The world’s oldest freedom of print

In 2016, the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act that abolished censorship and required authorities to provide public access to official documents celebrates its 250th anniversary. This makes it the oldest constitutional regulation of press and print freedom in the World.

Freedom of the press is an important democratic right, it gives people the right to freely publish books, newspapers and journals with no right for public authorities to examine in advance or censor what has been written. As long as you follow the law, you have the right to spread whatever printed information you wish.

FOI incorporated 

The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 did not only pioneer the freedom of the press and print, it also openly declared public access to state information, making Sweden the first country in the world to officially instigate a principle of public access to official records through Freedom of Information (FOI) – that gave the citizens access to previously secret public documents.

To guarantee an open society, access to information about the work of the parliament, government and government agencies is necessary. FOI has been incorporated into the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act.

Not self-evident

“Freedom of the press is unique in two ways; it initiated the principle of public access to official records and followed the principle of legality, which is an essential element in modern law. It says that a document cannot be prosecuted if it has not been defined as criminal by the law, 250 years ago this was not self-evident,” explains historian Jonas Nordin.

“The Freedom of the Press Act obeyed the principle of legality in that it carefully stated
existing exceptions to the freedom of print. Everything that hadn’t been defined in this way was allowed to be printed. Such specifications did not exist in, for example, Great Britain where the extensive freedom of speech lacked legal protection and was often restricted through capricious application of the law,” he continues.

The 250th anniversary of the Freedom of The Press Act is being celebrated in both Sweden and Finland as in 1766, Finland was part of Sweden.The first page of the original Swedish Freedom of Print Act from 1766. Photo: Mårten Asp/KB

Editor-in-chief National Library of Sweden

Jonas Nordin

Jonas Nordin. Photo: AnnikaHjerpe