The Role of Media in a Democratic Society

Dear Professor Nguyen,

Dear Mr Dinh,

Dear friends,

Let me start by expressing my sincere appreciation for having been invited here today. It is a privilege to talk to you and I am honoured to have been given this opportunity.

I serve as Minister for International Development Cooperation in a government that has been in office for slightly more than six months. The Government is a coalition of four centre-right political parties. We won the elections in September last year after twelve years in opposition. I myself represent the liberal Moderate Party, of which I am also the vice chair.

My own background is not in journalism at all; I am an accountant by training. I was a Member of the European Parliament for seven years and a Member of the Swedish Parliament for four years thereafter. But I trust you can easily imagine that in my job as a politician and now a minister, I am by necessity very much aware of the importance and role of media and journalists.

This is my first visit to Vietnam and I must tell you that I feel truly honoured to have received such a warm welcome. My visit should be seen in the longstanding tradition of friendship and cooperation between the people of Vietnam and the people of Sweden.

In 1969, Sweden and Vietnam took up diplomatic relations in the midst of the war. The Embassy of Sweden was built on what used to be marsh land. Outside the Embassy compound farmers were tending their daily chores. Today, the Embassy is still in the same place, but the location has now become central Hanoi, and the outlook from the Embassy is bustling Kim Ma, a skyline of tall buildings - and thousands of motorbikes. That is as good an illustration as any of Vietnam's amazing transformation and development.

But as Vietnamese society continues to change, so will the role of media and journalists. In other words, those of you studying at the Press Faculty will, in your future work, play a key role in how Vietnamese society develops. I will elaborate in few moments on how I look upon the role of media but before that, let me say a few words about the priorities that guide Swedish development cooperation.

International development cooperation is a key element of Swedish foreign policy. This is a logical consequence of the Government's emphasis in foreign policy on the importance of promoting democracy, human rights and sustainable development.

I am currently working to ensure that Swedish development cooperation becomes more clearly focused on creating preconditions for democratisation, peace and reconciliation. Intimately linked to this is emphasis on good governance and, for example, efforts to strengthen civil society in our partner countries. Another focus area is the environment and climate change.

Overall, Swedish development cooperation stresses coherence. In what we refer to as the Policy for Global Development, we underline that poverty reduction should not only be a concern to me and to my colleagues in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs who work with international development cooperation. Our Policy for Global Development includes all policy areas. In practice this means that my Government is committed to designing our trade, agricultural, environmental, migration and security policies so that they all contribute to an equitable and sustainable global development. Traditional development cooperation on its own can never counteract the effects of trade barriers or penalty duties on agricultural produce.

Currently, Sweden and Vietnam cooperate under an agreed strategy for the period 2004-2008. The main objectives of the strategy are:
- to promote Vietnam's capacity to reduce poverty on a long-term and environmentally sustainable basis;
- to promote openness and development towards democracy and increased respect for human rights.

The principles of democracy, the rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interlinked with one another but are also closely related to poverty. Poverty is not only about lack of material resources. It is also about lack of power, opportunities, choice and security.

Democracy and poverty reduction can never be guaranteed by politicians alone, whether they are elected or self-nominated. In the end, it is a question of people's opportunities to influence their situation, claim their rights and being able to voice their concerns. But to exercise these rights presupposes that citizens have access to information that has not been filtered, censored or distorted. How can I claim my rights if I don't know what they are? How can I voice my concerns if I risk being prosecuted for doing so?

These are a few examples of why the role of media is crucial to the development of a country. The quality of the information an individual is able to access will, by necessity, greatly influence his or her ability to participate in the political process. In other words, journalists have a responsibility towards their fellow citizens to provide correct and analytical information.

Lively and independent media are essential components of the complex system of checks and balances that characterises democratic societies. No one, and in particular politicians and civil servants, should be above the law and exempt of scrutiny. Corruption is both a cause and an effect of weak governance. Corruption breeds inefficiency and undermines confidence in the institutions of a society. An Englishman, Lord Acton, once made the now famous statement that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This still holds true. The quality of decisions will inevitably suffer if a free debate is not allowed.

It upsets us when we read about politicians who are forced to resign because of corruption. But at the same time we should also be grateful that such information is published and reaches the public. In 1974 the so-called Watergate scandal eventually forced American president Richard Nixon to resign. This, as you know, was mainly the result of efforts by two journalists at the Washington Post. What if they had lived in a country where they had not been allowed to pursue that story? What if, during their investigative work, they had been told by their editor-in-chief that they should stop their work immediately because the president is above criticism?

But the role of media in a modern society is not only limited to reporting and analysing specific events. Journalists are also opinion builders in their own right. By tracing and critically analysing new trends and tendencies in society, a free media provides decision makers with invaluable information, thereby ensuring, such matters as the quality of legislation. And when it comes to an issue such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, the ability of the press to disseminate information freely and to discuss the topic without having to consider what politicians think is or is not suitable can, in the end, be a matter of saving lives.

We also have to see the role of media in the context of the common challenges we face in an increasingly globalised world. Global challenges emphasise the need to find common solutions. An issue such as the consequences of global warming is one example; the spread of international crime and terrorism is another. To meet these challenges, access to correct information is crucial, for the general public as well as for decision makers.

