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<nettime> Iceland's fight for press freedom

Icelandic Modern Media Initiative

Iceland is at a unique crossroads. Because of an economic meltdown
in the banking sector, a deep sense is among the nation that a
fundamental change is needed in order to prevent such events from
taking place again. At such times it is important to seek a collective
future vision and take a course that will bring the nation and the
parliament closer together.

On February 17th a parliamentary resolution will be filed at the
Icelandic parliament suggesting that Iceland will position itself
legally with regard to the protection of freedoms of expression and
information. This suggestion for a future vision has sparked great
enthusiasm both within the parliament and among those it has been
introduced to.

According to Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), Iceland went from being
placed first in the world for freedom of expression (2007) to 9th
(2009). It is time this trend was rectified.

The goal of the IMMI proposal is to task the government with
finding ways to strengthen freedom of expression around world and
in Iceland, as well as providing strong protections for sources and
whistleblowers. To this end the legal environment should be explored
in such a way that the goals can be defined, and changes to law or
new law proposals can be prepared. The legal environments of other
countries should be considered, with the purpose of assembling the
best laws to make Iceland a leader of freedoms of expression and
information. We also feel it is high time to establish the first
Icelandic international prize: The Icelandic Freedom of Expression

This proposal does not belong to any single group or party, but should
be considered a joint project of all parliamentarians to find a
harmonious tone of reconciliation in order to pull the nation out of
these difficulties with something to achieve together.

We have already been in touch with, and introduced the proposal to,
various interest groups whom this new legislation package might
affect, including industry, media and civil society. So far we have
only received positive feedback from all levels.

A keen interest has developed among the foreign press in relation
to this legislative proposal, perhaps because all over the world
the freedom to write news is increasingly being smothered. In their
mind Iceland could become the anti-dote to tax havens: a journalism

The suggestions in the proposal for a legislative package would
transform the possibilities for growth in various areas. Iceland could
become an ideal environment for Internet-based international media and
publishers to register their services, start-ups, data centers and
human rights organizations. It could be a lever for the economy and
create new work employment opportunities.

If this proposal became a reality it could improve democracy and
transparency in Iceland, as firm grounding would be made for
publishing, whilst improving Iceland's standing in the international


Iceland's fight for press freedom

New legislation that proposes turning the island into a protective    
'haven' for media could allow investigative journalism to flourish    

Alda Sigmundsdottir,, Tuesday 16 February 2010 11.00

Back in November I attended a meeting in Reykjavik with the editors
of WikiLeaks, hosted by an association called the Icelandic Modern
Media Initiative (IMMI). Under discussion was the presentation of a
new parliamentary resolution that would amend laws to allow Iceland to
grant a high level of protection for journalists, press sources and
whistleblowers, and to combat "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. I thought the idea of creating this sort of haven
in Iceland -- a country struggling with the exposure of massive
amounts of corruption, not to mention a severely restricted media
sector -- was both novel and intriguing. It also seemed perfectly
viable; not to mention vitally important. I had no idea, for instance,
that even large, established newspapers routinely have gag orders
placed on them and are required to water down or even pull stories.
>From what I understand this is particularly true of the UK, since the
legal framework is very supportive of that sort of activity. The UK is
also a popular place for libel tourism -- indeed, Iceland's Kaupthing
bank successfully sued Denmark's Ekstra Bladet in a London court a
few years ago. Apparently, Bladet's editor-in-chief fought hard to
settle out of court with the bank, for fears of the staggering costs
of fighting a libel case in England. Evidently the UK legislative
framework makes it possible to initiate legal proceedings on the basis
of a newspaper merely being sold in that country.

It is important to state that the aim of the proposed Icelandic
legislation is not to allow people to publish freely all sorts of
trash in Iceland and get away with it. The point is not to make
Iceland a haven for tabloids, paedophiles or similar low-level
activities. Anything that is illegal will still be illegal -- the
amendments will not change that. The idea is merely to create a
framework wherein investigative journalism and free speech can

If this 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 -- it has servers placed
in strategic locations throughout the world, and publish or route its
information through countries where the legal framework is auspicious
for its purposes. Incidentally, WikiLeaks has had more than 100
lawsuits brought against it in the last three years, but has never
lost a case.

Today the parliamentary resolution proposing these changes will be
introduced in the Icelandic parliament. The bill is supported by all
parties, except the Independence party (which seems to be involved in
the greatest number of corruption cases emerging in Iceland these days
-- coincidence?).

To many of us the resolution seems like a very good idea, but it is
early days yet, and uncertain how things will play out. The actual
implementation of the bill would be complex as it affects a number
of government ministries. Also, one wonders about the implications
for the Icelandic judicial system, which already looks set to be
overwhelmed with an onslaught of cases relating to the country's bank
collapse. Add to that a slew of cases relating to libel and press
freedoms and it is easy to envision the Icelandic courts becoming
positively, er, snowed under with work.

On the other hand, Iceland sure could use a boost in morale and       
transparency right now, what with the parliamentary-appointed         
"truth commission" set to release its fact-finding report on the      
bank collapse within the next three weeks. The report -- dubbed the   
Black report -- promises to be filled to the brim with descriptions   
of corruption, incompetence and misdeeds, and one wonders how well    
equipped the Icelandic media is to deal with the findings. After      
all, the state of the country's media is in a shambles, with mass     
redundancies among journalists in the last few months and the         
country's two major newspapers currently in the hands of some of      
the main players in the collapse. But that, as they say, is another   

This article was published on at 11.00 GMT on Tuesday  
16 February 2010. It was last modified at 11.30 GMT on Tuesday 16     
February 2010.                                                        

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