Swedish public media tirelessly covered the country’s election amidst threats and complaints from the far right, with a renewed commitment to bring valuable information to its citizens.

Last month, Sweden prepared for a divisive election, which resulted in the tie of two dominant parties without a majority, and the far-right Sweden Democrats party gaining more power.

Election coverage from the country’s public service media, Sveriges Radio (SR) and Sveriges Television (SVT) was extensive, with journalists working day and night across all platforms as the results came in.

“Our overall aim was to be relevant to the voters and grab the issues that weren’t always in the public eye, but also those that were to be found from close contact with our listeners and to place them in context of the wider campaign,” said SR’s programme director, Björn Löfdahl, to PMA.

Interactivity was indeed key for SR, taking its coverage on the road and collaborating with local media houses to provide relevant and timely information to citizens in different municipalities.

“…cooperation with local media houses is something we think Swedish Radio is very good at, we get better content or maybe do “bigger” things by working together, we are always open to it,” wrote Michael Österlund, Deputy Program Director at Sveriges Radio.

SR also ran special projects such as #tiomiljoner (#tenmillions – the number of Swedes in the country today).

“The #tiomiljoner project used constructive journalism as the method in order to get our listeners to raise the issues they wished,” said Löfdahl. “Many of the interviews resulted in radio [content] that was part of our election coverage.”

More generally, many municipality, regional and parliamentary candidates were offered the opportunity to take part in debates, which were complemented with entertainment inserts. Channel P4 Sjuhärad, for example, launched a classic election debate in collaboration with SvT West but with a stand-up show performed by the host as an introduction. In addition, both Sveriges Radio and Sisuradio reported in several languages ​​throughout the evening.

“It’s incredibly important to be present where our listeners are, we must engage to find the issues that they care about, not only the issues that the political parties are pushing or that dominate the debate,” said Löfdahl. “All these were efforts to give our listeners the opportunity to be heard and to have their issues [raised] by us.”

Additionally outside the public media sphere, the last five days of the election campaign saw more than 100 journalism students gathered together in a pop-up newsroom to consider solutions and ways to review information and manage misinformation flows on social media, both before and during the election.

Populist politics and safety decline

Yet despite a long history of upholding press freedom, the media landscape in Sweden is witnessing the weight of polarising debates coupled with populist and anti-immigration politics.

Populist governments are not new to European politics, but their growing emergence in recent years has resulted in a growing number of threats against media freedom and independent journalism. This was apparent during the Swedish election, where Sweden’s far-right party took aim at the country’s public broadcasters.

In one instance, SVT intervened in a political debate when a politician from the anti-immigration party, Sweden Democrats (SD), made a controversial comment during a debate aired on a Friday night. Jimmie Akesson, the SD party leader, said that immigrants are unable to find jobs in Sweden because “they are not Swedes” and don’t fit within Swedish society.

According to The Local.se, the public broadcaster decided to speak out:  “We must begin by saying that Jimmie Åkesson’s comments were blatantly generalising and SVT does not stand by them,” said Martina Nord, SVT host, after the debate. As a result, the party announced it would boycott the broadcaster and no party member would speak with the broadcaster ahead of the elections  – and possibly beyond – unless it received an apology.

However, SVT stood its ground and Anne Lagercrantz, a spokeswoman for SVT, said that the remarks were justified by the “democracy clause” in the Radio and Television Act. According to the Local.se, the clause stipulates that content aired by the public broadcaster must uphold “the democratic system’s basic ideas and principles that all people are equal”.

In addition, conservative members of Parliament had already hit out at the country’s media by accusing newspapers of “agenda setting” for giving a large space to environmental coverage.  

Tension is clearly growing within the Swedish media landscape and being a journalist in Sweden is not as safe as it used to be. A recent study revealed that 6 out of 10 journalists have been subject to harassment, violence, or intimidation due to their profession.

Importance of public media

Yet, public media is Sweden still benefits from a high level of trust even though this trust might be in decline among SD party members and followers. But with multimedia and collaborative coverage, Sweden demonstrated the key value of public broadcasting during an election period.

“In this situation, our role becomes even more important,” wrote Cilla Benko, CEO of Sveriges Radio. “Now it’s important to follow the developments and tell, analyse, and put them in context for our listeners. We’re already working this way and we will continue.”

Ongoing investment in Next Generation Technology also ensures that SR continues to expand its reach and interactivity with the public, making it easier to interview “the man or woman in the street”.

“We were very happy with our coverage, and feel we gave our listeners wide ranging coverage on both the national and local level,” said Löfdahl. “We had 1,5 million listeners during election day for three of our election shows, figures well above our normal levels.”

As the political situation remains uncertain, public media in Sweden is committed do to what public broadcasting does best: to inform democracy by providing independent and crucial information to its citizens.

Header image: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio