Opinionista Julie Reid 8 July 2013

Dear SA, this is how to build a free society and an accountable government. Love, Sweden.

A recent trip to Sweden revealed a marvellous attitude to the accessibility of information – the kind of Utopian ideal that would have South Africans shaking their head in admiring disbelief.

Sweden: this small country way up north has made some peculiar appearances in South African headlines recently. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela reportedly handed out what the Mail & Guardian called a ‘Swiss diss’ to minister of agriculture, forestries and fisheries, Tina Joemat-Petterson, when she said that the minister should learn from a Swedish politician who resigned for having inappropriately spent state funds on some Toblerone chocolates. This story also pointed out the irresistibility of a cool sounding headline that rhymes to media folk: the headline, in this case, was incorrect. If the ‘diss’ had been ‘Swiss’, then Madonsela would have been referring to a politician from Switzerland, and not Sweden. Switzerland and Sweden are the same place as much as Africa is a country. But ‘Swedish diss’ just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Anyway, I digress.

Earlier that week the Sunday Independent reported that Gwede Mantashe inexplicably appeared to be trying to pin the blame for the mayhem in Marikana on a Swede. (That’s what people from Sweden are called. They are ‘Swedes’ and not ‘Swiss’. You follow?). The Swede in question was activist Liv Shange, a Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) leader. Mantashe’s assertions that Shange had been trying to destabilise the country by stirring up unrest amongst miners was widely met with ridicule, and read as another bizarre attempt to shift responsibility for South Africa’s very real problems, from the ruling party to mythically demonised foreign forces of evil. Sadly, these two almost laughable incidents will be the sum total of what most South African media followers have heard about the country of Sweden of late. That’s a real pity, because this little-known-about country for South Africans, has a lot more to offer.

Last month I was invited to travel to Stockholm, as part of a group of African representatives for a series of meetings with media regulators, journalists and a journalist union, media producers and the Swedish foreign ministry. Not being able to help myself, the more I learnt about Sweden, the more I began a mental comparative analysis with South Africa – what follows here is just some of that comparison and how we measure up to what is widely regarded as one of the most free, open, transparent and least corrupt of societies on the planet.

What first pricked my interest in Stockholm was something called the Freedom of the Press Act. Despite its name, this piece of legislation safeguards the freedom of expression rights of all citizens, not just the press. More than that, it means that any individual can contact any public authority and request access to any official document without having to provide their motivation for doing so and without having to identify themselves. With regard to the notion of open and free access to information, that sounded too good to be true. So I asked a few questions about how effectively this law works in practice.

Sven Bergman, an investigative journalist, at first lamented the corrupt nature of governments in general, and recounted a few stories of corruption in the Swedish government which had been uncovered by journalists in recent years, the most significant ironically being the sale of military goods to South Africa during the Arms Deal. So, I asked him, what about this Freedom of the Press Act? How well does it work in Sweden? He replied instantly, “It’s very good. Very good”. According to Bergman, the law works in practice precisely in the way that it is put on paper: a journalist can enter a government department at any time, request a particular document and wait while an official collects it and hands it over. The official has to hand it over, and they do. “Sometimes you to have a wait a few hours, but it never really takes longer than that. At some of these places you learn that if you talk nicely to the elderly ladies at the desk, and give them some cakes, then the documents come faster,” says Bergman, smiling.

In South Africa the law that is supposed to enable open access to government information is called the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). But often PAIA fails in implementation, acting as a hindrance to accessing to government information rather than promoting it. The process is burdensome: it requires having to complete a near unfathomable form, and officials at many government bodies do not understand the law themselves, which means that just tracking down the appropriate person to whom one must submit the form, can sometimes be time consuming. Once the PAIA application is submitted, the public body has 30 days in which to respond. Applications are often turned down, in which case one can appeal, but then you have to wait another 30 days to get an answer. So, it’s not a case of, ‘Wait here while I fetch that for you’. By comparison, PAIA is tedious, cumbersome and bureaucratic enough to, contrary to what its name suggests, act more as a discouragement to anyone looking for public information. From a media angle having to wait for 30, sometimes 60 days for information that rightly should be open to the public, when chasing a deadline, is ludicrous and impractical.

But all the legal stuff aside, there’s also the matter of pure principle. It’s the principle of Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act, and the seemingly widely held respect for that principle within that country, that makes it work. What is that principle? It is that information held by PUBLIC institutions belongs to the PUBLIC. To see what I mean, try applying the same principle in South Africa. Imagine strolling into the Department of Public Works back in September 2012, and saying to a secretary that you would like to see the official records of all state funds spent on the president’s private home at Nkandla. Imagine he/she answers, “Sure! No problem. Just wait here while I fetch it for you.”

On Friday, 5 July 2013, the Mail & Guardian reported on a gargantuan pile of documents which they had finally secured from the Department of Public Works detailing some of the behind-the-scenes history to the Nkandla project. Three things are relevant in this case. First, the information released by the Mail & Guardian is damning, to the president as well as a chain of others involved in the project – which just illustrates the value of open access to public information in securing accountability in government. Second, the Mail & Guardian was at pains to point out, more than once, that the more than 12,000 pages worth of documentation which they now have in their possession thanks to a successful PAIA application contains significant gaps of information. The next question is, where is that information? Why wasn’t it handed over to the Mail & Guardian after the PAIA application, which by law, it should have been? Third, the Nkandlagate scandal broke for the first time in a City Press exposé last year in September. Yet, 10 months later, this is the first time a media outlet in South Africa has had access to official information held by a public institution on the matter. The fact that it has taken our public officials so long to release this information, especially with regard to the level of public interest, should have them hanging their heads in shame. (And yes, SABC head-honchos, I use the term ‘Nkandlagate’ deliberately, even though you’d like to have it censored).

The principle that information held by public institutions belongs to the public, were it respected in South Africa, could have saved the Mail & Guardian tons of legal fees and years of slogging through the courts for access to the Zimbabwe election report of 2002. And never mind the newspapers. This principle, were it respected, would have spared countless activists and community organisations around the country from a constant and exhausting struggle with officials to have access to information which should quite rightly be in the public domain for the purpose of improving people’s lives. It would have meant that the Right2Know Campaign could have simply walked into the front office of the Department of State Security and been handed the full list of national key points within a matter of minutes. Instead, Right2Know had to submit a PAIA application (which failed even on appeal) and the campaign then took to the streets in Johannesburg on World Press Freedom day out of protest. But in South Africa, we still don’t know what all of our own national key points are.

The striking thing about the Swedish media people that I met was their seemingly genuine wish to do good in the world. The underlying golden thread which seems to bind their common purpose is that they are very much aware that their country has somehow, perhaps by some force of cosmic good luck, managed to build a society which is not without its own hiccups, but in spite of these is globally recognised as an enclave of freedom, openness and transparency. Added to that is an attitude to want to share this with others. Ola Larsmo, President of the Swedish PEN, is also the editor-in-chief of The Dissident Blog: a website that specifically publishes the work of otherwise censored journalists from regions where they cannot publish their material, knowing that it would see them arrested, intimidated, tortured or imprisoned. Currently the Dissident Blog is running a special issue on Iran. Larsmo told us that he aims to publish the ‘forbidden texts’, in order to give them both a Swedish and an international audience. The point here is to afford journalists from crisis regions and authoritarian regimes the same freedoms enjoyed by Swedish journalists via the miracle that is the Internet.

Johan Hallenborg is the Deputy Director for the International Law and Human Rights Department at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is one of the people involved Sweden’s leading charge at the United Nations Human Rights Council for resolutions that would encapsulate freedom on the internet for people around the world, recognising the power of the (free) internet as a public good. Not satisfied with stopping at being an exemplary nation with regard to press freedoms (relative to other countries), Sweden weighs in at the forefront on global debates about internet freedoms and has made this a main priority in their foreign policy. Three of their ministers, and their prime minister, have pushed forward with initiatives promoting freedom on the internet. This position maintains that people’s freedoms and rights should apply online in the same way that they apply offline, including freedom of speech. Again, it’s not just about securing freedoms for Swedes but for others too.

Another notable characteristic in all the Swedes I met was their somewhat shy humility when it came to discussing their country’s successes. All of them, without exception, made an effort to explain that their system is not perfect, and not without its problems. Hallenborg, at pains to emphasise this, said thrice in one conversation, “Do we have challenges? Yes. Of course!” I found this attitude, within a ‘north’ context, particularly refreshing. I’ve attended a number of conferences and international north/south exchanges before, which usually boil down to the ‘north’ delegates assuming a paternalistic/messianic tone toward the ‘south’ delegates which is usually read by the south delegates as owing to an arrogant superiority complex, thus seeing the south delegates subtly withdraw from debates due to a feeling of offence. It is offensive. It’s also not conducive to a constructive platform for discussion. So to hear these north people, proclaiming to us south people, that they were, in fact, not necessarily better than us, when in at least some ways they so obviously are, was unexpected. Perhaps they were just trying to be nice. But give me ‘nice’ over arrogant any day.

In-keeping with this, Pär Trehörning at the Swedish Union for Journalists pointed out that even the Freedom of the Press Act is not without a glitch. He explained that although the act makes it very easy to get hold of information being held by state bodies, sometimes local governments outsource government services to private companies. Because the companies are privately owned they are not subject to the Freedom of the Press Act – even though they supply services to the public and are paid to do so with public funds, they aren’t open to much scrutiny. According to Trehörning is a serious loop-hole in the law. Here at least our own PAIA comes out tops. Under PAIA you can request information from a private body, so long as you can motivate that it has public interest.

We met Ola Sigvardsson, the Press Ombudsman at the Swedish Press Council, founded in 1916, which is the oldest self-regulatory press council in the world. It’s noteworthy that the Swedish Press Council receives roughly the same number of complaints against the press each year as our own press council (about 300), and that the press is sanctioned in roughly the same number of instances.

But it was Sigvardsson who told us the one thing that I heard a Swede say with which I strongly disagreed. He said, “It’s not that our politicians are better than anywhere else in the world. It’s not that they are better people. All people are corrupt. It’s just that we have good laws and good regulations in place to ensure accountability.”

I told him, “I don’t agree with you. Many countries including my own have good laws on paper. But these laws are often circumnavigated in implementation by the very people that they are supposed to keep in check. Accountability in government needs good laws, yes. But it won’t happen unless there are respect for those laws, and the principles which they encompass, at all levels, especially amongst politicians. An open and transparent society relies on a general culture of respect for transparency. If that is missing, even the best laws won’t help.” DM

Correction: the 5 July news reports on the Nkandla documents mentioned above, although published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper and on this newspaper’s website, were in fact produced by amaBhungane, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism. It was amaBhungane that pursued and secured the release of these documents from the department of public works. Julie Reid apologies for this error. Read about amaBhungane’s battle to secure these documents here.

*Disclaimer: Dr Julie Reid was invited to travel to Sweden by the Swedish Institute. Dr Reid works as an academic at the Department of Communication Science at UNISA and is a working member of the Right2Know Campaign. Her comments in this column are made in her personal capacity and not on behalf of UNISA or the Right2Know Campaign. She would like to point out that she was not brainwashed by the Swedes while in Stockholm, but believes that there is nothing wrong with admitting it when someone else is doing something better than yourself.

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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