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 longer version of their conversation is available at cjr.org/behind_the_news/haven_bound.php.

You have said that journalists are information refugees.

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.

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.

Last June, when you first presented IMMI, 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.

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.