Sweden

last updated: May 29, 2020
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RSF ranking: 4th out of 180 (RSF, 2020)
Population: 10.1m (Worldometer, 2020)
Percentage in the capital: 16% (1.63m; World Population Review, 2020)
GDP: 556.07bn (Statista, 2019)
EU member: since 1 January, 1995 (EUROPA, 2020)
Official language: Swedish (EUROPA, 2020)
Press council: Medieombudsmannen (Media Ombudsman)

Press freedom environment: Freedom House classes Sweden as a “free” country with a total score of 100 out of 100 (Freedom House, 2019). This score is split 40/60 for political rights and for civil liberties (Ibid.). At the time of writing, Freedom House did not have a “narrative report” for 2020, and the most recent one is from 2019. This report showed that Sweden has a stable democracy with civil rights being respected by government (Ibid.). The report cited key events from 2018, which include the populist Sweden Democrats winning majority seats at the general election, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven received a no confidence vote from parliament, and a Muslim woman was awarded damages for discrimination at a job interview when, due to religious reasons, she refused to shake a make employee’s hand (Ibid.). In the “Civil Liberties” section of the report called “Freedom of Expression and Belief”, Swedish media are described as free and independent, with newspapers and magazines being privately owned, dailies across the political spectrum receive subsidies, and weekly programming in minority languages is available from the public broadcasters (Ibid.). Threats against journalists remain, especially for those covering issues to do with organised crime or religious issues (Ibid.). A member of the neo-Nazi group, Nordic Resistance Movement, was arrested in August 2018 for planning an attack against two journalists working for media group MittMedia (Ibid.; see also: The Local, 2018).

Media landscape

Reporters Without Border cites key points for Sweden in the last year. As the founding father of press freedom law with its Freedom of the Press Act of 1766, Sweden has rebranded its press council from the Press Ombudsman to the Media Ombudsman from January 2020, and includes under its remit print media as well as tv, radio, and online media (RSF, 2020). Self-censorship is sometimes a problem for journalists, as well as harassment and aggression towards them (Ibid.). Public service media (radio and television, more on this below), are funded through taxes rather than licenses (Ibid.); which is the only country in the DFoP project countries to do this. Alt-right and extreme-right media are on the rise particularly online, in tandem with the increasing prevalence of populist parties (Ibid.). Media concentration is a problem, with smaller newspaper titles being bought up, with over 50% ownership of these resting in the hands of five media companies (Ibid.). In 2019 Swedish media were subjected to attacks by the Chinese government for their coverage of the Hong Kong riots and tensions with Taiwan, as well as Gui Minhai, a Swedish-Chinese author and publisher, who has remained in Chinese custody since 2015 (Ibid.). Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak remains in Eritrean custody since 2001 (Ibid.), and more recently in May 2020, journalist Sajid Hussain, a Pakistani exile residing in Sweden went missing and was subsequently murdered (Ellis-Petersen, 2020).

The Reuters Digital News Report for 2019 describes Sweden as a “digitally developed country” that has a combination of public service media, commercial “legacy news” media, and a budding alt-news media (Westlund, 2019). In the ten years between 2008 and 2018, commercial news media have lost over 30% of advertising revenue, with newspaper media suffering the most from this (Ibid.). Big tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon have a monopoly on advertising, as well as marketing budgets being shifted to influencers on social media such as Instagram and YouTube (Ibid.). News media in Sweden are reliant on government subsidies in order to maintain their viability, with extra subsidies available for titles that produce at least 55% original content and have as a minimum 1,500 “news consumers” in Sweden (Ibid.). Subsidies for print titles has increased by 10%, support funds for distribution costs have increased by 50%, and particular support of maximum 1m SEK is available for “news desert” geographic areas, in order to better support local media (Ibid.). Public broadcasters (radio, television) are functioning well under the current taxation-funded system, and have updated their digital presence by increasing availability of podcasts (radio) and updating their website (television). The former by third-party providers like Spotify (Ibid.). Bot-generated news content has been taken up by some news media, news media group MittMedia has made improvements to its web systems and analytics, and restructuring and reduction of newsrooms is also commonplace; all of which have made systems more efficient but also more profitable (Ibid.). Swedish readers are more willing to pay for news (27%), although “churn rates” for Sweden are high, where readers drop out of subscriptions after promotional periods (Ibid.). MittMedia has a paywall system across its news brands in order to establish a baseline revenue (Ibid.). Challenges with retaining readers means that some news organisations are working towards “creating value” of their own brands through websites and apps, though others are working with Big Tech giants such as Facebook to work against disinformation and ensure fact-checking; particularly around the time of the Swedish general elections (Ibid.). Sweden has seen a rise of alt-right media, such as Fria Tider, Nyheter Idag, and Samhällsnytt, which have comparative reach to key national newspapers such as Dagens Nyheter (daily/compact, quality) and Svenska Dagbladet (tabloid, popular; Ibid.).

