WPFD 2016 Event Spurs New Book Exploring Sweden’s 250-year FOI Law

Irina Bokova, Directors-General, UNESCO
Irina Bokova, Directors-General, UNESCO

Based on a side event at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 2016 World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebration which held in Helsinki, Finland the Nordic Information Centre for Media and Communication Research recently published a book titled “The Legacy of Peter Forsskål: 250 Years of Freedom of Expression”.

In 2016, Sweden celebrated 250 years of its Freedom of the Press Act, the first access to information legislation of its kind in the world.

The seminar organized as a side event and co-organized by the National Archives of Finland, Project Forsskal and the UNESCO Chair on Freedom of Expression, Media Development and Global Policy at the University of Gothenburg discussed Peter Forsskål’s legacy and its global impact on contemporary press freedom and right to access information legislation. The publication is based on discussions held during this UNESCO commemoration, in particular on reports and presentations made during the seminar.

The publication analyses Forsskål’s famous essay “Thoughts on Civil Liberty” and the circumstances under which the very first legislation on freedom of information – now known as the right to access information – was enacted in Sweden in 1766.

His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press was passed in 1766 in Sweden which at the time was one country comprised of today’s Sweden and Finland. While the world commemorated the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the Ordinance in 2016, it was preceded by intense political and scholarly debate in its time.

Peter Forsskål put himself at the centre of that debate, when he in 1759 published the pamphlet “Thoughts on Civil Liberty”, consisting of 21 paragraphs setting out his thoughts advocating against oppression and tyranny and championing civil rights for everyone.

While Sweden and Finland were the first in the world to pass a law on press freedom, a few years before the new law was adopted, Peter Forsskål published this pamphlet containing innovative ideas for that time, including every citizens’ right to freedom of expression.

An immediate outcome of the overall discussion at the WPFD-2016 was reflected in the Finlandia Declaration reaffirming the importance of the right to access information as essential for a free, independent, pluralistic media and called Member States to create a legal, policy and institutional environment, which ensures that people can receive public information.

The publication, The Legacy of Peter Forsskål, contains chapters from a number of researchers and writers from both Sweden and Finland and explores his life and historical battle for Swedish press freedom as well as development of freedom of the press until today.

They present their reflections on and insights into the legacy of Peter Forsskål’s ideas. The book is both a historical look back and a highly topical work in today’s digital society.

It provides a continuation for the ideas discussed during the WPFD 2016 and outlined in the Finlandia Declaration. It was co-edited by Ulla Carlsson, Professor and UNESCO Chair in Freedom of Expression, Media Development and Global Policy at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. David Goldberg, Founder and Director of Project Forsskål.

David Goldberg in his introductory article where the life as well as Forsskål’s pamphlet are presented said: “​Thoughts on Civil Liberty, this little-known jewel of Enlightenment literature, states almost all the rights that 30 years later were to be found in the French ​Déclaration desdroits de l’homme et du citoyen.”

Frank La Rue, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information sector in the second section provides a global overview in the field of freedom of expression and concludes that the call of Peter Forsskål is still alive and more necessary now than ever.

Helena Jäderblom, Judge and Section President of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, reflects on the current state of public access to information in Europe.

Finally, Oluf Jørgensen from the Danish school of Media and Journalism provides an overview of the legislation on access to information in the Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland – as well as European and international rules.

Ulla Carlsson, while presenting the book to the readers, concluded that: “Anniversaries like these can be used as a starting point for debate. It’s important to discuss our history and where we stand today in terms of freedom of expression, the right to information and freedom of the press, and that’s what we want to do in this book.”

The publication is available here.