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20 milestones of Swedish press freedom

The fight for free speech is global. The Swedish press freedom legislation is the oldest in the world, and Sweden ranks highly in press freedom indexes. But history shows that this fragile freedom needs people and policies to defend it. Let’s look at some milestones.

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Illustration: Kidler

20 milestones of Swedish press freedom

The fight for free speech is global. The Swedish press freedom legislation is the oldest in the world, and Sweden ranks highly in press freedom indexes. But history shows that this fragile freedom needs people and policies to defend it. Let’s look at some milestones.

#1 First book printed in Sweden: 1483

The Gutenberg Bible from 1455 was the first major book printed in Europe. In 1483 the first book was printed in Sweden: Dialogus creaturarum, a collection of Latin-language fables. Printed by a German, Johann Snell, at a Franciscan monastery in Stockholm, it was aimed at priests and monks.

#2 Censorship introduced: 1661

Sweden’s first real censorship laws were introduced under the guardian rule of King Charles XI. Two copies of every book printed in the kingdom were to be sent to the king’s office, where books with content that was considered offensive or harmful could be confiscated and fined. Starting in 1662, books were even censored before printing.

#3 Writing on press freedom censored: 1730

One of the most important opinion formers on the introduction of freedom of the press was public officer Anders Nordencrantz. In 1730 he published Arcana Oeconomiae et Commercii, a work that included a section on increased freedom of the press. That particular section was deleted by the censors before the work was distributed, but Nordencrantz was persistent and repeatedly returned to the issue. It was only decades later that he was allowed to publish his thoughts on freedom of the press.

Today’s newspapers stand on the shoulders of early press freedom fighters.

Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

#4 Radical thoughts confiscated: 1759

Philosopher, botanist and orientalist Peter Forsskål published a plea for Swedish freedom of the press in 1759. With permission from a censor, his politically radical eight-page pamphlet Thoughts on Civil Liberty (Tankar om borgerliga friheten) was printed – and then all copies of the booklet were ordered to be confiscated. The assignment fell on Forsskål’s former teacher, world-famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, but he only managed to return 79 of 500 copies. Possession or resale of the work led to substantial fines.

#5 Pushing for press freedom in parliament: 1765

In 1765 the Swedish government initiated a comprehensive revision of the constitution. The priest Anders Chydenius was a driving force and author behind one of the three pleas for freedom of the press submitted to parliament. In his writing, he concludes:

‘No evidence should be needed that a certain freedom of writing and printing is the backbone of a free organisation of the state.’

#6 World’s first freedom of the press act is born: 1766

On 2 December 1766 Sweden became the first country in the world to have freedom of the press written into the constitution. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act also broke ground for the principle of public access to information, which made it legal to publish and read public documents. The principle of public access is still a cornerstone of the Swedish Constitution.

The ancient Swedish Freedom of the Press Act is not just collecting dust, but can also be found online on the parliament website. Photo: Fredrik Funk/DN/TT

#7 King Gustav III issues restrictions: 1774

King Gustav III seized power through a coup d’état in 1772. Two years later, he presented an alternative Freedom of the Press Act, leaving it to the king’s discretion to determine what gets printed. Penalties were made more severe and violations could in many cases lead to execution. The new act also introduced strong limitations on the principle of access to public information.

#8 Toothless new law is passed: 1792

Following the assassination of King Gustav III in 1792, a new Freedom of the Press Act was passed. Unlike the 1766 law, it lacked a framework for penalties and was therefore almost useless as a legal tool. It was revised already after five months. This was followed by successive tightening of the law. The principle of access to public information was now removed.

#9 A modern press freedom takes shape: 1810

For the first time since 1792, a renewed Freedom of the Press Act was passed in 1810. It regulated in detail the freedom of press similar to the principles of 1766 and reinstated the principle of access to public information. It was no longer allowed to censor religious writings before printing, and only the Chancellor of Justice could prosecute cases under freedom of the press.

#10 Newspaper silenced 14 times: 1835–1838

The liberal newspaper Aftonbladet had its publishing rights revoked 14 times between 1835 and 1838 with support of the Swedish ‘withdrawal power’. The withdrawals were directed against the editor-in-chief, in this case founder Lars Johan Hierta, which meant that for every withdrawal a new editor-in-chief was promoted and the newspaper was published under a new name. The ‘withdrawal power’ was revoked in 1844.

