In Sweden, citizens can walk into the prime minister’s office and read his mail. They also can peek into government records and find out a lot about a neighbor, from salary to debts.
As a matter of policy, government records have been open to the public since 1766, when a political party known as the Caps ousted the rival Hats from government in an election fought over charges that the Hats were keeping too many things secret.
Now, in the era of the computer and probing media, some Swedes complain about invasion of their privacy.
Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson is not one of them, however.
Few Classified Files
Of 5,577 documents that crossed his desk in the first 10 months of this year, only 109 were classified. Most were internal memos and correspondence with foreign governments.
Vivianne Eriksson, who registers the mail and indexes the documents on a computer, said that not many people take advantage of the privilege of going through Carlsson’s mail.
She estimated that no more than one visitor a week, usually a journalist, comes into her office for a look.
“I suppose most people don’t know they can come here,” she said.
Scanning the computer index, a reporter recently found subjects ranging from theories about who killled Carlsson’s predecessor, Olof Palme, to requests for an autograph.
Other letters were appeals for political asylum and complaints about pollution or moose hunting.
Kitchens and Killers
One entry was about correspondence from Maj-Britt Hedlund of Boden: “Wants a new kitchen and to find Palme’s killer.”
A letter of thanks to Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, was classified as secret; so was a letter from President Reagan on nuclear disarmament. Memos on military subjects and on trips abroad by government officials also bore the stamp of secrecy.
The principle of public access is not limited to authorities. The highly developed Swedish bureaucracy has numbered, registered, compiled and processed information about the citizenry, most of which is open to the public.
Every Swedish resident has a 10-digit “personal number,” which begins with the birthday. Knowing your neighbor’s date of birth is enough to gain access to his file at the National Taxation Board, which lists his income and tax from the previous year, his church membership, marital status and current address.
If you take that number to the county police, you can find out if he has any unpaid bills and how much he owes. Other registers list his education, state of health and his hobbies if he is a member of an association.
All this has been accepted as a price for keeping people honest in a society that strives for equality among its citizens. But hundreds of people complain every year that authorities and private companies abuse public records.
Such complaints come to Data Inspection, a 40-member department of the Justice Ministry that monitors compliance with the regulations governing access to information and privacy.
The department was set up in 1973 when the government instituted a law to guard against misuse of the personal number. Criminal files are restricted, as are files about cases of serious social problems.
Further efforts to limit access have failed to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the protection of privacy, said Leif Stenstrom, an official of Data Inspection.
“There’s been a U-turn,” he added. “From enabling the common man to control the authorities, you could say ((free access) now helps the authorities to control the common man.”
Peter Seipel, a law professor at Stockholm University, said the idea endorsed by the Caps 200 years ago--that men of power and high rank need watching--still applies.
“The principle of public access is an important part of our democracy, although the judicial right is not often used,” Seipel said in an interview.
“One cannot imagine a society without it now. Administrative secrecy would reign.”
Marie Kronmarker, lecturer at the Fojo journalism school, said reporters don’t exercise their right to find out what’s happening at the top.
Everyone has the right to appeal the classification of a document as secret, she said, but journalists were too often intimidated by the label of secrecy or by difficulty of locating mislaid documents.