On 2 December, Finland and Sweden celebrate 250 years of freedom of the press. On this date in 1766, the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) adopted the Freedom of the Press Act, the first legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. In fact, it predated both the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.
By this Act, censorship of printed publications was abolished and the right of the public to have access to official documents and take part in political debates was secured in Sweden and Finland, who at that time formed one state. The Freedom of Press Act has been instrumental to the development of our modern welfare states.
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 the citizens.
Freedom of press and freedom of expression have served Finland and 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 principle of public access to official documents, citizens in Finland and Sweden have the right of scrutiny and access to information held by the public authorities. In this way, private individuals and journalists can scrutinize power structures and popularly elected politicians. For us, this principal – 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 the economic growth and prosperity of our two countries.
For several years Finland and Sweden have been among the top countries of the World Press Freedom index compiled by Reporters without Borders. The access to information from public authorities has been secured. A high level of source protection of journalists exists. Fast Internet connections to citizens support the access to information. And high-level comprehensive education and public library network promote media literacy.
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 for defenders of human rights, opinion-makers, journalists and bloggers shrinking. It is important to stop this trend.
In the Republic of Moldova, we see a partly contradictory picture; on the one hand, there is a diversified media landscape with a great number of professional and talented journalists reporting on a multitude of media platforms. The access to internet, and the amount of internet media outlets, is truly impressive.
On the other hand, the Republic of Moldova has been dropping in World Press Freedom Index over the past two years. This trend is related to a number of concerns. These include: concentration and lack of transparency in the ownership of media, unequal access to incomes through advertising, difficulty in accessing information (especially from public institutions) as well as a legal framework that does not fully live up to international standards.
In the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development and the 2030 Agenda, 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.
The 250th anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden and Finland reminds us of the long road we have traveled to promote freedom of expression. Free speech is a principle that must never be taken for granted, but must always be defended. The Swedish and Finnish Governments are committed to working even harder and jointly with states, media representatives and civil society, to advance freedom of expression globally.
Standing by the democratic values and freedoms of an open society always means playing on the winning side. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression and access to information are well worth celebrating – and continuing to fight for today!
Signe Burgstaller, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Moldova
Päivi Pohjanheimo, Ambassador of Finland to Romania and to the Republic of Moldova