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Icelandic Parliament Strengthens Protections for Journalists and Whistleblowers
The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is the first major step in a push towards transparency. On June 15th

Icelandic Parliament Strengthens Protections for Journalists and Whistleblowers

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is the first major step in a push towards transparency. On June 15th

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is the first major step in a push towards transparency.

On June 15th, Icelandic Parliamentarians unanimously approved a resolution that contains some of the strongest protection for freedom of speech and freedom of information in the world. The reforms will most likely take effect sometime in 2011, when a revision of the country’s relevant laws and regulations is expected to be completed and approved by Parliament.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), as the proposal is known, has been welcomed by most Icelanders, who are weary of institutional furtiveness; in April, a special Parliamentary report concluded that the country’s spectacular financial collapse of 2008 would not have been possible without a culture of secrecy that afforded bankers and politicians little oversight. By strengthening protections for whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, and by reforming the judicial system to minimize the abuse of libel law, those behind IMMI are hoping to foster a much more open society on the island.

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“There is a willingness to make everything more transparent in Iceland,” explained Left-Green MP Lilja Mósesdóttir, one of four MPs who tabled the reforms.

While the initiative has been mostly well received, there remains uncertainty about just what sort of global impact it will have. Whatever the result, as IMMI spokesperson and Board Member of the Icelandic Digital Freedom Society Smári McCarthy explained, at the very least the reforms are an attempt to ensure that laws governing civil liberties keep pace with technology.

“The concept of freedom of expression as we know it comes from the French and American revolutions and has been with us for two hundred years with no major changes,” McCarthy said. “I very much hope that what we’re doing is the first step towards redefining the concept of free expression in a way that is acceptable to an information-savvy age,” he added.

Don’t Fear the Leaker

Despite its unanimous passage, the proposal is not without criticism. Some Icelanders have expressed reservations about what benefit they might gain by sticking their noses into other (far more powerful) countries’ dirty laundry. In particular, IMMI’s ties to the ironically-secretive website Wikileaks have raised a few eyebrows.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a Parliamentarian at the forefront of IMMI, countered that such criticism amounted to “fear-mongering” over a policy that might be imitated by other countries.

“If IMMI is so horrible,” Jónsdóttir said, “then why are some of the biggest parties in the EU parliament lobbying for it?” On June 22nd, Marietje Schaake, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament representing The Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, said that the EU ” must protect freedom of expression and press, following the example of Iceland.”

Wikileaks, too, hasn’t been entirely demonized by the powers that be. As a part of an initiative in Britain called the Public Sector Spending Challenge, government employees there have been encouraged to use Wikileaks by the Treasury; evidence, Jónsdóttir said, that Iceland won’t be alone in clamoring for greater transparency.

To Iceland’s west, however, anxieties about the spread of Wikileaks are much more tangible. The Pentagon, which declared the muckraking website to be a threat in 2008, is furious with it for producing Collateral Murder, a leaked video of a 2007 American Apache helicopter attack on a group of mostly unarmed Iraqis.

Although two of men were carrying weapons, they did not appear to be hostile; a Reuters photographer was killed and two children were severely wounded in the attack.

Regardless of any controversy surrounding the website, Jónsdóttir tried to distance IMMI from Wikileaks. Icelanders have been hounding for increased accountability since the start of their crisis, and many long before that. Their dissent has even called into question the legitimacy of Transparency International’s “Least Corrupt Country” ratings.

It cannot be denied, however, that Wikileaks has played a massive role in post-collapse Iceland. The website has leaked document after document about the crisis; their most hard hitting leak – about executive loans by failed bank Kaupthing – resulted in a court-ordered gag on Iceland’s state broadcaster in an incident that inspired IMMI. Since then, Wikileaks editor Julian Assange has spent much time in Iceland. He helped draft IMMI, and Collateral Murder was decoded and released in Iceland.

But even if Assange’s ties to Iceland do offend the National Security State, Jónsdóttir – who acted as a spokesperson for Wikileaks while Assange was in “hiding” – believes most Americans should take a shine to IMMI. An artist and a poet, Jónsdóttir has lived in the US and greatly admires American advocates of freedom of expression like Beat Poet publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“If any nation should stand up for [IMMI], it is the US,” she said.

