Haven Bound

A Q&A with Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir

In 2008, Iceland was hit hard by the global financial crisis. Citizen outrage and political unrest followed, sparking a people-powered shift in government policies. In June of 2010, the parliament passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a resolution to draft the world’s strongest free speech protections. Then, this spring, the government began crowdsourcing a new constitution online, and produced a draft in late July. Alysia Santo spoke with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of parliament and a one-time WikiLeaks spokesperson, about her goals to transform Iceland into a haven for freedom of speech and transparency. A condensed version of this conversation appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

You have said that journalists are information refugees.

In this fragile metamorphosis, where most of the media is moving on to the Internet but has not figured out how to make money, it’s all about what gets the most clicks. It’s usually not in-depth or investigative reporting. These types of reporting are very often quite expensive compared to the number of clicks it gets. We’re hoping to make Iceland into a place where if you take the chance to blow the whistle, your story is going to appear.

My driving force is bloggers in countries like China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and others. They are risking their lives to tell us what’s really going on. I want to be able to provide them safe haven. At the very least we can make sure that their stories remain up no matter what.

I am confident that if we would have had encouraging laws for whistleblowing before the banking collapse, it would have been smaller. If someone would have felt inspired enough and safe enough to blow the whistle; because it was an incredible ponzi scheme.

How does this fit into the Icelandic Government’s crowdsourcing of the constitution?

One of the demands during the protests was to revise the constitution; 950 people were randomly selected from the national registry to participate in the constitutional assembly. Then it was made available for suggestions through Facebook, ordinary e-mail, or mail, and it’s viewable by everyone. There is not a particular policy about transparent government, but it’s the overall spirit in everything we’re doing.

I saw some of the Icelandic council meetings were being broadcast on YouTube.

We have been doing lots of experiments in Iceland with online direct democracy. When we started this new parliament a couple of years ago, the chairman of the committee made this new rule that nothing is classified unless given permission to be classified. For me that was a very fundamental change.

If you have everything secret by default then there will be need to leak some of it. I totally believe that there are some things that need to be kept secret. If you have a consensus in the society about that then there is much less likelihood that information is going to be leaked.

I don’t want to paint Iceland as some rosy red country. We’re in the early stages of everything. I feel that there is a genuine desire with many in the parliament and the government to change things for the better when it comes to an open and transparent parliament.

Last June, when you first presented the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, what were your expectations?

I didn’t expect the entire parliament to say yes, including the governor. I was overwhelmed. It’s been a little slower than I hoped, but we passed the source protection law this spring and we’re working on a freedom of information act that should pass in September. In times of crisis, damaging emergency laws are pushed through and tend to stick. We wanted to use this same time frame to create good. If we wanted to start a tax haven, we would look at all the best laws around the world in order to create secrecy. We did the same thing, but for transparency. The laws that are the backbone of IMMI are history protection from France; source protection from Belgium; freedom of information from Norway, Estonia, and Sweden; libel tourism from the states of Florida, California, and New York; communication protection from Norway; and the whistleblowing laws were from the United States—but those laws have proven too weak under political pressure, so we’re looking at other countries for laws that function the way they were meant to.

You’re trying to get the rest of Europe to adopt these laws. How has the reaction been from the EU?

Very positive. Many members of the European parliament have suggested using Iceland as a standard for upgrading laws into the reality we’re living in, where information doesn’t have borders. We’re seeing this freedom of information movement develop through legal means and through what WikiLeaks and others are doing. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU; they have special legal teams that are only focusing on civic rights online.

The reason why this is on the top of the debate everywhere is because it’s obvious that something is not right. And something needs to be done. Here is a great need and that’s why IMMI has gotten so much attention. For example, I’m doing interviews basically everyday with different sorts of media from around the world.

We founded an institution which is the International Modern Media Initiative. We have an international legal team that is also ready to advise other nations if they want to ask for it and the hope is that we can help.

We’re living in such interesting times because there’s been such shifts in perception and awareness about many things. There is much greater access to people and information now then ever before and then we go into another whole big debate that needs to happen right now, and that is our civic rights in cyber space.

You had a personal experience with that this winter.

In early January I got a letter from Twitter, saying we took a subpoena that was issued to us to the court to unseal it for you. And in the subpoena the Department of Justice is requesting all my back end information from Twitter, my IP number, all my personal stuff, my private Twitter messages. The subpoena ordered Twitter to hand it over within three days without my knowledge, which I found to be absolutely crazy, because I haven’t done anything criminal towards US authorities.

So did they end up giving your information?

Twitter managed to stop it and I was fortunate enough to get, since this is such a special case, free lawyers from both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU. We parliamentarians are constantly urged to use social media to be in better contact with our voters. I have to rely on the social media sites to have my back, and it might not always be in their interest.

What US authorities did with my case opened up a whole can of worms. But at the same time I’m thankful because it raises awareness about how little rights we have with our social media content in the US, our emails, everything.

Have you been charged with anything?

No. Iceland’s foreign affairs minister called the US ambassador and wanted to get some answers about what was going on, telling them that he was not pleased. So I got the message through him from the Department of Justice that I am not under a criminal investigation. I can travel to the US and I will not be a subject of involuntary interrogation. However, my lawyers in the US discovered that there are at least two or three grand jury documents related to me. So I don’t know. I’ve been advised by the Icelandic foreign minister not to travel to the States for the time being.

And you think this has to do with the investigation into Julian Assange?

Yes, because I co-produced the “Collateral Murder” video. And I was a spokesperson for Wikileaks in relation to the video, and then for a very brief period of time I was a spokesperson for the entire site.

And what Wikileaks did with the collateral murder video, and this is something very few people know, is that we did this in collaboration with state TV in Iceland. We sent off journalists to fact check what was found in this horrific video.

When I saw this video I felt obliged to do everything I could to show it.

At some point Iceland wants to start awarding an Icelandic prize for freedom of expression.

Yeah. We feel that it would be wrong to start the award, to puff our chest, before we have the proper shields. We want to make sure that we can protect the journalist or whistleblower that we would award. That will be the cherry on top.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.