Auteur: Margot Wallstrom and Timo Soini
Media freedom is increasingly under threat in the EU, its neighbourhood and around the world. Recent examples include repressive legislation, violence against journalists and the spread of state-controlled propaganda and disinformation.
Not only do such measures limit the work and threaten the lives of reporters, they also curtail the participation of citizens in society, undermining the very foundation of democracy.
This year, when the Freedom of the Press Act turns 250, Sweden and Finland are working together to advance our efforts to defend freedom of expression and media freedom in Europe and beyond.
Media freedom was guaranteed in Sweden and Finland 250 years ago, when the Swedish parliament passed the world’s first freedom of the press act. The process was strongly influenced by Anders Chydenius, a member of the Swedish Parliament from Karleby in present-day Finland.
The act abolished the censorship of printed publications, guaranteed public access to official documents and the right to engage in political debate. In addition to defending the freedom of expression, the act has made a fundamental contribution to the development of our modern and innovative Nordic societies.
As the act now turns 250, we regret that around the world the fundamental rights and freedoms it set out to safeguard are being increasingly threatened. In many places, democracy and the rule of law are undermined, human rights are being violated and their universal nature is denied.
At the core of these challenges lies a media landscape under attack. Repressive legislation targets journalists and human rights defenders. Ever-increasing resources are spent by some states to disseminate blatant propaganda and disinformation.
Journalists are intimidated, threatened, killed and persecuted. Perpetrators are far too seldom brought to justice. In many cases, the fear of reprisals and intimidation can lead to self-censorship by journalists and media workers.
These developments call for enhanced efforts to promote freedom of expression and media freedom, including promotion of media literacy and increased support to free and independent media around the world.
Many international organisations and NGOs have expressed their concern over the deteriorating media environment.
The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, an essential institution in this area, has on a number of occasions expressed concern regarding the state of freedom of the media in the OSCE area.
The newly established EU Strategic Communication Team has repeatedly exposed Russian propaganda and disinformation, which is not only concerned with distorting truths and influencing public opinion.
It also seems intent on undermining the very notion of objective information, casting all information as biased or an instrument of political power. Such propaganda and disinformation risk undermining trust in media and institutions, and promoting the spread of online echo chambers, where conspiracy theories and half-truths are wielded against opponents and journalists.
This erodes public trust in institutions on which democratic societies are built. This is why we are working with our Nordic and Baltic neighbours to train journalists in investigative journalism and to support free and independent media in areas specifically affected by disinformation and propaganda.
The media landscape is changing rapidly, creating both opportunities and challenges for freedom of expression and media freedom. In many countries, the shift from traditional newspapers and TV to digital distribution channels has already occurred.
The internet and social media empower people to exercise their freedom of opinion and expression and their right to access information. Today, we are all potential journalists, thanks to technological advances and social media. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand when exercising the right to express an opinion.
New technology can be an enabler of democratic development. At the same time, technology can be used as a vehicle for spreading propaganda and disinformation. Critical thinking and source criticism are crucial in this context. The media play a key role in connecting the dots, so that citizens can be their own judge of what is the truth and what is not.
The Nordic countries are by no means immune to threats against freedom of expression. Hate speech and radicalisation, especially online, are an ever-growing concern in our societies as well.
Daesh (another name for the Islamic State jihadist group) uses images of extreme violence on social media to influence public opinion and provoke our societies in order to increase radicalisation and recruitment.
The common practice of posting photos and videos of brutal violence and executions on social media creates fear and increases polarisation within our own societies, thereby further feeding the extremists’ narrative.
The 250th anniversary of the Swedish and Finnish freedom of the press act reminds us of the long road we have travelled to promote the freedom of expression.
Developments in the wider world, however, make it clear that now is no time to stop. The Swedish and Finnish governments pledge to work even harder, and jointly with media representatives and civil society, to advance freedom of expression globally.
Margot Wallstrom is the foreign minister of Sweden. Timo Soini is the foreign minister of Finland