Bildt refuses to condemn 'Aftonbladet'

Swedish FM says he understands Israeli anger but explains that freedom of expression crucial.

carl Bildt 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Talarforum [file])
carl Bildt 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Talarforum [file])
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has rejected Israeli calls for official condemnation of a Swedish newspaper article about organ harvesting, saying freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy. Bildt said in a blog posted late Thursday that he would not condemn an article in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet that suggested Israeli troops had harvested the organs of dead Palestinians. He said freedom of expression is part of the Swedish constitution. "Freedom of expression and press freedom are very strong in our constitution by tradition. And that strong protection has served our democracy and our country well," Bildt wrote. "If I were engaged in editing all strange debate contributions in different media I probably wouldn't have time to do much else." Bildt said he understood why the article stirred strong emotions in Israel, but said basic values in society are best protected by free discussion. The article, published Monday, recounted Palestinian allegations that IDF soldiers killed Palestinians to harvest their organs, and implied a link to the recent arrest in the United States of an American Jew suspected of illicit organ trafficking. Bildt rejected claims that Sweden harbors anti-Semitic feelings, adding that the condemnation of anti-Semitism was the only issue on which there has ever been complete unity in the Swedish Parliament. He also drew a parallel between the current debate and the outrage triggered by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005. "When we had an agitated discussion about what many people saw as official defamation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, I think we gained an understanding that it is through openness that we best build the tolerance and the understanding that is so important in our society," Bildt wrote. "That is my belief in this case too." The article has enraged Israeli officials, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying Thursday that Stockholm's refusal to take a stand reminded him of Swedish behavior during World War II. "It is a shame that the Swedish Foreign Ministry does not get involved when speaking about blood libels against Jews, something that is reminiscent of Sweden's position during World War II when it also did not intervene," Lieberman said in a sharply worded statement. Lieberman said that he would pass on to Bildt a harsh protest of his ministry's retraction of the envoy's statement. He also said that Israel was considering revoking press privileges for the newspaper, and in any event would no longer cooperate with it. It was a "pity" that after the Swedish envoy did the "right thing" and condemned the article, the Swedish Foreign Ministry distanced itself from her, rather than backing her up, Lieberman said. Senior diplomatic officials said meanwhile that the Swedish government's refusal to condemn the article will "stain" Israeli-Swedish ties. Not only did the Swedish government refuse to condemn the article, as Israel had hoped and expected, but it also removed a condemnation of the article from the Swedish Embassy's Web site. "This was a local initiative," Anders Joerle, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, said of the condemnation issued by Swedish Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier. Bonnier, in a sharply worded statement posted on the embassy's Web site, had said the article was "as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens. We share the dismay expressed by Israeli government representatives, media and the Israeli public. This embassy cannot but clearly distance itself from it." According to the statement, "Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are freedoms which carry a certain responsibility. It falls on the editor-in-chief of any given newspaper." Bonnier's statement sparked intense criticism in Sweden, with the Green Party spokesman Per Gahrton saying she should be recalled and taught "the basics of Swedish freedom of speech," and the Swedish media questioning why a government-appointed official criticized an article in a newspaper based in a country where there is press freedom. The editor of the paper where the article appeared, Jan Helin, also lashed out at the envoy, calling her statement denouncing the article an infringement on freedom of the press. "Have you woken up in Iran?" Helin wrote. "No, it is Sweden's Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier in Tel Aviv, who attacks the Swedish freedom of press and freedom of expression." The editor, in a signed editorial, backed up the article and continued to call Israel to task. "It's deeply unpleasant and sad to see such a strong propaganda machine using centuries-old anti-Semitic images in an apparent attempt to get an obviously topical issue off the table," he wrote. The Foreign Ministry's spokesman for the Israeli press, Yossi Levy, said that Israel was "astounded and concerned" at the continued hesitation of the Swedish government to condemn an article "seeping with anti-Semitism." "Just as the paper has the right of freedom of the press, so too does the Swedish government have the right to clearly express in a determined manner its position against this anti-Semitic manipulation that is being used as a tool to demonize Israel," Levy said. Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Benny Dagan, is scheduled to meet on Friday in Stockholm with Sweden's deputy foreign minister. Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that while Israel hoped the Swedes would issue a statement, they doubted this would happen. As a result, they said, the next time that the Swedes protested to Israel about any alleged human rights violation, or when they wanted Israeli involvement in the diplomatic process, this would be in the background. "This will be the elephant in the room, and the elephant will stay there because they don't want to show it the door," one official said. The Swedish influence and relevance here will be weakened, he said, adding that this came at a time when Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency. Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday informed Bildt that he expected his government to denounce "the scandalous report." Barak stressed that the claims made in the article were not legitimate, but rather "a despicable libel, which is unacceptable also in a democratic atmosphere of freedom of speech." He asked the defense establishment's legal adviser to look into filing a libel suit against Donald Bostroem, the journalist who wrote the report. Jonah Newman and Bloomberg contributed to this report.