Background and legislation
Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act 1766 (Act) is widely considered the oldest piece of freedom of information legislation in the world. The current version of the Act is also one of four fundamental laws which make up country’s written constitution, others being The Instrument of Government, The Act of Succession and The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression.
Since 1766 the Act has been thoroughly renewed, with latest additions come into operation in 2003. The initial purpose of the Act was to abolish the political censorship of public documents and to ensure the right for everyone to publish written documents. Right of access to public documents was also listed in the first versions of the Act.
According to the Act, everyone - including companies and foreign citizens - is entitled to gain access to official documents. An official document may be either text, a picture, a sound clip, a movie, a computer-readable file or any other piece of information. Like in other Nordic countries, the requester does not have to reveal his/her name, address or reason for request.
The right of access 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.
(Freedom of the Press Act, Chapter 2)
These exceptions to the rule are more thoroughly examined in the Publicity and Secrecy Act 2009, which details what government agencies can keep secret, what type of document, under what circumstances, and towards whom.
If unhappy with government decision not to disclose requested information, requesters may complain to Parliamentary Ombudsman (Justitieombudsmännen) who will then give its verdict on the subject. Both complaints and verdicts are public documents and thus subject to the Act. During the years 1997 - 2008 the annual number of complaints concerning access to official documents or freedom of expression has been around 300. Usually a bit less than 1/3 of the complaints result in admonitions, criticisms or investigations. However, only twice has a prosecution or other disciplinary proceeding taken place during this time span. (see Schedule of complaint cases on access to official documents and freedom of expression from 1998 to 2008. (Riksdagens Ombudsmän – Annual reports).
Sweden is generally seen as a benchmark for openness in government due to its long history in freedom of information. There are, however, questions raised on the exact level of openness in Swedish society and what kind of impact has the tradition of FOI had on Swedish society at large.
Professor Kjell Östberg and Dr Fredrik Eriksson have recently argued that because of a long tradition in government openness in Sweden there is a reason to believe that in order to prevent potentially controversial decisions being released into the public domain, Swedish politicians and civil servants have avoided committing themselves on paper.
This has lead to a situation where most of what is of the greatest public interest is possibly not written down and hence not available for scrutiny. This ‘oral’ culture of policy-making not only renders government unaccountable, but also may damage the historical record. One example of such a phenomenom is the Swedish debate on nuclear power. Although the discussion took place for a reasonably long period of time, there is a definite lack of documents concerning the subject in the Swedish archives.
This same point was argued in 2003 by the Chief Auditor of Sweden at time, stating that the Swedish culture of document publicity has in fact diminished the possibility for a public scrutiny. Similar questions have arised in other Nordic countries with long traditions in freedom of information also.
As many other European countries, Sweden also is widening its scope of freedom of information. In 2009 a website Govtrack was launced at http://www.opengov.se/govtrack, where it is possible to browse government committee instructions scraped from the government website. Information on the website is updated on a daily basis.
Sweden is also in midst of a process of opening up its public data for a free reuse. According to opengov.se, at the moment only 16 per cent of public datasets are available with an open license and in at least one open format.
In July 2010 a new law on citizen’s rights to reuse public information came into operation. The purpose of the law is to give citizens better opportunities to understand how public sector works and uses public money. Another important purpose is to make it easier for citizens to set up free data-powered enterprises.