Sweden says it can't address 'organ theft' article

The Swedish government protests that it's legally prevented from commenting on press reports as Israel complains about an unsourced article alleging organ theft from Palestinians.

Yves Herman/ Reuters
Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

STOCKHOLM - Sweden’s Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, says he cannot legally criticize the controversial newspaper article at the center of a diplomatic spat with Israel.

In Sweden, many see the explosive Israeli response as a ploy to distract from European Union (EU) and US pressure on the country to curb settlement expansion in the occupied territories.

On Monday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Europe for what is expected to be a tough round of bilateral talks with European leaders, Mr. Reinfeldt called for a ”toning down” of the debate surrounding an article by Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest circulation tabloid newspaper.

Last week, the newspaper created an uproar among many in Israel, most notably the country’s foreign minister Avigor Lieberman, when it published an article suggesting the Israeli military had been involved in stealing the organs of Palestinians men in the early 1990s. Mr. Lieberman and others accused Sweden of antisemitism and compared the article to the medieval "blood libel” that accused Jews of bathing in the blood of Christian children. They demanded the Swedish government denounce the story, which hinged entirely on unnamed sources.

But Reinfeldt, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said that the Swedish constitution prohibits his government from interfering in the country’s media or passing judgment on media reports. "I don’t think that democratic nations should demand one another to break their constitutional laws,” he told Swedish public television.

”When I follow the debate in Israel I feel a need to explain what type of society Sweden is, and that we do not have a uniform view of Jews or Muslims or of individual countries. We have a free and open debate - people think differently and that is permitted. Jews, Christians, atheists and Muslims live side by side in this country in mutual respect. That is something we value.”

Sweden was one of the first country’s to enact a free press law, which passed in 1766. Swedish law and the country's constitution give far-reaching protections to journalists, ensuring that only publishers can be held accountable for the content of reports in a court of law. The law curbs political interference in the media, in the widest sense.

There is a consensus in Sweden that “politicians and/or representatives of authorities should refrain from any type of interference with publishing, including comments,” Agneta Lindblom Hulthén, chairperson of the Swedish Union of Journalists, told the Monitor. “We are very satisfied that this consensus has stood the test the last few days and that the Government has not given in to non-justified political pressure from another country,” she added.

On Monday, Hulthén’s organization reported that Israel’s embasssy in Sweden gave assurances that no restrictions will be placed on Swedish journalists, despite claims to the contrary from the head of Israel's Government Press Office, Daniel Seaman.

Most Swedish analysts believe the current diplomatic spat will be short lived, and should be seen in the context of the challenges facing Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is squeezed between EU and US demands to freeze settlement construction and hard-line advocates for the settlers in his own government.

Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest circulation broadsheet, claimed that Israel’s "extreme right wing government" had used the article as a pretext to attack the Swedish government and sabotage its attempts to create a stronger role for the EU in the Middle East.

Lieberman also harshly criticized Norway on Monday for celebrating the 150th birthday of a Norwegian author who was a Nazi sympathizer. Some in Sweden alleged his outrage was manufactured to distract debate from the subject of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. ”Norway is just the latest example,” said Jan Helin, editor in chief of Aftonbladet. ”Next week, it’ll be another country. This is not about the contents of an article. It’s an excuse to spread populist propaganda.”

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