By Rebecca Heine
Freedom of expression and information is a fundamental civil right and a crucial part of every democratic society. The international NGO Reporters Without Borders works to defend this right in more than 150 different countries. Uttryck asked Jonathan Lundqvist, the president of the Swedish section of Reporters Without Borders, about the status of press freedom in the world today and how his organization works to promote it.
The theme for this issue of Uttryck is justice. How would you say that freedom of speech relates to justice?
Every society has to define what justice means and being able to do so requires freedom of speech. It is by criticizing injustice, exposing corruption and critically examining our leaders that we together can establish what we think is right and wrong. Freedom of speech is to me a principal right over others in the sense that without it, we cannot even begin to discuss other rights.
What can we as citizens do to strengthen freedom of speech and freedom of press?
The right to free speech is something every person is entitled to from birth and not one you have to deserve in any way. Nonetheless, it is important for all of us to understand what it is good for and how it benefits us as individuals and as a society. Relating this to freedom of information, which is dependent upon free speech, I believe we need to uphold a broad definition of it and – as much as possible – avoid restrictions on the media. We can of course ask ourselves what good journalism is and what it means to be a responsible journalist, but we should avoid putting these opinions into legislative text. Saying that good journalism is legal while bad journalism is illegal would be a big abuse of the freedom of press. It is not so that only true statements are covered by freedom of speech, on the contrary, what makes the democratic system unique is that it gives us the right to be wrong. When enacting judicial limits on free speech, there is a big risk of overreach and of good intentions doing great harm on the way.
What impact do new media platforms, such as web-based newspapers and social media, have on freedom of press?
To begin with, we can see that through the growth of social media the term journalist is being redefined. A journalist has in the past, at least in Sweden, been almost like a protected title reserved mostly for those with a journalist education. Nowadays, anyone with a mobile phone has the potential to be a journalist. This means that we here at Reporters Without Borders have had to ask ourselves what we really mean when we talk about journalists. We have almost had to abandon the term in favour of the word “news provider”, someone who in one way or another plays a role in conveying news. This leads us to a more normative discussion in which journalistic instruments, such as objectivity, independence and fact-based reporting, are of greater importance than the platform for which you write. Another aspect of social media and other digital platforms is its reach beyond national borders. Nowadays news spreads globally at an unprecedented speed. A potential risk with this is that it can create a business logic that forces journalists to report quickly rather than to report correctly.
Lastly, this year’s fundraiser by Uppsala Association of International Affairs will be collecting money to Reporters Without Borders. Can you give some examples of what these funds can be used for?
One part of our work is done through the Swedish section of the organization. This ranges from providing security training to freelance journalists going abroad to more direct international interventions. One example is the collaboration we have had with the Colombian journalist union in creating a press freedom institute, which has ended up playing an important role in the peace process in the country. Another part of our funds goes to the International Office of Reporters Without Borders, who have an even wider range of projects than we do here in Sweden. Some examples include creating structures to circumvent Internet blockades in Iran and providing training to Belarusian journalists whose work is too risky in their own country. To put it broadly, we aim to support journalists in parts of the world where their profession is vulnerable.
The interview was conducted in Swedish and translated to English by Rebecca Heine.