Sweden Celebrates 250 Years of Freedom of the Press

Sweden, 08 Nov - 05 Dec 2016
Sweden celebrates its long-standing history of freedom of the press ++ Debate about values, patriotism and populism in Sweden ++ Hate speech on the internet after Lucia advertisement. by Philipp Gmoser
Sweden celebrates its long-standing history of freedom of the press

On December 2nd, Sweden celebrated the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the first law in the world guaranteeing the freedom of the press. Sweden is unique in this regard since there is no country in the world that can look back on such a long and continuous tradition of freedom of the press. The law provides for the freedom of written expression via books and newspapers, but also includes the freedom of assembly and prohibition of censorship. It also stipulates that documents issued by authorities should be accessible to the general public, providing the foundation for the modern “offentlighetsprincipen”. Today, the law called “tryckfrihetsförordningen” is one of Sweden’s constitutional laws.

The anniversary has led to a broad discussion on the importance of this law for new challenges in the 21st century. Debates have been focusing on issues that are relevant not only for Sweden, but for the rest of the world – such as hate speech on the internet and the economic difficulties experienced by many established media companies as threats to the freedom of the press. The Bonnier Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Academy, two of the country’s most renowned foundations, held a panel discussion called “Non silence generation”, with panelists discussing the future of press freedom in a new reality defined by the internet and social media. At the event, Alice Bah Kuhnke, Swedish Minister for Culture, proposed state-led interventions against Facebook, such as when a legal obligation is present. Kuhnke’s proposal follows discussions about Facebook’s responsibility for the spreading of hate speech and fake news, a debate that has intensified especially after the U.S. presidential elections. The proposal was greeted with mostly negative reactions from the established Swedish media companies.

Debate about values, patriotism and populism in Sweden

What do “Swedishness” and “Swedish values” mean to the Swedes? These words, used for a large variety of different (societal and political) purposes, seem to have a vague definition for many Swedes. According to a poll commissioned by the largest independent-liberal Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, 36 per cent of Swedes state they don’t know what Swedish values are, and nine per cent call the concept “nonsense”. According to the poll, the most popular “values” can be summarized under concepts such as “equality” (19%), “Western values”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “human rights” and “openness” (13%) and “follow Swedish norms, rules and traditions” and “speak and understand Swedish” (13%). Social democratic voters had differing definitions of the concept of „Swedishness”, whereas conservative voters tended to have a common understanding of the concept.

The debate about patriotism has always been a difficult one in Sweden, that doesn’t just apply since the rise of the far-right party Sweden Democrats (SD) in 2006. Recently, Dagens Nyheter allowed Swedish authors, artists, bloggers and writers to talk about what they feel proud of in Sweden and what might be a reason to feel ashamed. On the one hand, the tradition of equality in various forms (personal freedom and also the Right of Public Access – the so called allemansrätten, openness) was mentioned by many artists as a source of pride. At the same time, people expressed their disapproval of trends going against the Swedish picture of openness such as indifference and the ongoing polarisation of different political views.

Hate speech on the internet following publication of Lucia advertisement

On December 13th, Sweden will again celebrate its long-standing Lucia tradition which dates back to the 18th century and achieved mass popularity in the 20th century. Like every year, Åhléns, one of Sweden’s biggest department stores with branches in almost every city of the country, published a Facebook advertisement focused on Lucia. The picture of a smiling Lucia child provoked anger and hate on social media because the child is dark-skinned and cannot be clearly identified as a boy or girl at first sight.

It didn’t take long for a massive counter-reaction of the general public such as on social media, where over 20,000 people showed immediate support for the ad via the hashtag #jagärhär (I am here). For the vast majority of Swedish society, the hateful reactions are outrageous and the issue became a hot topic in private and public discussions. One of the boy’s relatives publicly pointed out the challenge of being an immigrant in Sweden which is reflected in this issue: “As a Swede with a foreign background you are expected to adapt to Swedish traditions, but if you do so, you are subjected to hate. It’s a tragedy.”

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Source: Hellmark & Folke (2012) Rätten att kritisera överheten: kring den svenska tryckfrihetens historia, p. 28 | pd

Title page of the 1766 Freedom of the Press Act

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