances would be vulnerable to repression—and that is the intention.

The expansion of security agency power is intended to make individuals, who are not blindly supportive of the US and NATO, think twice about exposing any alleged abuses, corruption, recklessness, or wrongdoing that would lead one to reconsider their support.