Jónsdóttir does, however, realize that getting the American government to warm to the initiative may be tricky. Despite President Obama’s campaign promises to protect whistleblowers, his administration has decided instead to slap them with criminal charges; Bradley Manning, the alleged source of Collateral Murder, Shamai Leibovitz, an FBI translator, and Thomas Drake, an NSA contractor, are all examples of whistleblowers who may or may not feel like they’ve been backstabbed by the President; Drake even faces trumped-up charges of Espionage. Not even George W. Bush threatened whistleblowers with prison throughout his Imperial Presidency.

But it isn’t just President Obama’s betrayal of his campaign promises and the clandestine ways of the US government that bothers Jónsdóttir; she sees the President’s vendetta against whistleblowers as a pointless exercise for a government that trumpets itself as a shining beacon of democracy.

“No matter how hard they try to stop information from flowing, it is simply impossible,” Jónsdóttir said. “The time for secrecy is over.”

Some might argue that demanding transparency from governments and corporations while preserving anonymity for whistleblowers is hypocritical. However, the reality of the situation is that whistleblowers face grave danger – sometimes in the form of death threats – for shedding light on institutional shortcomings.

“We must be willing to grant anonymity and protection from disclosure to those who are willing to take such risks in order to create the society we wish for,” McCarthy argued. Until those threats dissipate, those willing to stick their neck out for public interest should be shielded. If Iceland is the only country willing to grant such security, the impact of IMMI could be much more visible in Iceland than expected: Reykjavik could find itself on business cards of publishers and media outlets from around the world.

“Every journalist we speak to is extremely envious,” Jónsdóttir said.

Even if Iceland is alone in creating cast-iron protections for honest free speech, many are skeptical that the scheme can actually have much of a global impact. In a landmark case concerning cross-border online media, “publication” was ruled – controversially – to occur at the point of download. Anything published in Iceland after the reforms are enacted could, therefore, still see publishers sued outside of the country (foreign publishers could be forgiven for being nervous about keeping their money in Iceland).

However, the reforms will have a noticeable impact in Iceland itself. Data servers and IT firms have considered moving to the country for years; its “clean green power and cool temperatures are attractive to those running internet services”, according to IMMI’s official website. Offering legal protection for such enterprises – as the broad-brush reforms do – can only entice them further.

Publishers, too, may find Iceland increasingly harder to resist. “One publisher asked if there would be tax cuts for media companies that move to Iceland,” Jónsdóttir said. “It is a valuable question that needs addressing.”

And it isn’t the only question left unanswered in Iceland’s quest for greater transparency. While Jónsdóttir expressed a concern that the initiative didn’t go far enough, the largest real hurdle to increased openness may emerge when the question of transparency is raised within the context of financial reform. The IMF, which has lent Iceland billions in emergency currency support, is expected to intervene on behalf of secrecy.

“It is not actually clear what the IMF is actually doing,” MP Lilja Mósesdóttir, a former professor of economics, said. “They are making sure their influences are not traceable. If we are going to have transparency bills capturing the financial sector, I’m not sure that will fly until the IMF is out.”

The issue is bound to arise sooner or later. As Huffington Post journalist Iris Erlingsdóttir noted, not even Parliamentarians are allowed to know the gritty details about the absolution of debts accumulated by bank executives, who borrowed for the sole purpose of stock manipulation.

“In other sectors, however, there are no blocks to greater transparency,” Mósesdóttir lamented.

Whatever the effects of IMMI, it is safe to say – assuming, of course, that the reforms take effect as scheduled – that those behind the initiative will be slightly disappointed if Iceland’s enthusiasm for openness is not shared by other countries. With all the financial turmoil in Europe and the United States, if there was ever time for a glasnost-type event in the West, now is it. As McCarthy pointed out, Icelanders – much like the rest of the crisis-hit world – have learned important lessons about a lack of government transparency and “a legally crippled media” that they should never forget.

“Somebody once said that you should never waste a crisis,” he commented.