It’s 250 years since Sweden established the world’s strongest freedom of the press through a ground-breaking new fundamental law, the Freedom of the Press Act.
Freedom of the press, freedom of expression and opposition to censorship are of course well worth celebrating – and continuing to fight for today!
Human rights are unfortunately now being challenged more and more around the world. The democratic space for defenders of human rights, opinion-formers, journalists and bloggers is tending to shrink. It is incredibly important to stop this trend.
It is easy to be inspired by the founding figure, member of the Riksdag Anders Chydenius, who in 1766 championed this historic fundamental law in Sweden, which in fact predates both the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.
The Freedom of the Press Act was based on principles that were formulated during the Age of Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe. People have intrinsic rights, and the State has a responsibility and an obligation to defend those rights. The purpose of the Act was to strengthen the influence of citizens.
Chydenius sat on the parliamentary committee that prepared the legislative proposal, and his hard work eventually pushed a majority decision through, despite the nobility voting against.
Chydenius was a priest in Gamlakarleby (today called Kokkola), Österbotten, which is now part of Finland. He was an early advocate for free trade, and became famous when he criticised the then prevailing policy of high trade barriers. Some rich people in the big towns and cities became even richer, but life became more difficult for ordinary people, many of whom starved. This was a major problem in remote Österbotten. This is why he was sent to the Riksdag.
There, he argued in the same way for freedom of the press and openness in government administration as he did for free trade. Without these principles, a small power elite in Stockholm holds all the influence and wealth. The periphery will always be brushed aside as long as it does not receive information about what is going on in the corridors of power. State secretiveness benefits a small clique at the expense of the rest of the country.
What made the Freedom of the Press Act so fantastic for its time was the four principles that still today lay the foundation for Sweden’s strong freedom of expression.
- State censorship was abolished. Previously, all written material required advanced permission prior to publication. It was often difficult to obtain permission if the text was not flattering towards those in power.
- The principle of public access to official documents was created. The documents of the authorities would no longer be secret, but public. Previously, it was punishable to print and spread state documents. For a long time, even the parliamentary record had been classified as secret.
- The main principle shifted from prohibited to permitted. Previously, it had been prohibited to print anything without prior special permission. Now, instead, almost everything was permissible until such times as it was prohibited. Every writer was allowed to print and spread their texts until such times as a court found a breach of the law in the publication. All state documents could be read and spread as long as they were not classified as secret.
- Freedom of the press was guaranteed in a fundamental law. Ordinary laws set boundaries for citizens, but a fundamental law sets boundaries for the State. The State may not breach a fundamental law, even by enacting new legislation, as that legislation would be invalid.