Freedom of expression
The right to hold an opinion and express it orally, in writing or in visual form is laid down in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The global expansion of the internet has led to new possibilities for freedom of expression. In just a fraction of a second, information and opinions can circulate to hundreds of thousands of recipients worldwide.
General information about freedom of expression
Freedom of expression and freedom of opinion are among the most fundamental freedoms and rights in a democratic society. The opportunity to express one’s view and form an opinion on different issues has long been considered an important prerequisite for political processes to function in a democratic way. Freedom of opinion is unlimited, while the right to freely express one’s view can be restricted and must be exercised with particular responsibility out of consideration for the rights and freedoms of others. The free word can cause harm by, for instance, by being perceived as being offensive, inciting discrimination or acts of violence, or disclosing information that has negative consequences either for individuals or society as a whole. In other words, freedom of expression has certain limitations.
Why freedom of expression?
One fundamental concept behind freedom of expression is that everyone is to be able to study many different opinions about all the issues on which we make joint decisions. Freedom of expression is normally described as being important for democracy because it makes it possible to spread information freely, thereby providing citizens and decision-makers with better opportunities to reach well-founded decisions. Freedom of expression can also be said to fill a more critical function since well informed citizens and free mass media are given ample opportunities to review and express their opinions about how public power is exercised.
Moreover, freedom of expression can contribute to combating corruption. Freedom of expression can also be motivated from a democratic equality perspective. A political administration in which decisions are made in accordance with the majority principle only becomes a legitimate administration if all citizens have had an opportunity to express their opinion on a certain issue. Freedom of expression is also an individual privilege that gives individuals the right to express their opinions and communicate with others.
Freedom of expression in the Instrument of Government
Like most democratic states, Sweden has a written constitution, which we call the ‘fundamental laws’. Sweden has four different fundamental laws, with the fundamental principles of the Swedish form of government being laid down in the Instrument of Government. In Sweden, as in most democracies, freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution. Everyone is guaranteed freedom of expression in his or her relations with public institutions, i.e. the freedom to communicate information and express thoughts, opinions and sentiments orally, in writing or pictorially, or in any other way (Chapter 2, Article 1 of the Instrument of Government). Furthermore, the Instrument of Government’s portal article clearly expresses the close correlation between the democratic form of government and freedom of expression: “All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people. Swedish democracy is founded on the free formation of opinion and on universal and equal suffrage” (Chapter 1, Article 1 of the Instrument of Government).
Limitations on the freedom of expression?
Limitations on general freedom of expression can be introduced in ordinary law (does not need to be in the form of a fundamental law), although the possibility to pass such laws is limited. A limitation of freedom of expression may only be made to satisfy a purpose acceptable in a democratic society and may not go beyond what is necessary with regard to the purpose for which it was intended. Nor may it extend so far as to constitute a threat to the free shaping of opinion, which is one of the fundaments of democracy No limitation may be imposed solely on grounds of a political, religious, cultural or other such opinion (Chapter 2, Article 21, second paragraph of the Instrument of Government). Limitations occur in laws, for example in the form of rules regarding professional secrecy and in criminal law provisions regarding slander and agitation against a national or ethnic group.
Freedom of the Press Act and Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression
Of Sweden’s four fundamental laws, two provide more specific regulations on freedom of expression in the media: the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. The Freedom of the Press Act regulates the freedom to express oneself in printed publications, such as books and magazines, and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression regulates freedom of expression in media, including radio, television and films, and, to a certain extent, on the internet. In Sweden, freedom of the press dates back to 1766, but the current Freedom of the Press Act was adopted in 1949. The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression was added in 1991 and is modelled on the Freedom of the Press Act.
One fundamental principle is that constitutionally protected material may be produced and spread, and that a public authority or other public body may not establish in advance obstacles to manufacturing and distribution. In other words, censorship is prohibited. Accountability for what has been printed can only be demanded after the fact and only against those deemed by law as responsible.
The freedom to publish means that everyone has the right to provide or gather information for publication on any subject whatsoever without risk of prosecution. Persons who publish information for publication have the right to remain anonymous and cannot be prosecuted for their involvement. Only crimes stipulated in a separate catalogue of offences can give rise to criminal liability, which is sought in a special trial procedure with the Chancellor of Justice as prosecutor and with a trial by jury.
Offences against the freedom of the press and freedom of expression can be divided into four categories:
• crimes involving matters of preparedness (a threat to the security of the realm), such as high treason;
• crimes involving secret information, such as espionage;
• crimes against public interest, such as inciting rebellion and agitation against a national or ethnic group; and
• crimes against individuals, such as slander.
International rules for freedom of expression
The rules for freedom of expression in most democratic countries are influenced by international human rights conventions, which are binding on those states that have acceded to them. Freedom of expression is also guaranteed in other central human rights documents, including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which stipulates in Article 19 that everyone has the right to hold an opinion and express it orally, in writing or in visual form. A corresponding right is laid down in Article 19 in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was drafted in 1966. The rules regarding freedom of expression are worded slightly differently in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the European Convention on Human Rights) of 4 November 1950. Article 10 states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and that freedom to receive and impart information and ideas is a part of freedom of expression. The European Convention on Human Rights has applied as Swedish law since 1995.
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