Forsskål’s Mandate: 250 years of Freedom of Information

By David Goldberg


© UNESCO

As part of UNESCO’s 2016 World Press Freedom Day activities, a side event will be held on 2 May focusing on Peter Forsskål, his work and legacy, titled Forsskål’s Mandate: 250 years of Freedom of Information. Hosted at the National Archives of Finland, the event is co-organized by the National Archives of Finland and the UNESCO Chair in Freedom of Expression, Media Development and Global Policy at the University of Gothenburg, Ms Ulla Carlsson. The panel will discuss Forsskål’s legacy, as well as its impact on contemporary press freedom and freedom of information legislation in Forsskål’s home country and globally.

Peter Forsskål (1732 - 1763), born in Helsingfors/Helsinki, is widely known as one of Carl Linnæus’s most promising apostles, who collected botanical and zoological specimens as the naturalist on an expedition to Egypt and ‘Felix Arabia’, modern day Yemen. Carsten Niebuhr, the expedition’s only survivor, edited Forsskål’s manuscripts. The surviving specimens from the expedition are now housed in the Forsskål Herbarium in the Natural History Museum (Copenhagen).

However, the focus of this side event is his little-known pamphlet, Thoughts on Civil Liberty/Tankar om Borgerliga Friheten. It was translated - for the first time ever - into English from the uncensored manuscript by Project Forsskål and published in 2009. The pamphlet was first privately printed by Lars Salvius on 23 November 1759 after Uppsala University refused to publish it.  On the same day, it was banned by the Kanslikollegium because it espoused ‘dangerous principles’: advocating the benefits of religious freedom and publicly questioning religious beliefs, as well as urging the abolition of privileges. Ironically, Linnaeus, being then the Vice-Rector of Uppsala University, was ordered to retrieve the copies Forsskål had distributed around town and to the bookshop. Of around 500 copies, only 79 were retrieved, suggesting that Linnaeus didn’t try too hard.

Forsskål believed that civil rights could be best defended by the institutions of ‘limited Government’ and almost ‘unlimited freedom of the written word’. However, the intellectual catalyst for the 1766 law can be best found in paragraph 21, where he sets out the conditions for the important right to be freely allowed to contribute to society’s well-being (an activist conception of citizenship): it must be possible for society’s state of affairs to become known to everyone (i.e., access to information of public interest) and it must be possible for everyone to speak his mind freely (maximum freedom of speech).

After words of welcome from Ulla Carlsson and Päivi Happonen of the National Achives of Finland, contributions to the panel will come from: Ere Pertti Nokkala, who will speak about Tankar, Forsskål's fight for it and the potential impact it had on the formation of the main principles of the 1766 law; Kaarle Nordenstreng, who will give an overview of freedom of expression in Finland from 1766 to 2015; Helena Jäderblom, the judge occupying Sweden’s seat at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, who will consider the state of public access to information in today’s Europe and what Forsskål would  have thought about it; journalist Harri Alanne, –who will speak about  lessons learned  from Forsskål while making a radio programme about him; and newspaper Editor Staffan Eklund, who will present on the global legacy of Peter Forsskål’s ideas.

*For more information on Forsskål and “Thoughts on Civil Liberty” please visit: http://www.peterforsskal.com/