On Dec. 2, 1766, Sweden’s parliament adopted the world’s first freedom of the press act, abolishing censorship and granting citizens access to public documents and the right to participate in political debates.
On the landmark act’s 250th anniversary, the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Newseum co-hosted a seminar on global press freedom. Newseum President and CEO Jeffrey Herbst spoke on a panel with Fredric Karén, editor-in-chief of Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers. The discussion, moderated by veteran journalist and Harvard professor Marvin Kalb, centered on the history of press freedom in the United States and Sweden, and how it is impacted by today’s media landscape.
In opening remarks, Sarah Sewall, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, noted the general decline of press freedom in the last 10 years. She described social media as a tool exploited by authoritarian regimes to muzzle the press and spread propaganda and misinformation. “All democracies must be aware of this new form of corrupting the truth,” Sewall said.
Social media formed a large part of the discussion between Kalb, Herbst and Karén. The technology has fueled a massive debate in the United States over press freedom and freedom of speech, with many favoring limits on these constitutional rights. Kalb pointed out that, throughout the course of American history, challenges to press freedom have ebbed and flowed.
“We love the idea of freedom of the press, and yet there have been moments when even the best of our presidents have cracked down, generally at times of danger to our national security,” he said. “During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln of all people decided to put reporters who criticized his policy in prison, and he did.”
After 9/11, the U.S. government undertook national security measures that many viewed as infringing on First Amendment rights. The debate continues today, with social media serving as both a means of democratizing information and a means of distorting it.
Herbst said that the dissemination of poor-quality information through social channels means that it is more incumbent than ever on individuals to be intelligent news consumers. “You can log into Facebook or Twitter and get diverse viewpoints, the very best that journalism has to offer, almost for free,” he said. “Or you can watch cat videos all day.”
The three panelists also discussed how financial models have affected journalism. In the United States, newspapers have lost most of their advertising revenue to tech giants like Facebook and Google, causing many papers to reduce their output or fold completely.
Karén said that newspapers and other traditional media outlets haven’t suffered as much in Sweden. “We’ve been quite good at moving advertisers over to digital,” he commented, suggesting that American newspapers need to be more innovative in figuring out how to retain advertising revenue.
“We haven’t developed a financial model that supports local news and investigative reporting,” acknowledged Herbst. “And that’s disappearing. That’s a big question Americans haven’t answered yet — who’s going to produce the content that is the lifeblood of our democracy?”
The complete video of the seminar, including a podcast produced onsite by Swedish TV personalities Filip Hammar and Fredrik Wikingsson, can be viewed here.