Thursday, 15 March 2007

Swedish transparancy and the public's right to know

I thought this was an interesting area of the Constitution of Sweden.

From the Swedish government site on the Freedom of the Press Act:

Chapter 2. On the public nature of official documents

Art. 1. Every Swedish citizen shall be entitled to have free access to official documents, in order to encourage the free exchange of opinion and the availability of comprehensive information.

Art. 2. The right of access to official documents may be restricted only if restriction is necessary having regard to
1. the security of the Realm or its relations with another state or an international organisation;
2. the central fiscal, monetary or currency policy of the Realm;
3. the inspection, control or other supervisory activities of a public authority;
4. the interest of preventing or prosecuting crime;
5. the economic interest of the public institutions;
6. the protection of the personal or economic circumstances of private subjects;
7. the preservation of animal or plant species.

Any restriction of the right of access to official documents shall be scrupulously specified in a provision of a special act of law, or, if this is deemed more appropriate in a particular case, in another act of law to which the special act refers. With authority in such a provision, the Government may however issue more detailed provisions for its application in a statutory instrument.

The Act was passed in 1766, but included true freedom (i.e. full capability to criticize government) in 1810.

Most areas of the Swedish Constitution have been around a long time. The sections governing openness to the public has faced reforms on the specificity of the documents available (i.e. no major state secrets within a certain period of time) and have been liberalized, but not restricted, in recent times. The method allowing Swedes to access what their government does and writes looks to be like a liberal, constitutionalized version of the United States' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is relatively recent in real terms (when it was first put into place, requests were much more restricted even than they are now) and can be impotent at times, even for documents that should no longer be deemed confidential.

Many other democratic countries have similar tools for governmental transparency to the public. Although I am no expert on the issue, from what I've read Sweden's open government-public relationship remains the most fair to the people. It is also the oldest.

In a world where terrorism is used as an excuse for exercising political power and, thus, keeping vital information from the people — circumventing a true democratic republican system — it is nice to see there are still countries that keep open. Those, such as Britain and especially the US, who have opted out from as much democratic openness than they used to offer before the 'war on terror' (though during the Cold War things were even worse in the US), still maintain their democratic systems.

If anyone is interested in taking action on freedom of expression in their country or another, there is a great Amnesty International campaign called Irrepressible. Irrepressible, which I have a button for on the lower area of the right sidebar, deals with modern political censorship.

Not all of us are lucky enough to live in places like Sweden where there is a right to free expression; and the ability to have our own government answer to us, its people.

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