Friday, November 7, 2008

Gunilla Carlsson on the importance of journalism in a democratic society

Kalmar - Sweden. Gunilla Carlsson does not fit the mould of the politician as we know it. Indeed to begin with, she is a female, which for the participants of the course of Journalism and Democracy for the Middle East and North Africa, is something they might witness at home, more in the form of a woman “inheriting” the power from a male relative or through a political genetic mutation rather than in the form of a woman breaking steadily through the rank of her party. According to wikipedia: Anna Gunilla Carlsson (born 11 May 1963) is a Swedish Moderate Party politician, currently Minister for Development Cooperation and a member of the Riksdag and deputy chairman of her party. After working as an auditor, she joined the Moderate Party office in 1994. In 1995 she was elected to the European Parliament and served until 2002, when she was elected to the Riksdag for Stockholm. In 1999, she was elected vice chairman of the Moderate Party.” Carlsson, is certainly not your typical minister either. Whereas she is supposed to be part of the right wing party in Sweden, her language is more center and what is completely amazing is that she “wasted” 45 minutes on journalists from the MENA region and from Belarus when we don’t even vote for her. She bothered to listen to inputs and take notes even, and avoided the prepackaged answers normally associated with politicians of high political ranks. Carlsson kept going back in her discussion to two basic points “patience and understanding”, she recognizes she does not have a magical wand whereby she can change things from one day to the next in other countries. But naturally, armed with such stunning personality (and beauty) in addition to 1% of the Swedish GDP per year – the equivalent of 3,4 Billion SEK or 450 Million Dollars – she is naturally in a position of influence. Carlsson said that what got her into politics in the 70s was knowing that people of her age, in Estonia for example, were being sent to jail due to them fighting for freedom and that was only some “400 kms away from me.” But what is truly surprising about here is this ability for be “grateful” to the journalists who were attending the courses at Fojo – the Institute for Further Education of Journalists – and admits that she “does not have all the answers.” She also recognizes three major axis for development her ministry is working on, the first deals with eradicating poverty, the second the empowering of women, and the third has to do with fighting global warming. She also realizes how interconnected these issues are. “But instead of having someone from foreign country preaching you how to do things, I prefer to have local agents of change. Voices from within the country that try to make a difference and raise issues that concerns them.” Carlsson is definitely no fool, she realizes that when she visits Mali for example, where Sweden is a major donor, and she meets with government officials, the all “assure me that the projects are going tremendously well. But I always insist on meeting other people, people who are not in power to listen to the other side of the story. Unfortunately, in some countries, opposition parties tell us they have reform agendas and as soon as they get to power, it is disappointing for us to know that it was simply power they wanted and noting else.” Which is why Carlsson goes back to “patience,” because she knows it is a long process.Fojo’s director Annelie Ewers describes her as “focused, passionate, and very dedicated to what she does.” Nowhere is this focus, dedication and passion is more apparent than in the speech she gave in the Press Faculty of the University of Social Science and Humanity, in Hanoi – Vietnam on the 23rd of April 2007. In the fabled speech, she minced no words in front of the minister present and said “I am currently working to ensure that Swedish development cooperation becomes more clearly focused on creating preconditions for democratization, peace and reconciliation. Intimately linked to this is emphasis on good governance and, for example, efforts to strengthen the civil society in our partner countries. Another focus area is the environment and climate change.” She continues to say “democracy and poverty reduction can never be guaranteed by politicians alone, whether they are elected or self-nominated. In the end, it is a question of people’s opportunities to influence their situation, claim their rights and being able to voice their concerns. But to exercise their rights presupposes that citizens have access to information that has not been filtered, censored or distorted. How can I claim my rights if I do not know what they are? How an I voice my concerns if I risk being prosecuted for doing so?” But Carlsson admits that “promoting free media in other countries is also in our own self-interest. If journalists in other countries are silenced we will ultimately pay the price ourselves. Le me give you an example. We are all aware of the immense challenge that mankind faces in the form of ongoing climate change. Let’s say that information about an environmental disaster in a country far away is not allowed to reach the public. Eventually it might very well be that the people in other parts of the world suffer the consequences of information being withheld.” Carlsson makes her point more clear saying “Sweden supports interventions in the area of the media that seek to empower people living in poverty. Fundamental points of departure are the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, the right to exercise cultural and creative activities, the right to access to information, the right to participation and the right to knowledge.” With such firm beliefs, clear goals and consistent objectives, with an ability to give tailor-made answers to specific questions, Gunilla Carlsson is made of the stuff true leaders are made of. Material, that sadly is not transposable to our countries of origin.
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