If all goes well, Iceland may be about to make history. No, I don’t mean the refusal of the populace to get saddled with Iceland’s $5 billion bad “Icesave” bank debt. Rather, I’m referring to the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative [IMMI], which combines the world’s best legislation to protect press and information freedom into one path-breaking information freedom bill for Iceland.
IMMI attempts to tip the world balance toward press freedom by setting up Iceland as a Mecca of press and information freedom. Key provisions of the IMMI include: whistleblower protections; strong protections for anonymous sources and the journalists and media organizations who deal with them; a strengthening of protections against prior restraint by governments or through use of the courts; and protection for Internet Service Providers [ISPs], preventing them from being held responsible for information passing through their networks.
IMMI also includes provisions against the use of lawsuits to suppress information. Thus, under IMMI, Iceland would not enforce foreign judgments against ISPs and media organizations based in Iceland. Further, Icelandic-based organizations would have the right to file counter-suits in Iceland against attempts to suppress their free speech in other countries.
Additionally contained in IMMI are protections against misuses of court processes to suppress speech, allowing judges to decide that an issue before the court involves freedom of speech and thus trigger protections before those being sued are coerced into settling cases or submitting to abusive subpoenas due to inadequate resources to defend themselves.
If IMMI passes, Iceland’s actions could affect press freedoms elsewhere. Iceland’s internet servers would become available to reporters and bloggers around the world. These servers could hold documents and reports that governments or corporations are attempting to suppress and would come under Icelandic protections. The right to countersue against attempts at suppressing free speech elsewhere will provide some protection for journalists and media organizations in other countries used Icelandic servers.. While there is no guarantee that the right to countersue will deter all abuses, in many cases the threat of litigation, or even criminal penalties, in Iceland will constrain those who might otherwise move to suppress information.
In other cases, attempts to suppress free expression, such as a subpoena seeking the identity of a confidential source in other countries would be in violation of Icelandic laws, providing reporters and other information providers with leverage in their own countries. Thus, a reporter under pressure to reveal a source could argue that these demands would place that reporter afoul of Icelandic law. Some courts may respect this claim, since they would be unable to guarantee immunity for the reporter.
The IMMI arose out of last summer’s outrage at efforts by a Icelandic bank to suppress television reporting on a document leaked to Wikileaks — the internet haven for leaked documents — regarding the bank’s questionable financial dealings. Icelanders were outraged that their television station was enjoined from reporting on a document that was freely available on the web.
Wikileaks editors Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt originally spearheaded the creation of IMMI and have moved to Iceland to help secure its passage. Wikileaks is well aware of the dangers of censorship as banks and several countries, including Australia and South Africa, have attempted to censor materials posted on Wikileaks. If IMMI passes, Iceland would become the perfect environment for Wikileaks to base its servers. Other media and information providers will likely follow suit and base their servers in Iceland to take advantage of its new protections.
IMMI thus could be a boon to Iceland’s economy, making it a center of the new information economy. But IMMI, because of its strong assist to transparency efforts like Wikileaks, also is seen by many Icelanders as a critical tool in preventing the next economic collapse through shedding light on murky questionable financial and other corporate dealings. As parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir stated:
“The collapse woke up the nation and by rallying together we pushed through historical changes. The government was forced to resign, the central bank manager was forced to resign, the head of the financial supervisory authority was forced to resign. The people of Iceland realized that by joining forces real change could and would take place.
People woke up to the fact that the infrastructure they had put their trust in, had failed. Our academics, the government, the parliament, the central bank, and the media had all failed. It made us understand that the media was weak, that there was a lack of transparency and that in order to live in a healthy society, we had take part in shaping it.
We have come to understand that fundamental changes need to take place to strengthen our democracy and that a new legislative package is needed to that promotes transparency and political accountability.
Because the world is connected by financial and information flows, suppression of the truth is not only our problem, but everyone’s problem. The right of the people to understand what is happening to their societies needs to be strengthened. I believe in supporting the world’s most courageous journalists and writers with the best legislation possible. That is why I am proud to be a part of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.
IMMI was introduced into parliament February 17 by 19 parliamentary representatives from all parties in parliament, almost a third of the 63 MPs. It will be voted on in April or May of this year. Passage will constitute one of the most important blows for democracy and transparency anywhere in years. It will also be a rare rebuke to the growing power of corporations and governments to restrict information flow world-wide.