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Firestorm in Swedish media over 'EU blogger registry'

27.06.08 @ 09:34

  1. By Teresa Kuchler and Leigh Phillips

Swedish media have erroneously reported that the EU plans to register and bill all bloggers, setting off a firestorm of reaction in the country.

  • The report calls on the European Commission and EU member states to apply competition law to the media to ensure media pluralism (Photo: European Commission)

Politicians of all political stripes and most major media outlets have since furiously attacked the idea as another example of Big Brother snooping into people's daily lives, while the MEP at the heart of the controversy has been compared to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The papers later specified that the proposal had originated in a month-old report on media pluralism from the parliament – a document that has little legal weight – and intended to clarify the legal situation of bloggers, but by then the debate in the press had already reached a fevered pitch.

"Exchange the EU for China, and you would have a real media outcry," wrote Sören Karlsson, publisher of the daily Helsingborgs Dagblad and himself an eager blogger, who damned the 'blogger registry' as a threat to freedom of speech.

"We would have found it insane."

Sven-Åke Olofsson, political editor of daily Helsingborgs Dagblad, and also a blogger, wrote in his paper: "Here they try to introduce laws and regulations in an area that is not possible to regulate.

"It seems useless and proves an authoritarian attitude towards freedom of speech."

The Estonian MEP who drafted the media pluralism report, socialist deputy Marianne Mikko, has been the target of much of the criticism.

"In Ceausescu's Romania, everybody who owned a type writer had to hand in a paper with typing samples, so that the authorities more easily could fight enemies of the state and ordinary criminals," recalled Peter Swedenmark, an editorial writer for daily Västerbottens Folkblad.

"Unfortunately, in the naive proposal from Mikko, there seem to be some kinship with the Romanian line," he continued.

A conservative MEP also used the opportunity to attack the registry. Christopher Fjellner, from the centre-righ EPP-ED grouping in the parliament said to the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet: "The report shows proof of immense ignorance among our decision makers. It is such an incredibly stupid proposal," he said, adding that Ms Mikko's education as a journalist under the former Soviet Union must have given her an old-fashioned perspective on the media landscape.

"She has a hole in her head," he concluded.

The media storm reached such a frenzy that the European parliament's Swedish press sector on Thursday afternoon was forced to send out a press release to all Swedish media, explaining that MEPs' own-initiative reports such as that of Ms Mikko had next to no legal weight.

The bureau also underlined that the parliament does not have the right to initiate legislation, something that can only be proposed by the European Commission.

The main recommendations in the report call on the European Commission and EU member states to apply competition law to the media to ensure media pluralism.

Its other major recommendations include the creation of media pluralism ombudspersons in the member states; the development of European core curriculum for media literacy; and for the commission to ensure that regulations governing state aid not be used to undermine public service media.

The report does however also call for a clarification of the legal status of webblog authors and wants to see a disclosure of interests, and the voluntary labelling of webblogs.

The MEPs that approved the report were concerned that the legal situation of bloggers regarding source protection was unclear and that laws in Europe did not cover where liability was assigned in the event of lawsuits.

Speaking to the EUobserver, Ms Mikko clarified her intentions: "We do not need to know the exact identity of bloggers. We need some credentials, a quality mark, a certain disclosure of who is writing and why. We need this to be able to trust and rely on the source."

"The Economist is a valuable brand, its articles are trusted by readers without contributors having to reveal their names," she said. "If there is a way to validate the best bloggers the same way that publishing in the Economist validates its writers, it should be done."

"It is clear that a Harvard professor of international relations is likely to treat, for instance, the Middle East peace process or European integration in an educated and balanced manner," she added. "The same trust cannot be put in a radical high school student from Gaza or a Eurosceptic who has never been out of his village"

"The reader should know why this or that blogger should be trusted on a particular issue."

The outrage has been exacerbated by the timing of the debate. The country is currently involved in heated discussion about surveillance in society after a controversial law on tapping e-mails was recently passed by the Swedish parliament.

Last week, the government narrowly passed legislation that gives officials the power to open all emails and listen to any telephone conversation in the country.

US-based search engine firm Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer said of the bill: "By introducing these new measures, the Swedish government is following the examples set by governments ranging from China and Saudi Arabia to the US government's widely criticised eavesdropping programme."

The bill provoked widespread opposition, with protesters handing out copies of George Orwell's 1984. Much of the reaction against the Mikko report in Sweden has compared her proposals to the government surveillance legislation.