#11 Strindberg on trial: 1884

The trial of August Strindberg’s short story collection Getting Married (‘Giftas’) belongs to the most famous historical cases of Swedish press freedom. The charges related to Strindberg’s way of describing the rite of communion, which was considered ‘blasphemy against God or mockery of God’s word or the sacraments.’ When Strindberg was cleared of the charges, his supporters celebrated it as a victory for free speech.

#12 World’s first press council formed: 1916

The Swedish Press Council (Pressens Opinionsnämnd, PON) was formed in 1916, the oldest of its kind in the world. The purpose of the council is to resolve disputes between newspapers, as well as between newspapers and the public. The same year the first rules about press ethics were adopted. And then, in 1969, the Press Ombudsman (Allmänhetens Pressombudsman, PO) was established to create stronger protection for individuals.

In 1766 the first freedom of the press act was born in Sweden. Sweden usually ranks in the top 5 of the 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.

Source: Reporters Without Borders

#13 Newspaper causes Nazi debate: 1933

Torgny Segerstedt, editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, published one of Swedish press history’s most well-known articles. Beginning and ending with the words ‘Herr Hitler is an insult’, the article resulted in a telegram from Hermann Goering threatening to take the matter further if the writings didn’t cease immediately. The event was the prelude to a long debate between Segerstedt and the Nazi-German as well as the Swedish government during World War II.

#14 Swedes urged to keep quiet: 1940

The National Information Board (Statens Informationsstyrelse, SIS) was set up to inform, review and control Swedish opinion making and press. A press commission, Pressnämnden, was also created as a ‘voluntary control system with the involvement of the press’. In 1941 the board launched the campaign En svensk tiger – with the double meaning of ‘A Swedish tiger’ and ‘A Swede keeps quiet’. The campaign aimed to underline the importance of vigilance and of being strong in the current situation.

#15 Current press freedom act: 1949

The Freedom of the Press Act that applies today came into effect four years after World War II. Source protection and whistle-blowing protection are among the new features.

‘The freedom of the press is understood to mean the right of every Swedish citizen to publish written matter, without prior hindrance by a public authority or other public body, and not to be prosecuted thereafter on grounds of its content other than before a lawful court […].’

(Freedom of the Press Act, article 1.)

#16 New freedom of expression law: 1991

The Swedish parliament adopted the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression (Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen) in 1991. It is the newest addition to the Swedish Constitution and regulates freedom of expression in audio-visual media, including radio, television, film and – to a certain extent – the internet.

Today, news and information spread like wildfire. This video underlines the value of fact-checking.

#17 Isaak imprisoned in Eritrea: 2001

Swedish–Eritrean journalist and writer Dawit Isaak was imprisoned in Eritrea in 2001. Isaak is the only Swede Amnesty International considers a prisoner of conscience and the only EU citizen imprisoned for his opinions. Having been detained for more than 15 years, Isaak still hasn’t been given any trial.

#18 Vilks drawings controversy: 2007

In 2007 Swedish artist Lars Vilks made a series of drawings depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. This caused quite a stir. The controversy gained international attention after a regional newspaper published one of the drawings as part of an editorial on self-censorship and freedom of religion. An attack in the Danish capital of Copenhagen in 2015 with Vilks as a likely target left one person dead. Vilks is still living under police protection.

#19 Journalists arrested in Ethiopia: 2011

Journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were arrested while reporting from the Ogaden territory in Ethiopia. After being charged using anti-terror legislation they were sentenced to eleven years in prison. They were freed after 438 days.

A video published when the Curators of Sweden project – or @sweden on Twitter – came to an end in September 2018 (see #20 below).

#20 Citizens in charge of @sweden on Twitter: 2011

In 2011 Sweden became the first country in the world to hand over its official Twitter account, @sweden, to its citizens. By letting a new person tweet as @sweden every week, the Curators of Sweden project aims to present Sweden through the mix of people it actually consists of. The initiative was the starting point for a new concept, ‘rotation curation’ – i.e. that different people get to curate a channel for a certain period of time. This concept lives on in different countries, even though the Swedish project came to an end in 2018.

Last updated: 15 January 2020