Newspapers and market

The Media Landscapes report for Sweden dates back to 2017 and reports similar trends as above, though with further details. Certain newspaper titles have been able to move with the times and ensure a strong online presence, such as Aftonbladet and Expressen (both tabloids), where both have been able to attract consistent advertising revenue, as well as Dagens Nyheter (compact/daily, quality) and Svenska Dagbladet (tabloid, popular). This has had a knock-on effect on local news titles as well as “[precipitating] the appearance of class-related patterns of news usage in a country historically known for its egalitarian newspaper consumption” (Wadbring and Ohlsson, 2017).

Sweden has a legacy of a partisan press, which continues today in the form of political orientations as opposed to direct ownership of titles by political parties (Wadbring and Ohlsson, 2017). The exception is with local newspapers, which are often owned by foundations that have ties to political parties (Ibid.). Subsidies have been available to the press across the political spectrum, with the view to support and sustain political plurality in the press (Ibid.). At the time of writing of the Media Landscapes report for Sweden in 2017, the country had 150 newspapers, with around 90 weeklies or bi-weeklies (Ibid.). As is a common trend across the countries, older demographics tend to favour printed newspapers, while younger demographics get their news through social media platforms (Ibid.).

Wadbring and Ohlsson (2017) split the Swedish newspaper market into six categories of newspapers; dailies that serve the cities, with Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm, Göteborgs-Posten in Gothenburg, and Sydsvenskan in Malmö; tabloids published out of Stockholm (Aftonbladet and Expressen), Gothenburg (GT) and Malmö (Kvällsposten); regional and local newspapers such as Helsingborgs Dagblad (Helsingborg), Dalarnas Tidningar (Falun), and Nerikes Allehanda (Örebro); weekly or bi-weekly newspapers that are local newspapers for cities, towns, or regions; free daily newspapers that either have national or local reach, such as the national free newspaper Metro (established in 2004), which has editions for Stockholm (established in 1995), Gothenburg (established in 1998), Skåne region/Malmö city (established in 1999); and finally niche newspapers such as financial news (Dagens Industri) or a Christian daily called Dagen (Ibid.).

The top three media groups that own the most circulated newspapers are Bonnier Group, which owns five key newspaper titles; MittMedia, which owns 22 local newspapers; and Norwegian Schibsted Group, which owns two key newspaper titles (names not specified; Wadbring and Ohlsson, 2017). Many newspapers are run by foundations, however, these are not reputed as interfering with editorial lines (Ibid.).

Audience news consumption

The 2019 Reuters Digital News Report combines results of weekly usage across television, radio, and print, as well as online in Sweden (Newman et al., 2019: 111). The public broadcaster SVT ranks at the top at 56% for tv, radio, and print, but is third at 31% for online (Ibid.). In terms of the top four newspapers, Aftonbladet (tabloid, popular) was at 45% for online and 15% for print, Expressen (tabloid, popular) was at 34% for online and 12% for print, unspecified regional and local newspapers were at 16% for online and 22% for print, and Dagens Nyheter (compact/daily, quality) was at 14% for online and 9% for print (Ibid.).

