Published July 6, 2012
When IMMI, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, turned two years old this month, supporters cheered a few accomplishments it has made toward protecting freedom of information. However, IMMI—a legislative proposal to re-position Iceland as an information safe haven—is still very much in the developmental stages and not yet a law on the books, despite some cases of international press embellishing its progress.
But there is still much work to be done on IMMI, which is now operated under the non-profit organisation known as the International Modern Media Institute, of which co-author, software developer and digital freedom advocate Smári McCarthy is Executive Director.
“It is a common misunderstanding that our task is complete, or that it has stalled,” Smári wrote in an IMMI public status report published in April. “Our original aspirations for completing within a year were overly ambitious, but it is clear that the project is going on and has great momentum.”
That momentum started when the Icelandic Parliament approved IMMI as a parliamentary resolution on June 16, 2010, a fancy way of saying the Icelandic government could move ahead researching ways to strengthen press freedoms and protections for sources and whistle-blowers.
Once the news of IMMI was out and the international press jumped on the story, some of the publicity made it seem like IMMI had been adopted into law.
The New York Times published an article “A Vision of Iceland as a Haven for Journalists” on February 21, 2010 which began: “Iceland, where the journalists run free.” Other international headlines strengthened that notion such as: “WikiLeaks and Iceland MPs propose ‘journalism haven,’” (BBC News, Feb. 12, 2010).
The impetus for IMMI
To appreciate the beginnings of IMMI, let’s go back to August 1, 2009—a date that involves the news business, an injunction and WikiLeaks.
On that Saturday, five minutes before RÚV’s evening newscast, TV journalist Björn Malmquist found himself “shocked and angry”—even “pissed off,” he says. Björn shared his experience with me during an interview held at RÚV’s TV studio in February.
Kaupþing bank issued RÚV an injunction, forcing the national broadcaster to pull the lead story about insider loans—a story that WikiLeaks had exposed a few days earlier.
Moments before airtime, Björn and the RÚV team scrambled to rewrite the 19:00 newscast, fearing that if they didn’t abide by the injunction that they would face monetary fines. “But we did it in a way that was tenable to us to tell the story, without telling the story,” he tells me.
As the top of the hour approached, word of the ban got to anchorman Bogi Ágústsson. Amid his pre-broadcast ritual of reviewing scripts, straightening his tie and fitting in his earpiece that connects him with the show’s director, Bogi was informed of the embargo on the bank story.
“I have been a newscaster for thirty years. You know that in a live broadcast ‘shit happens’ as they say, but it’s important how you deal with it,” he says when I meet him at RÚV’s studio. “If you panic, then the audience panics.” By this time, almost a year after Iceland’s financial crash, the media was familiar with covering it. Bogi went into ad-lib mode:
“We are not allowed to present all of the news that we were going to,” Bogi said on air.
The suppression evoked public outcry and members of the Journalists’ Union of Iceland and the RÚV News Broadcasters’ Association criticised the bank’s move to control the news.
“I remember thinking at that time that this was a counterproductive move by the bank, Kaupþing. It blew up in their faces. It drew even more attention to what they were trying to hide. It was hugely damaging to the bank,” Björn recalls.
This egregious instance of news control over a WikiLeaks report thrust the idea of freedom of information into the news headlines and connected WikiLeaks’ Founder Julian Assange with the IMMI team.
Much work to be done
Still, two years later, Smári tells me IMMI faces challenges because it is run by a handful of volunteers, with no centralised office or paid staff, and lacks funding needed to hire international libel law experts to write policy protecting freedom of speech and information.
Language is also a sticking point, as the proposal will pull from existing laws in countries from around the world, including Belgium, Estonia, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. “We’ve hit a wall where volunteers are useful but we need to start paying for specialists’ knowledge,” he says.
Smári, a self-described “information activist,” has been travelling around the world attending conferences and speaking on news programs about IMMI. Smári explained on the Russian Alyona Show on May 25 that Iceland could become an attractive location for companies that house data. With geothermal energy and reliable Internet connectivity, he said, Iceland could also offer the benefit of strong freedom of information protections to a company willing to move or establish itself. That interest could boost the nation’s economy, which is recovering from the 2008 crisis.
“We’re kind of out of the slums. We’re not quite there yet. But we’re definitely doing a whole lot better than most of Europe at the moment, which is a bit ironic I guess, but we’re getting there,” he said.
Facing Icelandic realities
Jóhann Hauksson, a 57-year-old award-winning journalist who has been in and out of the news profession since 1986 and now works in public relations for the government, knows the pressures of the news business and how nepotism and cronyism contributed to the financial crash. He has written an entire book on this topic: ‘Þræðir valdsins: Kunningjaveldi, aðstöðubrask og hrun Íslands’ (“Threads Of Power: Nepotism, Abused Positions and Iceland’s Collapse”).
