Freedom of the Press in Sweden: Lars Danielsson on the 250th Anniversary

Today I celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the very cornerstone of democracy in my native Sweden – the birth of the Freedom of the Press Act. Although the Act has served my country and its people well in numerous ways, it can't be taken for granted. In recent negotiations on the Directive combatting terrorism Sweden asked for a debated exception with reference to the freedom of the press. Let me explain why!

  • Lars Danielsson

    -I count on the fundamental rights of freedom of the press and expression, to continue to do their job in my country, but I realize that I can't take them for granted. The fundamental freedoms are always in danger in one way or another and the threats can take many different forms, says Head of the Swedish Representation to the EU, Lars Danielsson. December 2, 2016, is the 250th Anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act.

    Foto: Charlotta Erikson/Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU

  • Freedom of the Press Act: bild på original

    Freedom of the Press Act was passed by Parliament 1766. The Act was the first legislation on freedom of expression and freedom of information in the World. The original document is preserved by the Royal Library in Stockholm.

    Foto: The Royal Library

On December 2, 1766, the Swedish Parliament passed the Freedom of the Press Act, the world's first legislation on freedom of expression and freedom of information.

We owe the Act to Anders Chydenius. He was an MP in the 1760's who was determined to strengthen the influence of citizens in the non-existent balance of power at the time between the wealthy minority and the poor large majority. After years of hard work Chydenius, succeeded in making the bill pass despite hardline opponents.

Contrary to the mindset of power elites at the time, the Act was under constant threat albeit being part of fundamental law. In 1830, 60 years after the Act was passed, publishers continued to face difficult problems as criticism from the ruling classes was intense and unforgiving.

One of the early publishers was Lars Johan Hierta who launched his first newspaper Aftonbladet in 1830. Aftonbladet was prosecuted five times during its first four years. When he sold itin 1851, he had changed the name of the paper twenty-six times to avoid a shut-down. Thanks to his stubbornness and conviction Aftonbladet survived to become one of today's leading newspapers in Sweden.

The Freedom of the Press Act lays the very foundation for undisputed democratic rule in Sweden. It has been fundamental for the development of the general economic well-being of the country, for combatting corruption and abuse of power and helping to ensure the principles of human rights making people secure.

And today I see numerous examples of investigative journalism making key contributions to crucial changes that continues to develop Sweden.

In other words, Freedom of the Press has served my country more than well and I count on it to continue to do so.

However, in times of fear, I believe that also we who want nothing but to protect the fundamental freedoms, run a risk of making compromises. They are perhaps small and innocent made with the best intentions, but they are still compromises with the fundamental freedoms of the press and expression. Let me elaborate on this issue in relation to recent EU-negotiations on the Counter-Terrorism Directive. I have a feeling that many thought Sweden was a bit difficult asking for an exception.

The exception concerns cases of the incitement of terrorism. On this issue, we claimed that Sweden in such case, needs to use the part of the legislation that sets the order of responsibility for media protected by fundamental law. The order of responsibility concerns media in possession of a publishing certificate making the publisher responsible. This construction is key to the Swedish legislation in order not to violate fundamental law, but also unusual in a European perspective.

Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to our fellow EU member states for accepting the Swedish exception from the Directive. Let me also make it clear that we are just as determined as everyone else to combat terrorism.

I also interpret the acceptance of the exception as a positive sign of respect for a deep-rooted legislative construction in fundamental law protecting fundamental freedoms. This is particularly valuable in a time when the freedom of the media is seriously challenged.

Despite article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights signed by 47 countries, stating freedom of expression, information on violations reaches us every day.

"Free media is under siege in several OSCE participating States. Journalists are neither free nor safe to report on issues of public interest; media outlets are being shut down by the authorities and free expression on the Internet is under threat", says Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, in a blogg on the Swedish government website, swemfa, acknowledging the 250th Anniversary.

I count on the fundamental rights of freedom of the press and expression, to continue to do their job in my country, but I realize that I can't take them for granted. The fundamental freedoms are always in danger in one way or another and the threats can take many different forms.

Let us celebrate and use the 250th Anniversary as inspiration to work harder for the fundamental rights and freedoms, to promote them and be their guardians, in Sweden and elsewhere.

Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act:

In the spirit of the 250th anniversary of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act, the Swedish MFA, the Fojo Media Institute/Linnæus University, the Swedish Institute and the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO celebrate with a seminar paying tribute to all women journalists who defy hate speech and threats:

"Defying hate and threats against women journalists"

Webbstream of seminar

Blogg #250 words on free speech