Promoting free media in other countries is therefore also in our own self -interest. If journalists in other countries are silenced we will ultimately pay a price ourselves. Let me give you an example. We are all aware of the immense challenge that humankind faces in the form of ongoing climate change. Let's say that information about an environmental disaster in a country far away is not allowed to reach the public. Eventually, it might very well be that people in other parts of the world suffer the consequences of information being withheld. Pollution knows no borders. The problem in certain parts of Southeast Asia of the so-called "haze" is a sad illustration of this fact.

Given what I have just said it will come as no surprise to you that Sweden is committed to the development of the media sector in Vietnam. Over the past ten years, Sweden has been the biggest donor in support of efforts to promote democracy in your country through the development of more professional, open, independent and self-reliant media.

Sweden supports interventions in the area of the media that seek to empower people living in poverty. Fundamental points of departure are the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, the right to exercise cultural and creative activities, the right to access to information, the right to participation and the right to knowledge. Sweden and Vietnam have ratified international human rights conventions and we both have an obligation to live up to the commitments made as signatories.

Freedom of expression includes the right to seek, receive, express and disseminate opinions, ideas and information without interference, and to do so either orally or in writing through any media. Freedom of expression is a precondition for media pluralism, which in turn is the foundation for strong and functioning media. This facilitates a broad spectrum of information, ideas and opinions in society.

Access to information and the free exchange of opinions are crucial in enabling citizens to take a stance, reach well-founded decisions and make free choices. In my country, the tradition goes back almost two and a half centuries - the Freedom of the Press Act was adopted in the year 1766.

One fundamental cornerstone in Sweden is the principle of public access to official documents. As you can understand this principle is very important for journalists in their reporting and investigative work, especially when they are scrutinising the exercise of power by the Government and other public agencies, but it is also a cornerstone of an open society and an effective tool for monitoring and preventing corruption. In fact, anyone in Sweden, whether they are a Swede or a foreigner, a journalist or a non-journalist, has the right to access documents produced or received by a government agency or body. Even my own incoming and outgoing email at the Ministry is basically in the public domain! Linked to the fundamental law I just mentioned are codes of ethics that the free media have developed and agreed upon by themselves, without interference from the State. There are also public entities to which citizens can turn when they feel offended or abused by media.

The legal and factual situation in Vietnam today is different. However, our two countries have agreed that support for the media sector is one of the priorities of Swedish development cooperation here in Vietnam. And it is of course crucial for development towards democratic governance in Vietnam.

We have witnessed many positive changes over the years, as access to modern technology has provided media with new audiences and thereby also new advertising markets and increased revenues. This has led to improved professionalism and journalism in parts of the media. We have, over the course of the Swedish-Vietnamese media project, seen how radio media have developed from the simple reading of duly approved texts to live broadcasting with interviews with local people. By supporting the media sector we hope that Swedish development cooperation will contribute to reinforcing change processes that are already underway in Vietnamese society.

We believe that support for the training of journalists will improve the professional skills of reporters and thereby help them do a better job. Over the past ten years, the focus of this cooperation has been on training of reporters and media managers by running short courses and providing in-house training. The project also pays due attention to the policy dialogue, discussions on the code of ethics and the role of media in a democratic society. Improved and modernised journalism training will contribute significantly to the development of more professional and independent media in this country. The creation of well-functioning, high-standard journalism faculties is vital for any country aiming to strengthen the role of the media in a democratic society. A revised curriculum for journalism training, modern teaching methods and better information-seeking capacity are likely to stimulate more independent, dynamic and creative-thinking students.

Why are independent, dynamic and creative-thinking students so crucial for Vietnam's future?

Firstly, we are convinced that professional journalism training of a high standard is a prerequisite for the development of more professional and independent media. You, as future journalists, will assist Vietnam on its own path in this important task.

Secondly, as society develops, there will be a greater demand by the public for the right to information and the right to have their voices heard. Without information there is no accountability. Information is power, and the more people who possess it, the more power that is devolved. Access to information is essential in any modern society. Without it, democratic structures cannot operate as they should, and individuals are left unable to enforce their rights - perhaps not even with an awareness of what rights they have and when they have been infringed. Corruption cases will go undetected. The primary vehicle for taking information to the public is independent and free media.

Thirdly, because the public and the media have been engaged in a debate about political reform and the roles and responsibility of the Party and the National Assembly, there are greater opportunities, but also more challenges and pressure on the media, to engage in the debate on the role of the media in a democratic society.

Fourthly, economic and political integration is another reason for the greater need for your future services, as is Vietnam's move towards industrialisation and modernisation.

All in all, there are more and more reasons for professional journalism training. Well-trained, and dedicated, journalists play a fundamental role for the economic and political development in any society.

There are also challenges for you in your future work. Being agents of change is not an easy task. You are the ones who will challenge the decision makers of the future, assess the performance of your leaders and raise critical issues for debate. You will play a key role in ensuring the Vietnamese people's right to accurate and timely information. I am convinced that you will enter the labour market well-prepared and with confidence. I wish you all good health and every success in your studies and in your future work.

Let me finish by saying that I am particularly happy to see so many female students here today. As journalists your work will be crucial in strengthening the role of women in Vietnamese society and politics.

Thank you once again for inviting me here!