Opposition: Freivalds must go after web site lie

Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds should resign for misleading journalists, say opposition parties. They say she did misled the public over how much she knew about her department's contact with an internet hosting company that closed a website belonging to the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna).

“We cannot have a foreign minister that does not tell the truth,” said Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund.

The forced closure of the Sweden Democrats’ site on February 9th, after pictures of the prophet Muhammad had been published on it, was strongly criticised at the time. A foreign ministry official contacted the hosting company, Levonline, as did Sweden’s security police, Säpo.

Amid allegations of state censorship, prime minister Göran Persson publicly slammed the civil servant behind the move.

“However strong his personal reasons may be, with a political position as adviser in the foreign ministry he should refrain from this sort of activity,” said Persson to TT.

Freivalds defended the foreign ministry’s contact with Levonline and said that it had simply been to inform the company of the consequences of publishing the pictures.

At the same time, Freivalds denied that she had known of the contact in advance.

That claim has now been contradicted in a statement sent by Carl Henrik Ehrenkrona, the head of the foreign ministry’s legal department, to the Chancellor of Justice, who is investigating whether the official was guilty of misconduct.

“On February 8th an official in the department, after consultation with the foreign minister, contacted the company which hosted the web site,” wrote Ehrenkrona, according to the publication Riksdag & Departement.

Ehrenkrona said that point had not been for the official to pressurize the hosting company, but to offer information about the situation.

In the statement, Ehrenkrona said that there was therefore no reason to criticise the foreign ministry official for what happened.

Swedish government bodies are banned in the constitution from getting involved in what newspapers, including web-based newspapers, write.

Speaking on Swedish Radio on Monday morning Freivalds said that she had been ‘surprised’ by questions from journalists. She said she believed that they had asked if it was the foreign ministry which had shut the site down.

Centre Party leader Maud Olofsson rejected the explanation.

“It’s obvious that Laila Freivalds understood the questions,” she told TT.

She said she assumed that the criticism Göran Persson levelled at the civil servant would now be transferred to Freivalds herself.

“Then we’ll be in an interesting political situation. Göran Persson has tried to maintain the impression that there is trust between himself and Freivalds. That’s going to be very hard for him after this, since the criticism must now be aimed at her.”

Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) leader Lars Leijonborg said “she has used up all her credibility.”

The Moderate Party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Gunilla Carlsson said that Freivalds’ actions formed part of a pattern.

“This is not an isolated occurrence,” she said.

“The prime minister and his colleagues also pass the buck to others. It is unseemly and dents confidence in the public administration,” she said.

The leader of the Christian Democrats, Göran Hägglund, noted that it is not just the prime minister’s confidence in Laila Freivalds that is in doubt.

“If the Chancellor of Justice’s inquiry shows that the foreign ministry put pressure on the hosting company because of the publication of the Muhammad pictures, then that is breaking the law,” he said in a statement.

“But already it’s clear that, amazingly enough, Freivalds has not told the truth in this matter. She has denied all knowledge of the contact which is now being investigated. Already this is so serious that the foreign minister ought to consider whether she has the confidence not only of the prime minister but also of the public.”

Green Party spokesman Peter Eriksson said he wanted more details about what happened before he was willing to draw any long-term conclusions.

“It ought to have been Säpo who was responsible for such contact. But what’s more problematic now is whether or not Laila Freivalds told the truth,” he said.

Freivalds said she was angry that she was being accused of being deliberately misleading, and denied outright that she had lied.

She accused journalists of giving both her and Persson a false picture of what the official had done, by saying that he “closed down the website.”

“I was very shocked, and felt uncertain what we or anyone had done. Then it became clear that we had done exactly what we had talked about,” said Freivalds at a press conference outside the EU Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels.

Her department’s actions were based on considerations of Swedes’ security in a very vulnerable situation, and on offering the hosting company information so that it could make its own decision.

The Liberal Party reported the foreign ministry to the parliamentary committee on the constitution when it became known that it had made contact with the hosting company about the Sweden Democrats caricature competition.

Lars Leijonborg is now calling on the committee to prioritise the issue.

“I can’t think of any other case in modern times where publication has been cancelled with a cabinet minister’s approval,” he said.

Göran Persson made it known that he would not make any comments about the case on Monday.

TT/The Local