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Plans for Iceland to become 'haven' for journalism

By Sylvia Hui and Gudjon Helgason
Associated Press Writers / February 15, 2010

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Hoping to make Iceland a global home for freedom of speech, lawmakers are asking the government this week to implement a journalist's dream package of legislation -- promising a safe haven for reporters who want to dig deep, hit hard, and avoid being sued.

The idea has found traction with Icelanders after last year's devastating economic collapse, during which the public saw firsthand the drawbacks of a too-cosy relationship between government and media. The economic crisis itself was partly traced to corruption unearthed by reporters abroad, prompting calls for improving information access and protecting whistle-blowers.

"Being a really small country, especially after the financial crisis, we saw the world is connected -- all intertwined," said Birgitta Jonsdottir, one of the lawmakers behind the measures. "Our problems do not just affect us locally, they affect us globally."

Iceland's parliament will on Tuesday begin considering the measures, aimed at improving the Nordic nation's own transparency while also luring Internet-based media and data centers to use it as a base for investigative journalism.

Becoming a global home for freedom of speech would be a new role for Iceland, which in its 1,000 years of human settlement has been known as a hardy North Atlantic fishing outpost, an unlikely capitalist crusader -- fueled by Viking confidence and easy credit -- and most recently, an economic basket-case.

Amid the 2008 economic crash, investigative Web site WikiLeaks.org published internal documents on loans that had been made by Kaupthing Bank, one of several Icelandic banks that collapsed with the global crisis. The story shocked the nation of 320,000, and was among the factors leading to demands for more transparency in public institutions.

Iceland also has a long history in direct democracy, and thousands held angry protests against the pro-business government in late 2008, clattering pots and kitchen utensils in what some have called the "Saucepan Revolution." The popular anger forced the government to resign.

It was replaced after a national election by a coalition of Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir's pro-European Social Democrats and the Left Greens -- both of which have lawmakers sympathetic to the media freedom project.

The project's proposals also aim to counteract challenges to media freedom from other countries -- such as Britain, which has become a center for "libel tourism" with laws that heavily favor the plaintiff. British courts now play host to grievances that would likely have failed in the countries where they originated.

The proposed measures would also protect journalists against libel judgments issued in other countries -- similar to U.S. legislation now being considered to shield American reporters from court judgments abroad.

"All of these good laws exist in countries like Sweden, Belgium and the United States, but no single country has implemented all of them," project spokesman Smari McCarthy said. "There are a lot of journalist organizations that are being forced to jump between jurisdictions, seeking certain sets of protections."

The set of proposals -- collectively called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative -- was drafted by lawmakers across parties in Iceland with help from international experts, lobby groups and WikiLeaks. The nonprofit site claims to have posted 1.2 million leaked government and corporate documents that it says expose unethical behavior, including a 2003 operation manual for the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Project supporters say stronger protections for journalists are needed amid increasingly aggressive attempts by powerful corporations and wealthy individuals to suppress sensitive information with legal threats.

McCarthy said international publishers and news providers might benefit by registering in Iceland or gathering their news from there, while online publishers could also be protected just by hosting their servers in the country.

He acknowledged potential problems, however, particularly with competing jurisdictions.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard University law professor specializing in cyber law, said it was unclear how broadly the laws could be applied should they pass.

"Unless the executives behind a particular media company are themselves prepared to move to Iceland, I'm not sure how substantial the protections can be," he said. "A state can still demand that someone on its territory answer questions or turn over information on pain of fines or imprisonment."

Experts say the proposals would be most useful to small-scale, independent publishers and online whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks, but doubted whether they would offer enough protection to bring in foreign media organizations.

"I can imagine Iceland becoming a good place to run a controversial Web site," said Ethan Zuckerman, who runs a site promoting freedom of information called Global Voices and is a senior researcher of cyberspace and the media at Harvard University. "But ... Iceland may find itself forced to defend controversial speech."

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Sylvia Hui reported from London.

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On the Net:

Icelandic Modern Media Initiative: http://immi.is/

Global Voices Online: http://globalvoicesonline.org