Tucked away in the basement of Sweden House, Sweden’s official embassy and culture center in D.C, lies a small exhibit commemorating the country’s two hundred and fifty year-old Freedom of the Press Act (known as Tryckfrihetsforordningen in Swedish). Titled “Sweden’s Press Freedom Unfolded,” the exhibit focuses on the advances and setbacks of Swedish press freedom throughout more than 200 years.
Though vague, the act guaranteed journalists the right not to be prosecuted for their writings as long as they shied away from criticizing the Church. First enacted in 1766, it is the world’s oldest known law protecting press freedoms.
Sweden’s claim to press freedom fame goes beyond simply having laws on the books. The country was also the first in the world to have its own national press council and is home to one of the world’s oldest journalist unions. More notably, Sweden also tops Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, coming in 8th in 2016.
This comes as RSF reports an overall downward trend in global press freedom. In 2016, the organization reported a “deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom” around the world. The overall indicator of media freedom, which is tallied by weighting free press violations in regions around the world, declined 13.6 percent since 2013.
This deterioration in media rights has occurred in every region, from North America, which saw a 20 percent decline in its score due to a spike in journalist killings covering the ongoing drug war in Mexico, to Europe where right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland have taken troubling actions against the press. Hungary’s parliament passed laws allowing the Prime Minister to stack the national media regulator with political appointees while Poland’s government loosened impartiality requirements for the country’s state-owned broadcasting network.
While Sweden has largely been spared from the recent assaults on press freedoms, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In the years following the Free Press Act’s enactment by Parliament, numerous attempts were made by the royal family to clamp down on the media by circumventing the law. Several prominent 19th century writers and journalists were put on trial for insulting the nobility, including the writer August Strindberg who wrote a short story lampooning the reigning queen.
During World War II, the government applied a new round of censorship on the press – this time to preserve Sweden’s neutrality. Fearing that a vocal press might fuel hostility from Nazi Germany, Parliament created the National Information Board in 1940. Featuring the slogan “A Swede Keeps Quiet”, the board exercised its oversight of newspaper editorials and radio broadcasts to control the voices of outspoken opinion makers.
In 1949 however, Parliament passed a revised Free Press law, which abolished the National Information Board’s censorship restrictions. It remains on the books today. By 1991, Parliament extended constitutional protection to digital and audiovisual media.
While it remains unclear what exactly it is about Sweden that sustains its commitment to press freedom, observers credit the country’s culture of openness and strong democratic traditions. The exhibit at the House of Sweden will run until March 5, 2017.