In November 2009 I attended a meeting in Reykjavík with Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt from the WikiLeaks project. The meeting was organized by a collective called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, and under discussion was a proposed parliamentary resolution that would make Iceland into a type of journalistic haven, where free speech could flourish.
On Tuesday, February 16, a group of MPs in Iceland's parliament submitted the resolution that will, if passed, allow Iceland to grant a high level of protection for journalists and their sources, and intermediaries such as ISPs. The laws will also offer a tight statute of limitations when it comes to litigation and create protection from libel tourism -- a practice whereby anyone who wishes to bring libel charges (or gag a story) can simply travel to a place with attractive laws for their purposes and initiate proceedings there.
Simply put, the new law would make Iceland into a press haven in the way that the Cayman Islands and other offshore sites are havens for tax evaders. Which is rather ironic, since Iceland is currently struggling to come to grips with a mountain of corruption that frequently appears to involve assets being stashed in precisely those offshore havens.
By all appearances, a press haven like the one outlined above is sorely needed. Before the meeting last November, for instance, I had no idea that even large, established newspapers routinely have gag orders placed on them and are required to pull stories. They just don't discuss it because it is thought to lower their credibility. In hindsight, though, it should not have come as a surprise -- after all, in August last year, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) had a gag order placed on it when it reported that WikiLeaks had published the contents of the loan book of one of the failed Icelandic banks, revealing a cesspool of shady and fraudulent dealings. Ironically, the loan book was exposed for anyone to see online -- but Kaupthing had obtained an injunction prohibiting RÚV from reporting on it.
It is important to state that the idea here is not to make it easy for people to freely publish all sorts of trash in Iceland and get away with it. In other words, it is not to make Iceland a haven for tabloids, pedophiles or similar low-level activities. Anything that is illegal will still be illegal -- the resolution will not change that. The idea is merely to create a framework of increased protection whereby investigative journalism and free speech can thrive.
The supporters of the proposal claim that, if it were to become a reality, any foreign paper or media outlet could set up an office -- or even just a server -- in Iceland, and publish from there. They would thereby be covered by the Icelandic law. This is similar to what WikiLeaks does -- they have servers placed in various locations throughout the world and publish or route their information through those countries where the legal framework is auspicious. Incidentally, WikiLeaks has had about 100 lawsuits brought against it in the past three years, but has never lost a case.
The resolution has the support of all political parties in Iceland's parliament, save for the Independence Party, which seems to be involved in the greatest number of corruption cases emerging in Iceland these days (coincidence?).
More information about the proposal, including a draft translation of the bill, is available on the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative's website.
Interviews with Julian Assange from WikiLeaks and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Icelandic MP and one of the supporters of the proposal, can be viewed on my blog.