Maybe Iceland will help investigative journalism

The campaigning website Wikileaks, recently out of action due to lack of funds, may soon have a new lease on life, thanks to the forward thinking of Iceland:

In my role as WikiLeaks editor, I’ve been involved in fighting off more than 100 legal attacks over the past three years. To do that, and keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world to activate protective laws in different national jurisdictions.

We’ve become good at it, and never lost a case, or a source, but we can’t expect everyone to make such extraordinary efforts. Large newspapers, including the Guardian, are forced to remove or water down investigative stories rather than risk legal costs. Even internet-only publishers writing about corruption find themselves disconnected by their ISPs after legal threats. Should these publications not relent, they are hounded, like the Turks & Caicos Islands Journal, from one jurisdiction to other. There’s a new type of refugee – “publishers” – and a new type of internet business developing, “refugee hosting”. Malaysia Today is no longer published in Malaysia. Even the American Homeowners Association has moved its servers to Stockholm after relentless legal attacks in the United States.

That’s why I’m excited about what is happening in Iceland, which has started to see the world in a new way after its mini-revolution a year ago. Over the past two months I have been part of a team in Iceland advising parliamentarians on a cross-party proposal to turn it into an international “journalism haven” – a jurisdiction designed to attract organisations into publishing online from Iceland, by adopting the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world.

Because of the economic meltdown in the banking sector, which, per capita, was the largest of any western country, Icelanders believe that fundamental change is needed in order to prevent such events from taking place again. Those changes include not just better regulation of banks, but better media oversight of dirty deals between banks and politicians.

In fact, Iceland’s banks became fans of libel tourism. For instance, the largest, Kaupthing, succeeded in bringing a libel suit against a Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, in London. A similar Danish article looking into the alleged Russian connections of Landsbanki, Iceland’s second-largest bank, and its online banking arm Icesave, was also attacked and removed from the online public record.

Then, on 31 July last year, …­WikiLeaks released Kaupthing’s confidential large loan book, which exposed €6bn of loans. Kaupthing threatened us and our source with a year in prison under Icelandic banking secrecy law. The leak was to become a major story, but five minutes before the national broadcaster, RÚV, could report it, the news desk was slapped with an injunction by Kaupthing. The first such Icelandic newsdesk injunction in living memory. Lost for words, RÚV filled the time with an image of WikiLeaks, outraging the public, who could all access a copy of the primary source document.

This is the backdrop which has led to the development of the “Icelandic Modern Media Initiative”, a proposal that binds the government to draft legislation to develop an attractive package of free speech and openness laws, including source protection, internal media communications protection, protection from libel tourism, immunity for intermediaries such as ISPs, and a tight statute of limitations on litigation. It is to be filed by tomorrow and has cross-party support, including from the governing coalition. Although the political environment in Iceland is still highly charged over the 6 March referendum about the Icesave dispute, it is expected to be voted through. Not surprisingly, the foreign press has developed an interest in the proposal. All over the world, the freedom to write about powerful groups is being smothered. Iceland could be the antidote to secrecy havens, rather it may become an island where openness is protected – a journalism haven. Sleet Street 2.0.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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