A Brief History of Press Freedom

Stack of international newspapers (world news; news; paper)
© Photosani/Fotolia

On December 2, 1766, the Swedish parliament passed legislation that is now recognized as the world’s first law supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information. Narrowly, the Freedom of the Press Act abolished the Swedish government’s role as a censor of printed matter, and it allowed for the official activities of the government to be made public. More broadly, the law codified the principle—which has since become a cornerstone of democracies throughout the world—that individual citizens of a state should be able to express and disseminate information without fear of reprisal.

The notion that the press should be free could have emerged only after the press itself had become commonplace. The invention of mechanized printing in the 15th century led to the proliferation of books, newspapers, and other publications that spread ideas faster and farther than ever before. However, because of the potential for these ideas to challenge official power structures, some political and religious authorities actively suppressed publications that they deemed subversive.

An early defense of press freedom was made by the poet John Milton in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, written in response to the British Parliament’s passage of a law requiring the government to approve all books prior to publication. “Truth and understanding,” Milton argued, “are not such wares as to be monopoliz’d and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.” This sentiment appeared to win legal recognition on the other side of the Atlantic when in 1733 New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger, in a landmark jury trial, was acquitted of seditious libel on the grounds that the articles he printed, which were harshly critical of New York’s colonial governor, were nonetheless based on fact. Twenty-five years after the Freedom of the Press Act came into force in Sweden, the framers of the U.S. Constitution enshrined the same principle in the document’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.”

While many countries have come to understand freedom of expression as a common good—indeed, it is one of the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—state censorship and regulation of the press have not entirely disappeared. The international organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) monitors conditions for journalists around the world and ranks countries by their degree of media freedom. Countries that rank toward the bottom of RSF’s list include those that maintain various forms of state media and impose restrictions on independent outlets, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.

WRITTEN BY:  John M. Cunningham 

Freedom of the Press Act of 1766

eedom of the Press Act of 1766, Swedish legislation regarded as the world’s first lawsupporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information. Passed by the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) as “His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press” (Konglige Majestäts Nådige Förordning, Angående Skrif- och Tryck-friheten) on December 2, 1766, the Freedom of the Press Act abolished the censorship of all printed publications, including those imported from abroad but excluding those on academic and theological subjects. Furthermore, it guaranteed public access to documents drawn up by government agencies. However, the strong punishments for writing against the state or king were kept, though control was transferred from the public censor to the publishers.

Following the death of King Charles XII in 1718, the Swedish throne was passed to a series of weak kings. The decline of the monarchy led to an increase in the importance of the Riksdag. Though the Riksdag retained its four chambers—for nobility, clergy, townsmen, and farmers—it developed two strong parties known as the “Hats” and the “Nightcaps.” During the reign of King Adolf Frederick, the Nightcaps sought the liberalization of Swedish society and sparked intense political debates, which sparked a number of printed political pamphlets. Given that the public censor himself participated in those debates, the censorship process became inherently flawed. Influenced by Anders Chydenius, a liberal pastor and member of the Nightcaps, the Riksdag passed the Freedom of the Press Act, which abolished the censorship of most publications and granted citizens access to official documents to encourage the free exchange of ideas.

In 1809 a new constitution was passed by the Riksdag, containing the main principles of the 1766 law. The censorship of academic and theological publications was abolished in 1810, and the law was again expanded in 1812 with principles of editorial responsibility and specific rules for the legal process. In 1949 the law was revised, but its main principles are still the same as in 1766.

Written by Lennart Weibull

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