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Iceland seeks to become sanctuary for free speech

An ambitious media initiative aims to promote transparency not only in Iceland but across an increasingly interconnected world. But first, lawmakers have to work out how to address national security and terrorism concerns.

April 02, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • The city of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
The city of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. (Visit Reykjavik )

Reporting from Reykjavik, Iceland — Got a hard-hitting investigative story but can't get it past government censors at home? Publish it in Iceland instead. What about a website featuring classified, inflammatory or potentially libelous material? Park it on an Internet server here, without fear of legal harassment or official pressure to reveal your sources.

Lawmakers here have given the go-ahead to an ambitious plan to turn this unassuming island in the North Atlantic into an international sanctuary for free speech, putting Iceland at the leading edge of media openness but also pushing it into uncharted territory.

The goal, supporters say, is to promote transparency not only in Iceland but across an increasingly interconnected world.

"We should try to push the boundaries as far as we can," said Robert Marshall, a member of the Althingi, the world's oldest parliament, which is trying to reinvent Iceland after its humiliating economic meltdown 2 1/2 years ago. "We basically want to go as far as we can possibly go to create an environment for journalists to work in and to protect freedom of expression."

It's an almost utopian vision of the free flow of information, one that in many ways resembles the philosophy of WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website. And no wonder: Among those consulted by lawmakers crafting the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative was Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' controversial founder.

But as Assange himself has discovered, even the best of intentions can have unintended, and sometimes unwelcome, consequences.

Government lawyers and analysts charged with figuring out how to turn the initiative into law are facing a series of knotty questions, especially those touching on national security.

If a Chinese journalist wanted to publish an investigation into corruption among top political leaders, or if Falun Gong, the meditation sect banned by Beijing, decided to base its website in Iceland, might that not expose Reykjavik to China's displeasure or even provoke cyber-attacks and infiltration by Chinese spies?

"The security of Iceland's national interests could be at risk," said Jon Vilberg Gudjonsson, director of legal affairs for the Education Ministry, which has been charged with fleshing out the initiative. "Will that change our foreign relations?"

Or say that Al Qaeda terrorists orchestrate a deadly attack on Los Angeles using email sent through Icelandic Internet servers.

The new initiative demands that Icelandic authorities keep IP addresses and communication logs secret, as part of its protections of free speech and privacy. How would the U.S., a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, react to a rebuff to a request for such information?

"We can't just say we are not bound by legal obligations or international law," said Elfa Yr Gylfadottir, a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry. "It just doesn't work that way."

Also unclear in Parliament's resolution, she said, is how — or if — authorities here could hold accountable groups in faraway countries that use Iceland as a long-distance megaphone to spew ideologies of hate and violence.

"Who will be responsible under Icelandic law?" Gylfadottir said. "Because rights only come with responsibility, and the responsibility part of the resolution is still to be decided."

In all, 13 existing statutes will have to be amended to turn the media initiative into reality. Gudjonsson said it could take another year for his team to put together a legislative package before lawmakers.

The idea of setting up Iceland as a media and free-speech sanctuary was born of the island's spectacular economic crash at the end of 2008, when highly over-leveraged Icelandic banks collapsed during the global financial meltdown and the country nearly went bankrupt.

There's a widespread sense here that journalists bear partial blame for what happened by not questioning their country's rapid economic expansion or digging for signs of malfeasance.

"The basic principle of following the money wasn't being done," said lawmaker Marshall, himself a former journalist. "We had companies that were doing extremely well, we had Icelandic businessmen buying whole streets in London, and nobody was [looking] into 'How are they doing this?' … It was our downfall."

Iceland's dream of becoming an international financial-services haven went up in smoke. But someone suggested that the nation establish itself as a haven for media and information instead. Supporters hope a liberal media environment will encourage foreign media companies to base some of their operations in Iceland. A German newsmagazine and an American news network are already said to have expressed interest in the idea.

In June, Iceland's new left-leaning Parliament unanimously approved the sweeping media initiative.

Some of its provisions will be relatively easy to implement, such as protecting sources and whistle-blowers, reducing the government's scope to block publication and toughening the standards for proving libel.

But few of the proposal's sponsors foresaw just how complicated freedom could be. Backers of the initiative acknowledge that, in the end, they may not get everything they wanted.

"It was necessary to stretch the bow, so to speak, as much as you could and see what would come out of it," Marshall said.

Even if the initiative falls short of what was originally envisioned, officials still expect Iceland to have the most favorable media climate in the world, Gudjonsson said, adding, "That is not such a bad thing, after all."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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