This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act. It is a fundamental pillar of Swedish democracy and the oldest legislation of its kind in the world.
The Freedom of the Press Act safeguards freedom of speech. It gives a constitutional basis to the right to publish newspapers, magazines and books, and establishes that information may be spread freely without prior scrutiny or censorship.
Just a few years ago developments were positive – freedom of expression and democracy were being strengthened in countries where fundamental democratic rights had previously been very limited.
But this trend now seems to have turned. Sweden’s new ambassador for human rights, Annika Ben David, even talks of a new order in the world.
“It is worrying to see that even the consensus within the EU is being challenged. We are forced to realise that there is a new order now, as we are forced to direct our energies into protecting and defending what we have already achieved rather than taking further steps forward,” she says.
Sweden is fighting for freedom of expression and of the press not only in the EU, but also in UN contexts and in our work in many forums around the world.
Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate Isabella Lövin recently met Colombian journalist and human rights activist Jineth Bedoya. Ms Bedoya was visiting Stockholm on the occasion of United Nations Day. She took part in several events in Stockholm organised by Reporters Without Borders to highlight the peace process in Colombia and freedom of the press and freedom of expression at a time when peace in the country is under challenge.
In 2000, Ms Bedoya, who has won multiple awards and accolades as a journalist, was kidnapped and raped by paramilitary groups. At the time, she was working on an in-depth report on government and paramilitary group links to arms smuggling in the country. Three years later, she was kidnapped by the Farc when a report she had written about Farc involvement in the drug trade was published. Her case, like many others, was long ignored by the authorities. However, following pressure from the Colombian press organisation Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), Oxfam and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an investigation was launched. Several people are currently charged with the sexual assault and rape of Ms Bedoya.
Since the assaults, she has dedicated herself tirelessly to the peace and reconciliation process, and today she represents the victims of the conflict in Colombia. President Santos recently appointed her ambassador for women victims of sexual violence caused by the conflict. And in Colombia, 25 May, the date on which she was first kidnapped, is now National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict.
The discussions between Ms Lövin and Ms Bedoya concerned the political situation in Colombia since the referendum, which Ms Bedoya sees as a crucial time for the peace agreement. The Colombian government now has a unique opportunity to strengthen and establish the peace agreement with the people, Ms Bedoya said, although she also stressed that it is a risky period, with society in a state of limbo with respect to peace. The ‘no’ side pursued an aggressive campaign with conservative and traditional overtones. By way of an example, Ms Bedoya cited recent debate about the peace agreement promoting a ‘gender ideology’ (ideología de género) that challenges traditional and catholic values in society. The debate shows the polarisation and politicisation that is challenging peace in Colombia. In her view, society still has a long way to go to better understand and inform citizens of the importance of highlighting gender equality issues.
Ms Bedoya said that the level of knowledge of gender equality among politicians and the media is low, which became clear in the media coverage of the run-up to and aftermath of the referendum. When asked by Ms Lövin how the international community, including Sweden, should approach the debate that has emerged in Colombia, Ms Bedoya said that Sweden’s support and work for women, peace and security in Colombia should remain strong. She reiterated several times that Sweden’s consistent commitment to women, peace and security has been crucial to the peace negotiations and will remain crucial in the post-conflict work to come.
Other subjects for discussion included freedom of the press and of expression in Colombia today. Several human rights organisations fear that the human rights situation in the country could deteriorate in the short term, with the risk of the vacuum left by the Farc in many conflict-affected regions being filled by criminal groups rather than societal institutions.
The coverage of the referendum campaign showed clearly that politicians and the media sector are still intimately linked and that the media failed to impartially convey information about the substance of the peace agreement. Ms Bedoya highlighted the cooperation between the Colombian press organisation FLIP and Swedish Reporters Without Borders as a crucial factor in bringing about change in the Colombian media climate.
Since the early 2000s (when Colombia was the country in which the most journalists were murdered annually), Reporters Without Borders has supported efforts to strengthen freedom of the press and of expression in the country alongside FLIP.
FLIP receives Swedish support (some SEK 1.2 million so far) and is a close dialogue partner of the Swedish Embassy in Bogotá on issues concerning freedom of expression and the press in Colombia.
Text: Paola Albornoz, UD AME
Photo: Catarina Axelsson, UD KOM