The proposal submitted to the Althing (Icelandic Parliament) yesterday asks the government to find ways to strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland, as well as providing protections for sources and whistleblowers. The proposal requests changes to law, and an examination of the legal environments of other countries to get a “best of breed” law in freedoms of expression and information. It also recommends an international prize to be called The Icelandic Freedom of Expression Award.
The aim is to turn the island nation of 350,000 people into the world’s first “offshore publishing centre.” According to Mother Jones, the proposals could turn Iceland into the Cayman Islands of journalism. It says the proposal is based on the business model of offshore financial centres like Switzerland, which attracts investors with an enticing combination of low taxes and strict bank secrecy laws. Iceland could be the equivalent for investigative journalists if, as expected, it passes what would be the strongest source protection and freedom of speech laws in the world.
The proposal is the brainchild of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative which addresses freedom of expression in the digital age. The IMMI say Iceland is “at a unique crossroads”. The IMMI is feeding off the sense of change in the electorate as a result of the economic meltdown in the banking sector, to prevent it from taking place again. It also quotes Reporters Sans Frontiers who say Iceland dropped from first in the world for freedom of expression in 2007) to 9th last year. “It is time,” say IMMI’s founders, “this trend was rectified”.
The IMMI was drafted with help from Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt, two of the founders of Wikileaks. Julian Assange has been in Iceland for the past two months, consulting parliamentarians on the project. Assange says Wikileaks has fought off more than 100 legal attacks over the past three years by spreading assets assets, encrypting everything, and moving telecommunications and people around the world. He says Iceland will adopt the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world.
Assange said the move was driven by Icelandic people who have suffered the largest economic meltdown of any country per capita in the GFC. He said Icelanders believe fundamental change was needed in order to prevent such events from taking place again including better bank regulation and better media oversight of dirty deals between banks and politicians. He quotes the “libel tourism” of Iceland’s largest bank Kaupthing which brought a successful suit against a Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, in London where the costs of fighting libel is prohibitive. Iceland’s second largest bank Landsbanki also sued a Danish media outlet over its Russian mafia connections.
Icelandic writer and blogger Alda Sigmundsdottir says the proposed legislation would not allow people to publish freely any old rubbish and get away with it. “The point is not to make Iceland a haven for tabloids, paedophiles or similar low-level activities,” she said. Sigmundsdottir said the idea was to create a framework where investigative journalism and free speech can flourish. “Anything that is illegal will still be illegal,” she said. “The amendments will not change that.”
However the Citizen Media Law Project says while the laws are well-intentioned, they won’t achieve much because of the principle that publication happens at the point of download, not the point of upload. It quotes the famous case of Dow Jones v Gutnick where Melbourne tycoon Joe Gutnick sued Barron’s Online for publishing a supposedly defamatory article about him. Gutnick applied the writ in Victoria where only a handful of people read the article but the Australian High Court ruled this was where Gutnick’s reputation was and ruled against Barron’s.
For better or worse, says the CMLP, the poorly thought-out Australian ruling has set the precedent in similar cases around the world. While Iceland’s protections will suit Wikileaks they will not be useful for multi-national media companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain believes it was unclear how broadly the laws could be applied should they pass. “Unless the executives behind a particular media company are themselves prepared to move to Iceland, I’m not sure how substantial the protections can be,” he said. “A state can still demand that someone on its territory answer questions or turn over information on pain of fines or imprisonment.”