Just over 250 years ago, the world’s first Freedom of the Press Act was adopted through a decision by the Parliament in Stockholm.
It became valid in our two countries, Finland and Sweden (at that time being united in one), and it was unique for its time.
Three elements were essential: The main principle shifted from prohibited to permitted; censorship of printed publications was abolished; the right of the public to have access to public documents and to take part in political debates was guaranteed.
In 1766, this was quite groundbreaking. Needless to say, there were some setbacks in the following decades. But over time that system has become deeply rooted in our societies.
Today, freedom of expression is a universally recognised human right, guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is a basic human right important in its own right, but also essential for the realisation of other human rights. As parties to the Covenant, we are committed to protecting and promoting this right.
Freedom of expression is a major fundament of our democratic systems. It has been instrumental in the social and economic development of our two countries.
The free flow of ideas and opinions creates a wealth of knowledge and drives innovation. When individuals feel encouraged to think and speak outside the box, ideas are created. Innovation, in turn, is a central driver of sustainable economic growth and development.
The fact that Sweden and Finland are both among the top five countries in the 2016 Global Innovation Index and leading countries in the level of press freedom, demonstrates that the two issues go hand in hand. We are convinced that creating a societal climate where innovation can flourish must be based on a free exchange of ideas and opinions, and is necessary for countries wanting to develop a knowledge-based economy and to avoid the middle income trap.
The second important element of the Freedom of the Press Act we want to highlight, is the right of the public to have access to official documents. Public access became the default, secrecy was made the exception. And that’s how it works today. This has been crucial in our countries for preventing and detecting corruption and mismanagement of public resources.
All official documents are registered and they are made available without delay to private individuals or media requesting them. If access is denied eg due to relations with other countries, individuals can appeal that decision in court. Public access to official documents increases transparency in the society, which not only allows scrutiny of politicians and civil servants, but also contributes to increasing trust within the society and between people. Trust in our fellow citizens and in good governance are the building block of innovative societies.
Allowing private individuals access to official documents is also effective means to prevent corruption. This is showcased in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, where Finland and Sweden were both ranked in the top five least corrupt of all the 167 countries surveyed.
While we celebrate the 250th Anniversary of our Freedom of Press Act, we are unfortunately seeing that these fundamental rights and freedoms are being questioned and threatened around the world. In many places we are seeing the democratic space shrinking and legislation being passed targeting the work of journalists and human rights defenders.
This worrying trend can and should be reversed. Our experiences can hopefully make a contribution to that change, so urgently needed in today’s world. It is also important for our own societies to be constantly aware of emerging threats to the freedom of expression.
One final issue we wish to highlight is the interlinkage between freedom of expression and stability in society. There is strong evidence that freedom of expression is positively related to socio-political stability. Research has shown that higher levels of press freedoms were linked to lower levels of political risk. Countries that have freer media are less likely to experience violent political uprisings and transitions.
As our history has shown, the free flow of ideas and opinions builds the foundation for the open dialogue needed for creating a prosperous and forward going country.
Staffan Herrstrom is Sweden’s ambassador to Thailand and Satu Suikkari-Kleven is Finland’s ambassador to Thailand