The Cable

News Flash! Press Freedoms Turn 250 Today

But there’s little cause to celebrate as protections for the media continue to backslide.


On Friday, press freedoms turned 250 years old. On Dec. 2, 1766, Sweden’s parliament passed the Freedom of the Press Act — the first legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. “The freedom of a nation is always proportional to its freedom of the press,” Anders Chydenius, a renowned Swedish parliamentarian who helped pass the law way back in the 18th century, said at the time.

But don’t break out the party favors just yet. Multiple studies show a backslide in world freedoms, as duly highlighted by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “As we celebrate this important landmark, the fundamental rights and freedoms the Act sets out to defend are increasingly under threat around the world,” the Ministry said.

A Freedom House study tracked the backslide, saying press freedoms have “declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015 as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power.” And 41 percent of the world’s population lives in a country with “partly free press,” while a full 46 percent live in “not free media environments,” the report concluded.

Sweden ranked eighth in the annual Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect; it fell from fifth place in 2015. And one poll found a third of journalists said they had been threatened in the line of duty. Don’t tell Anders Chydenius.

And as for the United States? It ranks 41st in the world for press freedom, just ahead of Burkina Faso but behind countries like South Africa, Chile, Cyprus, and Jamaica. That’s because of what Reporters Without Borders calls “the government’s war on whistleblowers” and the fact that American journalists aren’t protected by federal laws that specifically guarantee their rights not to reveal sources.

Sweden’s neighbor Finland holds the coveted No. 1 spot on the annual world index.

To commemorate the anniversary and raise awareness for the troubling decline in press freedoms, the Swedish government released a (quiet) new video on Friday:

Photo credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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