Public service media

Public broadcasting in Sweden is split between three different entities: Sveriges Radio (Swedish Radio), Sveriges Television (Swedish Television) and Utbildningsradion (Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company; Government Offices of Sweden, 2018). These entities are funded through a taxation scheme that replaced the traditional television license from January 2019, called a “individual public service fee” (Ibid.). In this way, “public service broadcasting is done in the service of the public, independently of central government and other political or economic spheres of power in society”, where “the overarching remit is to disseminate a broad and varied range of programmes that reflect the whole of Sweden and the variation in the population” (Ibid.). The move included several objectives: where fees must only go to the public service media, finance periods last eight years, members of the foundation heading the three organisations, the Förvaltningsstiftelse, cannot be members of Parliament (Ibid.). In addition, the “Government has also appointed an inquiry on constitutional reform to analyse whether the public service companies’ independence is sufficiently guaranteed through the current regulations or whether their independence can and should be further strengthened through amendments to the constitution” (Ibid.).

Public trust in the press and media

According to the 2019 Digital News Report, overall trust in Swedish news was at 39%, with Sweden ranking 25th out of the 38 countries in the study (Newman et al., 2019: 111). The most trusted sources of news are Sveriges Radio and Sveriges Television (public broadcasters), and the least trusted are Nya Tider (extreme-right, weekly) and Fria Tider (extreme-right, online magazine; Ibid.). On a scale of 1-10, the most trusted brands for news are public broadcasters Sveriges Radio (6.61) and Sveriges Television (6.59), and the top five newspapers following these are unspecified regional and local newspapers (6.41), Svenska Dagbladet (tabloid, popular; 6.26), Dagens Nyheter (compact/daily, quality; 6.02), Metro (free; 5.32), and Expressen (tabloid, popular; 5.14).

In 2016, 1,045 Swedish participants took part in Special Eurobarometer 452, titled Media pluralism and democracy (Eurobarometer, 2016: factsheet for Sweden). Here, 76% of participants thought that the national media represented a “diversity of views and opinions”, and 50% thought that the media were “free from political or commercial pressure” (Ibid.). Likewise, 55% thought that public broadcasting services were free from political influence (Ibid.). General trust in news was at 77% (Ibid.), reliability in television was at 82%, radio at 88%, and newspapers (both print and online) at 70%; however, trust in social media platforms was low at 14% (Ibid.). A very low number of participants were aware of regulatory bodies at 5%, with 55% thinking that they were free from political or commercial influence (Ibid.). In the study, 32% of Swedish respondents thought that journalists, bloggers, and social media users were the targets of hate speech and abuse (Ibid.).

Online only/digital entrants

In terms of online-only brands, the Reuters Digital News Report for 2019 only lists the BBC (6%) as the most-used sources of news “used last week” (Newman et al., 2019: 111). In terms of digital entrants that publish longform news stories, Blankspot is a recent project based out of Stockholm. Although it offers all its stories both for free and with creative commons licenses, it has a membership scheme to help support it (Blankspot, 2020). Stories include VR and long-read formats, with the mission statement: “We also focus on how to gain trust for journalism again. We believe that the fight for journalism and free press should be carried out by the citizens” (Ibid.). A particular focus is also on “underreported                stories”, where it drew €122,000 in crowdfunds at its inception in 2015 (Albeanu, 2017), and uses Facebook groups to develop news stories with help from the public (Blankspot, 2020). Separately, the editor-in-chief Martin Schibbye, was imprisoned for 438 days in Ethiopia while in the country for a news assignment (Albeanu, 2017).

Current studies and context

Recent data on risks to media pluralism in Sweden refer back to 2017, showing that Sweden has mixed rankings with “medium risk” to market plurality (59%), “low risk” to social inclusiveness (17%), political independence (7%), and basic protection (9%; Färdigh, 2018: 4-10). The report highlighted the following in its conclusion regarding each category (Ibid.: 11): concerns over media ownership and concentration, the safety of journalists needing attention, and concerns for the future on the “blurring lines between editorial and advertorial content”.

