The History of Fritt Ord

The Fritt Ord Foundation was established on 7 June 1974 by the Executive Director of Narvesen Kiosk Company, Jens Henrik Nordlie, Deputy Executive Director Finn Skedsmo and Supreme Court Advocate Jens Christian Hauge.

Narvesens Kioskkompani (the Narvesen Kiosk Company) was Norway’s only distribution channel for newspapers and journals in the years immediately after World War II. The impressions left by the Occupation were still vivid in the minds of the Norwegian people. Political regimentation and the prohibition against all free speech had been daily reminders that a democracy cannot survive without freedom of expression, i.e. without free speech. This freedom required not only that everyone could write and say what they pleased, but also that contributions to the social debate actually reached the people.

The management of the kiosk company subsequently decided to try to safeguard the open distribution of publications on a permanent basis. Freedom of expression needed to be better protected. The company needed an independent, long-term owner. The company’s then Executive Director, Jens Henrik Nordlie, wanted to convert the enterprise into a public utility institution. Since there was no legal precedent for so doing, he got the shareholders to pledge that they were willing to sell their shares and the shares were transferred to a not-for-profit public utility foundation.

The Fritt Ord Foundation, Oslo, was established on 7 June 1974. The transfer of the shares took place on 1 January 1975. On the same date, the Narvesen company merged with Norsk Spisevognselskap, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Norwegian State Railways (NSB), now Vy. The Fritt Ord Foundation held 59 per cent and NSB 41 per cent of the share capital in the merged company, which was subsequently named Narvesen. From the very beginning, the Fritt Ord Foundation’s activities were linked to initiatives such as supporting the newly established Norwegian Institute of Journalism, a grant programme designed to stimulate the exploration of issues related to freedom of expression and, not least, the Fritt Ord Prize. As funding increased, the institution was able to support a number of individual measures within its sphere of activity.

NSB sold its equity in the company in 1995. Since the shares received broader distribution, Narvesen was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange. By that time, there were far more players and channels in the area of distribution. Means of communication such as the Internet had opened up new opportunities for expression and distribution. Meanwhile, the multi-cultural media society has raised new questions about the conditions for freedom of expression. The Fritt Ord Foundation, Oslo, eventually found it advisable to perform its work on the basis of its not-for-profit objects clause rather than maintaining close ties to Narvesen.

In 1999, the Fritt Ord Foundation reduced its stake in Narvesen from 51 per cent to 34 per cent. In the autumn of 2000, the foundation accepted a proposal for a merger between Narvesen and the Reitan Group, leaving it with a 16.2 per cent stake in the merged company ReitanNarvesen. That stake was sold in November 2001, severing the old connection between Narvesen and the Fritt Ord Foundation, Oslo.

In 2000 Erik Rudeng was appointed the foundation’s first Executive Director, and the Fritt Ord Foundation, together with the Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Organisation acquired premises at Uranienborgveien 2 for offices and meeting rooms. In June 2011 Supreme Court Justice Georg Fr. Rieber-Mohn succeeded Professor Francis Sejersted as chair of Fritt Ord’s Board of Trustees. Erik Rudeng retired in August 2014, and Knut Olav Åmås was appointed Executive Director from 1 September 2014. Professor Grete Borchmann is appointed chair of Fritt Ord’s Board of Trustees in December 2016.