The Free Press Defense: Sweden, Aftonbladet and What Wallenberg Would Think

So it has come to this: A country's leading newspaper publishes a lurid attack on the Jewish people, and no one less than the Foreign Minister invokes 'freedom of speech' to protect the newspaper and its hit-man reporter. Iran? No. Sweden.

Here's the backdrop Aftonbladet, Sweden's leading daily, splashed a two-page spread across its equivalent of the "Style Section" of The New York Times mainstreaming lurid and baseless accusations that the Israeli Army, since the early 1990s, has been killing Palestinian young men in order to market their organs for transplants. To add a little more spice, the story insinuated that New Jersey rabbis, recently arrested for money laundering were also part of the organ- selling ring. This scenario is an update of the Medieval Blood Libel, when Jews were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood for Passover Matzos, which led to violent pogroms against Jews from Europe to Damascus. Outraged critics, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, reminded the Swedes how the Nazis had revived the "blood libel" to help justify the Holocaust. Asked to put up or shut up, the initial response by the Swedish reporter and Aftonbladet was to run a second article with the same theme, all the while declaiming any malice or anti-Semitic intent. Finally, they were forced to admit that they have no evidence to support these outrageous libels. Oh, and did we mention that the Palestinian identified as the source of the canard denied he ever told the reporter any such thing... But the stench from this pollution passing for journalism lingers, primarily due to the bizarre and contradictory behavior of officials in the Swedish government, currently occupying the rotating presidency of the European Union. The initial reaction of Sweden's Ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, on the Embassy web site in Tel Aviv denounced the article, "as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens." Had the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose imminent visit to Israel is now under a cloud, backed her up, that probably would have ended the 'official' dimension of the controversy. Instead, the Foreign Ministry rebuked its own Ambassador who was forced to remove the condemnation from her web site because, according to Bildt, Sweden stands behind "constitutionally protected free speech." The truth is that the Swedish government is not and has never been the great champion of First Amendment free speech and press rights that Americans, for example, take for granted. Let's give the Swedish people their historical due: the Swedish Parliament was the world's first-in 1766-to outlaw censorship and guarantee freedom of the press. Alas, this law was more honored in the breach than in the observance during the next couple of centuries. In the 1940s, it was shredded as "neutral Sweden " made sure to avoid upsetting Nazi Germany, as long as it appeared Hitler was winning. Stockholm ruthlessly censored newspapers to prevent publication of stories critical of its providing Nazi Germany with iron ore and ball bearings as well as safe passage for German soldiers posing as Red Cross personnel. So much for free speech. But then, in 1949, Sweden adopted a new Constitution protecting freedom of the press (extended to electronic media in 1992). Great! That is until the 2006 international firestorm over the satiric Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed. As the Danes struggled with violent protests, Muslim boycotts, and threats against the cartoonist's life, Sweden's Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds denounced as a "a provocation" by "a small group of extremists" a competition sponsored by the far-right newspaper SD-Kuriren inviting readers to send in cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed. The CEO of Levonline, the newspaper's primary online host, then pulled the plug on their website after pressure from the Foreign Ministry and Swedish security services. Turns out Freivalds was forced to resign, not so much because she curbed 'free speech'-but because she had initially lied about her involvement in the episode. So during the Mohammed cartoon affair did the Swedish government really stand up for free speech the way that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen did at the time? Far from it. Instead, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson hung Rasmussen out to dry, telling Swedish Radio that if he had been in the same situation as Rasmussen, he would not have "underestimated the situation, in the way you could say that they have done." Carl Hamilton, a member of Parliament for the Swedish Liberal Party interviewed by the International Herald Tribune, said he was "ashamed" of how the Swedish government had handled the crisis, adding: "As soon as it faces a real conflict, poof! The solidarity is gone." Tiring of waiting for Sweden to do the right thing, two most prominent human rights figures in the United States Congress, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) are urging European foreign ministers to denounce, without ambiguity, the Aftonbladet article. Said Senator Cardin, "We at the U.S. Helsinki Commission are dedicated to upholding human rights, particularly freedom of the press. But with freedom of the press comes responsibility. And when major press outlets fail to meet their responsibility, and instead raise the specter of racism or anti-Semitism, then public officials are duty bound to speak out and condemn such blatant falsehoods. I commend Sweden's Ambassador to Israel for fulfilling this duty, and I call on the Swedish Government, which currently holds the European Union Presidency, to support Italian and other EU efforts to denounce this harmful reporting." Back in January 1981, I had the honor to go to Stockholm with the late Simon Wiesenthal, future Nobel Peace Laureate, Elie Wiesel, and hundreds of other Jews from around the globe to rally behind the cause of Raoul Wallenberg, arguably the greatest Christian hero of the Holocaust. In 1944, at the behest of the US and using the cover of a Swedish diplomat, Wallenberg went to occupied Budapest and took on Nazi henchman-in-chief, Adolf Eichmann head-on as 800,000 Hungarian Jews were targeted for deportation to Auschwitz. Through his personal courage and determination he helped save 100,000 Jews from certain death. Taken into custody by the Soviets, Stalin's brutal regime combined with Stockholm's silent acquiescence, Wallenberg disappeared into the Gulag. Looking down at today's Swedish leaders, Wallenberg must be raging from his front row seat on heaven.

Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, aconcultant to the Simon Wiesenthl Center contributed to this essay.