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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 15:37 GMT
Why you're free to ask in Sweden...
By Lars Bevanger
BBC News in Oslo

Map of Sweden
Freedom of Information has just become a right to citizens of the UK - but another European country is the real contender for the title of land of the free.

The Bishop of Stockholm recently had to pay a fine for neglect of duty. She had broken what is probably the world's oldest freedom of information act, from 1766.

"On assuming my duty as bishop, I sent letters to all the priests asking them to tell me what problems and challenges they were facing, both professionally and privately", Bishop Caroline Krook told the BBC.

"I wanted to get to know them, and it never crossed my mind that someone would want these letters to be public knowledge," she said.

But someone did. And as the office of Bishop is a public one, Swedish law says all correspondence to that office is open for scrutiny to whoever might choose to do so.

In this case it was a journalist. When Bishop Krook refused to hand over the letters, the matter went to court.

Journalists most eager

The Swedish freedom of information act was instituted as one of the country's four fundamental laws, which make up the country's written constitution.
Pic: Jim Elfstrom/Ikon/Church of Sweden
Bishop Krook: Caught out by FOI law

The main purpose of the act is to ensure all actions by the authorities which concern the people, are open to scrutiny.

Journalists are the most eager to make use of the law.

One who has made this his main business, is Bjorn Hygstedt, head of investigative journalism at the Svenska Dagbladet.

"We decided to look into what the top brass at Stockholm's local transport authority were up to", Mr Hygstedt said.

"We simply requested to look at receipts from their business travels, and could immediately tell they were up to no good.

"Not only were they travelling business class. They were staying in five star hotels in the Alps, doing a total of five hours' work over five days, spending huge amounts of public money on food, drink and their wives."

As a result of the newspaper's revelations, the head of Stockholm Transport was sacked and charged with fraud.

Bjorn Hygstedt won Sweden's most prestigious journalism award.

Environmentalists

Under Swedish law, anyone can demand access to this kind of information. And there are people apart from journalists who exercise their right to know.

The authorities have no right to ask who wants information or for what purpose - we sometimes see breaches of that rule, as well as delaying tactics to slow the release of information
Kjell Svanstrom, spokesman for Swedish FOI ombudsman
Kjell Svanstrom is head of staff at Sweden's parliamentary ombudsman.

"Most people here are aware of their rights. Apart from journalists, there are many interest groups who make use of the freedom of information act.

"For environmentalist groups for instance, it is of great importance to have as much information as possible about what the authorities are planning to do to an area under development, if they plan to fight that development," Mr Svanstrom told News Online.

When individuals feel the authorities aren't living up to their obligation to share information, it is Mr Svanstrom's office which deals with the complaint.

"The authorities and civil servants are in breach of the law if they fail to act swiftly upon a request", explained Kjell Svanstrom.

"That means getting the information out within a few days, unless it is information which is very difficult to access for some reason.

"The authorities have no right to ask who wants information or for what purpose. We sometimes see breaches of that rule, as well as delaying tactics to slow the release of information."

And in those cases, the law does have teeth, as everyone could see in Bishop Krook's case.

She refused to hand over the letters she had received from priests around the country, and even destroyed some of the letters.

The court ordered Bishop Krook to pay 1,200 for her sins.


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