In terms of the current RSF rankings, Sweden is ranked as 4th (out of 180) on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, a drop from 3rd in 2019 (RSF, 2020). According to the 2019 Digital News Report, overall trust in Swedish news was at 39%, with Sweden ranking 25th out of the 38 countries in the study (Newman et al., 2019: 111). Internet penetration for Sweden is at 97% (Ibid.: 110).

Regulatory environment

Operating under the Ministry of Culture, the Swedish Press and Broadcasting Agency acts as the broadcasting regulator for domestic media, and makes decisions on “press subsidies to newspapers, licenses, fees and registration for radio and television, as well as supervising radio and television broadcasts, on-demand services and teletext”; where it says it “is the decision-making body on issues relating to publishing certificates in accordance with the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression”, by examining developments in the media (MPRT, 2020). It operates under the Swedish Radio and Television Act (Ibid.).

The press council

The press council, now known as the Media Ombudsman, operates under a voluntary self-regulatory system, addressing complaints on the “editorial content of newspapers, magazines, broadcast media and their websites and social media” (Medieombudsmannen, 2020a). Complainants must be filed within three months, and they must be directly “affected or identified”; either as individuals or as companies, government authorities, or organisations (Ibid.). If a case fits the criteria, it is then referred to the Media Council for a decision, which requires the offending party pay a fee to the Media Ombudsman, as well as “publish a statement of the decision in the same channels as the original publication” in the case of individuals, or in the case of the other types of complainants, “restitution for such institutional complaints is the right to respond or the right of a correction” (Ibid.).

The Media Ombudsman has pages in Swedish, including a page on its background and history that carries 100 years of legacy, as well as links to a commissioned book on press ethics published in honour of the press council’s 50th anniversary (Medieombudsmannen, 2020b). The members of the Media Ethics Committee are chaired and vice-chaired by judges, and members who are journalists or editors are either appointed by media, and members who are members of the public are appointed by the Riksdag’s Chief Justice Ombudsman and Chairman of the Swedish Bar Association (Medieombudsmannen, 2020c). The organization of the Media Ombudsman is backed by the following organisations: TU ‒ Medier i Sverige, Sveriges Tidskrifter, TV4, Sveriges Television (SVT), Sveriges Radio (SR), Utbildningsradion (UR), Journalistförbundet (journalist union), Publicistklubben (Publicists’ Club); all of which are lead by the Medieetikens Förvaltningsorgan (Medieombudsmannen, 2020c).

Recent press council report/cases

The annual reports are only available in Swedish.

Other bodies and codes of ethics

The Svenska Journalistförbundet (Swedish Journalists Association) is a trade union as well as an association, and the Publicistklubben (the Publicists’ Club) is an association for both journalists and publishers (Wadbring and Ohlsson, 2017). The Swedish Journalists Association has its own ethics committee and provides guidance where complaints should filed (Journalistförbundet, 2020). A search of the Publicists’ Club did not show any reference to media or press ethics.

Journalism culture

In the Worlds of Journalism Study for Sweden (n=675), 65.9% of respondents worked on a specific beat (not named in the report; Löfgren Nilsson, 2016). Journalists are trained, many with some type of degree (60.5%), or with a specialised degree in journalism or communication studies (68%; Ibid.). In general, Swedish journalists adhere to a value of factual and objective reporting. In the study, the categories that most participants responded to in terms of values (i.e. more than 50% responding “extremely” and “very important”) were: “Report things as they are” (96.4%), “Be a detached observer” (90.4%), “Let people express their views” (90.3%), “Monitor and scrutinize political leaders” (87.1%), “Provide information people need to make political decisions” (84%), “Monitor and scrutinize business” (82.5%), “Provide analysis of current affairs” (77.3%), “Promote tolerance and cultural diversity” (75.4%; Ibid.: 2). With regards to professional ethics, most of the participants in the study “strongly” or “somewhat agreed” that they must respect codes of professional ethics in every instance (98.3%), a large number thought “what is ethical in journalism depends on the specific situation” (61.9%), as similar number thought that “it is acceptable to set aside moral standards if extraordinary circumstances require it” (66.4%), and half thought that ethics came down to the individual’s judgement (49.9%; Ibid.).

