Iceland could be ‘haven’ for journalists

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Iceland could become a bastion for global press freedom, if a proposal inspired by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks is approved by the country's parliament today (16 February), the BBC reports.

MPs launched the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) with the goal of turning the country into a global haven for investigative journalism. The IMMI calls on the country's government to adopt laws protecting journalists and their sources.

If the proposal succeeds it will require the Icelandic government to introduce new legislation. According to WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, the proposal has widespread backing among Iceland's 51 MPs.

Assange told BBC News that the idea was to "try and reform Iceland's media law to create a very attractive jurisdiction for investigative journalists". He believes the political mood in Reykjavik is receptive to the need for change.

Legislators hope that journalist-friendly laws will encourage media businesses to move to Iceland. "If it then has these additional media and publishing law protections then it is likely to encourage the international press and Internet start-ups to locate their services here," Assange said.

WikiLeaks is a non-profit website that has established a reputation for publishing leaked material. In October 2009, it posted a list of names and addresses of people said to belong to the British National Party (BNP). The website also hosted a copy of a document that detailed restrictions placed on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Moreover, the site played a role in Iceland's financial crisis last summer when a national TV broadcaster was blocked from revealing a list of creditors in the country's banking debacle. The broadcaster ran the url for WikiLeaks disclosure instead. However, the website recently had to suspend operations over a lack of funding.

The 'Vikings of transparency'?

The IMMI aims to gather good practice from around the world and incorporate it into a single body of law. "We've found good laws in different countries but no country that has all of these laws put together," said Assange.

The legislators have been informed of WikiLeaks' experience in fighting legal threats to publication.

"In my role as WikiLeaks editor, I've been involved in fighting off more than 100 legal attacks over the past three years," Assange said in a blog post on the Guardian website.

The proposals also include steps to end so-called "libel tourism," the practice of pursuing libel action in the most favourable legal jurisdiction irrespective of where the parties are based.

A more positive image

However, the troubles of the financial sector may lead some Icelanders to be sceptical of efforts to transform their country.

Indeed, Iceland's ambition to transform itself from a country heavily dependent upon fishing into a financial powerhouse went up in smoke after the 2008 credit crunch (EURACTIV 21/10/08).

One of the proposal's supporters, Birgitta Jonsdottir of The Movement, a political party with three MPs in the Icelandic parliament, told the BBC that she was confident the measure would become law. "We don't want to be the Vikings of transparency in the way the bankers presented themselves," she said.

Jonsdottir believes that making a strong statement in favour of freedom of expression could be a way for Iceland to create a positive new identity. "There are still very many Icelanders who feel ashamed. I think it is part of the self-recovery we have to go through," she said.

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