Speech by Alice Bah Kuhnke at the AIPCE Conference

Stockholm, 6 October 2016.
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Free and independent media is a foundation of democracy and rule of law. Every day we have to protect the role of journalists in preserving democracy and defending freedom of expression. In order to be a democratic society we absolutely have to safeguard free speech and freedom of the press.

This year, we're celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act. It is a long tradition to be very proud of, but the freedom of the press cannot be taken for granted.

Free media needs protection and support from the government, but most of all they need freedom from the government. The big question for me, and for the Swedish government, is how to best strengthen journalism and media, especially in times of economic restraints, convergence and when local media is having difficulties, without interfering with the freedom of the media. The content of media should never be scrutinized by the state.

The Swedish Press Council now celebrates 100 years. It is the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world. This self-disciplinary system is not based on legislation. It is entirely voluntary and wholly financed by four press organizations. It's a system that has been serving the Swedish press well for a hundred years, and a good example of how media can handle ethical questions entirely without interference from politicians.

The confidence in the journalistic profession and the trust from the public are key factors. For the citizens, access to objective information about the world is a key factor in making conscious decisions and forming an opinion on complex matters. The role of the journalist and journalism is becoming more and more important.

The development during these last few years is really worrying. I am talking about the serious problems we see here at home where threats and even sometimes acts of violence against journalists have increased. Research shows, as you may know, that one third of all journalists in Sweden report having been threatened over the last twelve months. For many of them, it has become part of everyday life, and has in some way affected decisions taken concerning their work. This is totally unacceptable. The threats may lead to self-censorship which in itself is a major threat to democracy.

Right now there are several initiatives here in Sweden to counteract threats and violence against journalists and artists. The Swedish association of journalists, the Swedish publishers (Utgivarna), the Swedish Writers' Union and the Swedish PEN, to mention some, are doing an important work in this field.

The Swedish government and my ministry are currently working on an action plan to prevent threats and violence against artists, politicians and journalists. My goal is to have this action plan, which will be systematic, in place next year. I have met with representatives from the Swedish media sector during this year to discuss these matters.

But the problems occur not only here in Sweden, there are also grave threats globally. We don't have to travel far to find places where the freedom of speech is limited. A few years ago it would have been considered outrageous, but now it is commonplace. From all over the world we get reports of impunity, silencing and even murders of journalists. I find these trends extremely worrying. The fight against threats directed at journalists, authors and artists has to be fought every day.

The topic that will be discussed is about if the freedom of the press is under pressure in Europe.

We have had an extremely important debate and discussion in Europe and the EU the last few years about independence of media and press and freedom of expression. This discussion has been fuelled by sudden and worrying changes in media legislation and the treatment of public service media in European countries.

I was in Belgrade a year ago, and had several meetings with journalists, bloggers and NGOs about the freedom of the press. Several of them told me deeply worrying stories.

In other words, this is not only a problem for Serbian journalists, but also a reality that we – Europe – need to handle.

The discussion is crucial in a time of radically changing media landscapes and political and economic strains for Europe.

And what is needed, here as well as abroad is more action than words.

Thank you.