Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past 15 years in terms of strengthening democracy and freedom of expression.
World’s First Freedom Of The Press Act Turns 250
Two-hundred and fifty years ago on this day, the world’s first Freedom of the Press Act was adopted by the Swedish Parliament.
This meant that censorship of printed publications was abolished and the right of the public to have access to public documents and take part in political debates was secured. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act was unique for its time and has been instrumental to the development of the modern Swedish welfare state.
Freedom of speech is not only a prerequisite for democracy; it is also the guarantor of society’s development and the backbone of all human rights. The free flow of ideas and opinions, as well as debate and critical examination, creates a wealth of ideas and drives innovation.
The principle of public access to official documents gives citizens the right of scrutiny and access to information held by the public authorities. In this way, private individuals and journalists can observe and monitor power structures and popularly elected politicians.
When fully applied, this principle contributes to bringing down levels of corruption and to increasing the level of confidence in democratic institutions. This is why Afghanistan’s Access to Information Law, adopted in 2014, is so important, and why enhanced efforts to ensure its full implementation going forward are critical.
While today we celebrate freedom of expression, we are unfortunately seeing how fundamental rights and freedoms are coming increasingly under threat around the world. In many places we are seeing democratic space shrinking.
People are being silenced and civic information is being restricted. Threats and harassment are becoming increasingly common, and worrying statistics from UNESCO show that 800 journalists have been killed in the last ten years. Unfortunately, only a handful of the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past 15 years in terms of strengthening democracy and freedom of expression. Today, a vibrant media sector contributes to the transparency, diversity and pluralism of Afghan society.
New generations of Afghans have been given a voice and new alternative means of expressing and sharing opinions. Even though much remains to be done, advancements made on freedom of expression and of the press amount to some of the most significant development achievements Afghanistan has seen in recent years.
Simultaneously, however, the security situation for journalists in Afghanistan has worsened. According to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee at least 11 journalists have been killed in the country so far this year and 2016 goes on record as the bloodiest year yet for journalists and media workers in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, cases of violence against journalists remain unresolved.
The security of journalists is a prerequisite for free debate. Because what happens to a society that does not have access to free and independent media, where investigative journalism is not allowed to flourish? What happens to knowledge when information is subject to certain conditions? What are the consequences of an under-informed public?
The best way to commemorate the journalists that have been silenced is to enable others to continue to carry on the crucial work they would have done. In order to do so, we must work together to strengthen journalists’ security and freedom of expression.
Impunity must end and efforts to prosecute and punish those that threaten, injure and kill journalists and media workers must be intensified.
The 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of the Press Act reminds us of the long and bumpy road we have travelled to promote freedom of expression. Free speech is a core right that must never be taken for granted.
It must always and everywhere be defended, in Sweden, in Afghanistan and around the world. We hope that 2 December can be the starting point of renewed engagement. We hope that more people will stand up for free debate and continue to engage, discuss and scrutinise.
Anders Sjöberg is the ambassador of Sweden to Afghanistan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden is running a campaign on defending free speech which can be followed on twitter - #DefendingFreeSpeech