Journalism courses became available in Sweden in the 1960s, with journalists adhering to strong watchdog values as well as being able to work “autonomously in their profession” (Wadbring and Ohlsson, 2017). The book, The Global Journalist in the 21st Century has a chapter on Sweden, with more information on journalism culture in the Swedish context (Strömbäck et al., 2012).

Other information

Governing framework
Parliamentary monarchy (Freedom House, 2019)

Parliament
Riksdag (Riksdag, 2020b)

Seats in parliament
349 seats (Riksdag, 2020b)

Last election
September 9, 2018 with hung parliament; coalition government from January 2019 (Henley, 2019)

Seats held by women
47% (The World Bank, 2020)

Majority party
Social Democrats (Riksdag, 2020a)

Populist party
Sweden Democrats (Freedom House, 2019)

Origins of key minority groups
Assyrians, Iran, Iraq, Jews, Kurds, Poland, Roma, Sámi, Syria, Turkey, former Yugoslavia (Minority Rights, 2020)

Constitutional text on freedom of speech/expression/the press

  • The Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression are the fundamental laws of the Realm.
  • (Everyone shall be guaranteed the following rights and freedoms in his or her relations with the public institutions:) – freedom of expression: that is, the freedom to communicate information and express thoughts, opinions and sentiments, whether orally, pictorially, in writing, or in any other way; – freedom of assembly: that is, the freedom to organise or attend meetings for the purposes of information or the expression of opinion or for any other similar purpose, or for the purpose of presenting artistic work; … The provisions of the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression shall apply concerning the freedom of the press and the corresponding freedom of expression on sound radio, television and certain similar transmissions, as well as in films, video recordings, sound recordings and other technical recordings. The Freedom of the Press Act also contains provisions concerning the right of access to official documents.
  • (To the extent provided for in Articles 21 to 24, the following rights and freedoms may be limited in law:) freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of assembly, freedom to demonstrate and freedom of association (Article 1, points 1 to 5).
  • Freedom of expression and freedom of information may be limited with regard to the security of the Realm, the national supply of goods, public order and public safety, the good repute of the individual, the sanctity of private life, and the prevention and prosecution of crime. Freedom of expression may also be limited in business activities. Freedom of expression and freedom of information may otherwise be limited only where particularly important grounds so warrant. In judging what limitations may be introduced in accordance with paragraph one, particular attention must be paid to the importance of the widest possible freedom of expression and freedom of information in political, religious, professional, scientific and cultural matters. The adoption of provisions which regulate in more detail a particular manner of disseminating or receiving information, without regard to its content, shall not be deemed a limitation of the freedom of expression or the freedom of information.
  • (For foreign nationals within the Realm, special limitations may be introduced to the following rights and freedoms:) freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of assembly, freedom to demonstrate, freedom of association and freedom of worship (Article 1, paragraph one).
  • (The opinion of the Council on Legislation is obtained by the Government or, under more detailed rules laid down in the Riksdag Act, by a committee of the Riksdag. The opinion of the Council on Legislation should be obtained before the Riksdag takes a decision on:) fundamental law relating to the freedom of the press or the corresponding freedom of expression on sound radio, television and certain similar transmissions, public performances taken from a database and technical recordings.

See also: The Freedom of the Press Act 1766 (December 2); The Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression

Media model (Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 67)
Northern European or Democratic Corporatist Model

Key events
click here for the BBC’s recent articles on Sweden.
click here for The Guardian’s recent articles on Sweden.

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