Today Sweden celebrates 250 years of freedom of the press. On 2 December 1766, the Swedish Riksdag adopted the world’s first Freedom of the Press Act, which meant that censorship of printed publications was abolished and the right of the public to have access to public documents and take part in political debates was secured. The Freedom of the Press Act has been instrumental to the development of our modern welfare state.
The Swedish Act was unique for its time. The text, which was drafted by Member of the Riksdag Anders Chydenius from Karleby, came before the American Constitution which protects the right to freedom of expression for all citizens.
Freedom of expression has served Sweden well. Freedom of speech is not only a prerequisite for democracy; it is also the guarantor of society’s development. The free flow of ideas and opinions, as well as debate and critical examination, creates a wealth of ideas and drives innovation.
Thanks to the Swedish principle of public access to official documents, citizens have the right of scrutiny and access to information held by the public authorities. In this way, private individuals and journalists can scrutinise power structures and popularly elected politicians. For us, this principle – central to our legal system – has contributed to a low level of corruption and a high level of confidence in our democratic institutions. There is no doubt that our open society has laid the foundation for our country’s economic growth and prosperity.
In Myanmar, we are pleased to see that the public discussion on the right to information is lively. We encourage the adoption of a strong framework that will lay the foundation for this important principle also in Myanmar. To this end, the Swedish Embassy and Phandeeyar arranged a public discussion with Myanmar media on the right to information two weeks ago. We hope this event inspired further discussion, and Sweden stands ready to share our experiences with Myanmar on this issue.
But while we celebrate freedom of expression, we are unfortunately seeing how fundamental rights and freedoms are coming increasingly under threat around the world. In many places we are seeing the democratic space shrinking. People are being silenced and civic information is being restricted. Repressive legislation is targeting journalists and human rights defenders. Threats and harassment are becoming increasingly common, and worrying statistics from the UNESCO show that 800 journalists have been killed in the last ten years. Unfortunately, only a handful of the perpetrators are brought to justice.
The security of journalists is a prerequisite for free debate. Because what happens to a society that does not have access to free and independent media? What happens to knowledge when information is subject to certain conditions? What are the consequences of an uninformed public?
We must now intensify efforts to promote freedom of expression and of the media. Free speech is an important principle that we are proud of and want to protect. It is a tradition that deserves to be defended.
The UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development and the 2030 Agenda are a positive societal development. One of the targets, 16.10, urges countries to ‘Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.’ We consider this to be a very important target to achieve in efforts for global sustainable development, in Myanmar as well as in Sweden.
The 250th anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden reminds us of the long road we have travelled to promote freedom of expression. Free speech is a principle that must never be taken for granted. It must always be defended. We hope that 2 December will be the starting point of renewed engagement. We hope that more people will stand up for free debate and continue to discuss, scrutinise and criticise.
Staffan Herrström is the Swedish ambassador to Myanmar, Thailand and Lao PDR, based in Bangkok. He has previously served
as Swedish ambassador to Poland, Vietnam and Tanzania, as Deputy Director General as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
(Sida), as State Secretary at the Prime Minister’s office and as a journalist.