The statue of Swedish newspaper publisher Lars Johan Hierta watches over Riddarhustorget in Stockholm’s Old Town. And what a proud inscription: “Lars Johan Hierta, pioneer of a free press and popular government.”
Lars Johan Hierta founded the evening newspaper Aftonbladet − currently Sweden’s largest newspaper − as early as in1830.
Ahead of the first edition, he promised that the newspaper would “seek quick information about strange measures within the administration”. For Hierta, it was self-evident that the newspaper would be independent.
Aftonbladet was not Sweden’s first newspaper but it is now one of the oldest daily newspapers in Sweden. Its predecessors were uncritical and indulgent of King Karl XIV Johan, who ruled with the help of the nobility. One of Hierta’s primary aims was to attack what was referred to as the ‘bedchamber rule’ of the King. This meant that the King had his favourites, who had special access to the royal bedchamber. The most favoured of all, Count Magnus Brahe, was one of Sweden’s most powerful men, despite not having any political position.
This, of course, bothered Lars Johan Hierta, who through his newspaper was fighting for freedom of expression, free trade (including lower import tariffs) and democratic development towards a two-chamber parliament of elected representatives.
Criticism from the ruling classes was devastating. During its first four years, Aftonbladet was prosecuted five times.
As much as the newspaper was hated by the powers that be, it was loved and lauded in equal measure by the people. In particular, the section called ‘Kaleidoscope’, written in a light-hearted and satirical tone, met with great acclaim. This was the birth of the modern newspaper column. And Wendela Hebbe, Sweden’s first woman journalist to be employed full-time, began at Hierta’s newspaper.
The King eventually tried to close down the paper. But Hierta, who was both clever and prepared, had already issued new publishing authorisations to other publishers. He changed the paper’s name to The new Aftonbladet, The second…, The third… and so forth. When he sold Aftonbladet in 1851, he had changed the name twenty-six times.
So free speech survived, albeit under threat.
As we now celebrate the 250th anniversary of Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act, regarded as the strongest in the world, we should all send a thought of gratitude to Lars Johan Hierta.