Anders Chydenius and the Origins of World's First Freedom of Information Act


Published in: 
The World's First Freedom of Information Act. Anders Chydenius' Legacy Today
Anders Chydenius -säätiön julkaisuja 2. Ed. Juha Mustonen. Kokkola 2006.
Electronic book on the pages of Chydenius-foundation:
Quote from the Introduction:
"“Freedom of information” is the designation adopted around the world after its North American example as the freedom of human actors to access existing documents. In the United States such an act was passed in 1966, and became effective through improvements made to it in 1974. This can be said to have signalled the triumph of laws of freedom of information throughout the world. Nevertheless, already 200 years before the Act was passed in the United States, and thus before the founding of the United States at all, such an Act had been passed in the Kingdom of Sweden, which at the time also included Finland. As was to be expected, various complications followed but the law proved to be a success in Scandinavia. It is partly due to the Act that the European North, which previously had had a very different image, has become the world’s least corrupt area and,concurrently, exceptionally socially responsible and committed to democratic principles. The most informed writers know to give the Freedom of Information Act its Swedish name offentlighetsprincipen, “the principle of publicity”. It is in Sweden that a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA as it is usually designated, was first put into practice, gaining a status in the country’ s constitution. Yet, the story of its origin is not generally known. The work of the Diet in Sweden is well documented from different perspectives. Of course, a number of controversies remain among historians, but, concerning the world’s first FOIA, a valuable analysis can be found in Professor Pentti Virrankoski’s biography of Anders Chydenius, the central person involved in drafting the law. However, I will not here concentrate on details of biography or political history – my standpoint is the history of ideas – , but before going to the actual drafting of the Swedish FOIA, it is necessary to highlight the ideological backgrounds of the key actors in the process. I will look at how the first FOIA was composed, the steps and conditions that made it possible, and analyse its different elements on the human plane. Of some of the phases of the story inferences can be based only on circumstantial evidence. But there are also preserved writings by Anders Chydenius, primarily those in which he made preparations for the Act, but also some short memoirs. Of additional interest is the fact that Chydenius came from a periphery of the Swedish Realm, from the northern and middle parts of Finland, and that he had an office in the service of the Church, though he was still undeniably a versatile Enlightenment philosopher, representing democratic thought, as we would say today. How could such a person, a priest from the countryside be active in making radical reforms?"