Press freedom: Never take it for granted

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This year Sweden celebrates the 250th anniversary of the passing of the “The Press Freedom Act”.

Maria Selin

Signed by Sweden’s King Adolf Frederik on December 2 1766, this ground-breaking document was the first in the world to constitutionally protect freedom of the press – and to legalise public access to information.

The act abolished the censorship of printed publications, guaranteed public access to official documents and the right to engage in public affairs.

The “Press Freedom Act” of 1766, although in amended form, is in fact one of the four fundamental laws that today make up the Swedish constitution.

While Sweden continues to be blessed with a free and diverse media environment, the overall global picture looks very different. Repressive legislation, harassment, imprisonment and politically motivated prosecutions continue to intimidate journalists, media managers and human rights defenders in some parts of the world.

Press freedom should be in the interest of us all.

An independent, professional and well-equipped press, which brings a free and diverse flow of news, analysis and perspectives, enlightens society and contributes to a more informed public. Citizens who can gain greater insights and knowledge about both the local and global world are more likely to take an active and constructive part in society.

When people are exposed to a wide variety of news, trusted information, analysis and perspectives from various media channels, the public is much more likely to engage in informed discussions in the public sphere.

A public that enjoys a free press is better equipped to exercise pressure on their representatives and push them to act in the interest of the public.

It can recognise manipulated information, better distinguish truths from lies and is usually also in a better position to question actions executed by public representatives.

In short, if journalistic standards are compromised and journalists are not equipped with investigative skills, there is great risk that the public remains uninformed and the much–needed accountability is jeopardised.

The role of skilled journalists and a free and independent press must be acknowledged. Investigating journalists who expose corruption, mismanagement of public funds and other economic or political misdoings often put themselves at great risk.

For these reasons, Sweden has worked with members of both the public and private media in Zimbabwe since the 1980s, offering training to media managers and journalists in investigative and conflict sensitive practices, media ethics, source verification and much more. Sweden remains committed to promoting and protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The global media landscape is constantly changing, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for freedom of expression and media freedom. In many countries, the shift from traditional newspapers and broadcasting to digital channels has already occurred.

In Zimbabwe, the emergence of social media and chat applications has enabled people to exercise their freedom of opinion and expression on a daily basis. With today’s technologies everyone is a potential journalist, but it is also important to remember that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand when exercising the right to express an opinion.

The widespread utilisation of social media and citizen journalism clearly also increase the risk of misinformation.
It is therefore crucial that the media itself remains open to scrutiny. Sweden believes that self-regulatory bodies and media watchdogs are vital to uphold an independent and credible media environment.

For this very reason, Sweden has long supported local media watchdogs like the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) as well as the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) which handles media complaints from the public.

The Swedish Freedom of the Press Unfolded booklet inserted in today’s Zimbabwe Independent tells the somewhat dramatic story of how Sweden came to be a global advocate for freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

The 250th anniversary reminds us of the long road that Sweden has travelled to promote and protect press freedom and freedom of expression, both at home and abroad. Freedom of the press must never be taken for granted. Rather, it must be constantly fought for, scrutinised and debated — in Sweden as much as elsewhere.

It concerns us all, throughout history as much as it continues to do so today.

Selin is the deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Sweden in Harare.

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