Sweden's stinging nettle
Martin Rosenbaum | 08:24 UK time, Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Sweden has had a freedom of information law for nearly 250 years - in fact, since its Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.
Tell people that date and they often think you've got the century wrong, by one if not two hundred years. Everywhere else in the world, FOI is a phenomenon of the past 50 years.
This Swedish tradition of transparency has had a powerful effect on the country's culture in many ways, as for example the BBC recently reported on Parliamentary expenses. But how and why did Sweden adopt this principle so far ahead of any other state?
It arose out of a period in eighteenth-century Swedish history known as the "age of liberty", and the main mover behind the act was an MP and Finnish clergyman Anders Chydenius (at that time, Finland was part of Sweden).
But there were other determined campaigners in the period leading up to the Freedom of the Press Act, one of whom was Peter Forsskal.
A new book published today contains the first translation into English of an uncensored version of his pamphlet Thoughts on Civil Liberty, 250 years after the censored Swedish original was issued.
As the commentary in the book makes clear, the Swedish head-start on FOI was not due to greater advances towards civil rights in general. In fact, Forsskal wanted his country to catch up with others, so that Swedes would have "liberty to think and write as one has in England and Germany".
The innovative approach taken in Sweden was the way the Freedom of the Press Act paid attention to state documents, treating guaranteed access to government records as part of ensuring full and open public debate - or, as the Swedish constitution puts it:
"Every Swedish citizen shall be entitled to have free access to official documents, in order to encourage the free exchange of opinion."
The botanist Carl Linnaeus, who taught Forsskal, chose the stinging nettle as a plant to name after his former pupil. This may have reflected his personality - but freedom of information often stings too.
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