“You can’t change values that have supported nepotism. You won’t change them over night or in one week. Change is slow. It takes many, many years,” Jóhann tells me.
This sentiment of pressure on the press has been documented in a 2010 report by Birgir Guðmundsson, a University of Akureyri Associate Professor of Media and former journalist and editor: “Icelandic courts have in the last decade tended to pass tougher sentences in libel cases against the media than before.”
Additionally, layoffs and cuts to resources affect journalists doing their profession. “We’ve had to meet more demands because the people want better media and better coverage,” Sigga Hagalín Björnsdóttir, RÚV’s deputy head of national news, tells me. “IMMI is a great idea, and I sincerely hope it becomes reality,” she says.
While the Kaupþing bank injunction underscored how news control plays out behind the scenes in broadcasting, print journalists have been under fire. DV reporter Jón Bjarki Magnússon is in the midst of appealing the 2011 ruling by the Reykjavik District Court, which ordered him to pay a source 500,000 ISK for his story about a custody battle he wrote in DV, a tabloid known for investigative work.
Believing that he was doing his job as a solid, ethical journalist should, Jón is fighting the ruling and is appealing to the Supreme Court. The case is expected to resume later this year, he says. “If worse comes to worst and they decide to sentence me, I might have to pay a fine that is a big chunk of my yearly salary. If I decide not to make the payment or if I cannot pay, I might have to declare bankruptcy,” he writes to me via email.
Meantime, blogger Andrés Helgi Valgarðsson has just ended his libel case on the same story. Andrés was sued for quoting publicly available records about the neighbour dispute happening in Aratún.
“My case is over, the bad guys won,” he said in an email. The Supreme Court ruled that it would not hear his appeal, saying it did not qualify. He could take the appeal to an international court of human rights, however that would mean even more legal fees and he said he’s already spent more than two million ISK (15,500 USD/12,321 Euro) defending himself. That’s separate from the 950,000 ISK in damages he was ordered to pay.
“Media in Iceland is not free,” Andrés said. “Jón Bjarki is a professional reporter ruined financially from reporting a story. I’m a blogger driven to the brink of personal bankruptcy after telling a story I know to be true.”
A perfect press?
Despite libel suits, journalists in Iceland say they work in relative safety with generally good access to politicians and sources—an atmosphere much different from their news counterparts in repressive regimes like China, Cuba, Mexico, Pakistan and Russia. “We in the Western world including Australia and New Zealand, live in enviable societies that are pretty safe,” Bogi says.
Sigga, who has lived and worked in the US, earning a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, acknowledges that Icelandic reporters enjoy a high level of freedom relatively speaking, but “there is no such thing as perfect press freedom.”
Valgerður Jóhannsdóttir, a long-time journalist who has worked at RÚV and now teaches news writing and broadcasting in the masters of journalism programme at University of Iceland, says the profession is in “a crisis.”
“Our media was badly hit by the crash,” she tells me, referring to the effects of downsizing and concentration of media ownership. At RÚV alone, almost one quarter of the news staff has been slashed since the financial crash, and employees are being asked to do the same amount of work amid lack of public trust.
That lack of public trust may come from the fact that the largest media conglomerate in Iceland, 365, which runs TV, radio stations, and magazines, as well as one of Iceland’s daily papers Fréttablaðið, had been owned by Baugur Group until 2008. Baugur, an Icelandic investment house, applied for bankruptcy protection in 2009. Its former CEO, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, is being investigated for fraud. Today, the Icelandic telecommunications company Dagsbrún runs 365.
In the meantime, Árvakur has owned Morgunblaðið, another Icelandic daily newspaper, since 1913. In 2009, career politician Davíð Oddsson was appointed editor of Morgunblaðið. Davíð served as the longest running Prime Minister of Iceland during an era of liberalisation policies that many attribute to Iceland’s financial crisis, not to mention he was head of the Central Bank during the collapse itself.
Progress not perfection
While IMMI supporters say progress is slow, they have made strides in a few key areas. For instance, the protection of sources is a critical point for journalists, and Smári notes that Article 25 of Iceland’s new media law instituted in 2011 guarantees sources anonymity if requested. Iceland’s proposed constitution also ensures source protection.
“Journalists who are asked to keep sources anonymous have a legal obligation not to expose the source,” he said.
Access to public records is also important. Currently, under Iceland’s Freedom of Information Act of 1996, if a journalist or citizen wants access to government documents, he or she has to go through a complex and time-consuming process to obtain the information.
With the influence of IMMI, the law would change to “publish by default” putting all public documents in an online database. Documents held back for national security or privacy issues would be the ones listed with an explanation and FOI requests can be made for those documents specifically, Smári says. “This change is the most important alteration of many,” he wrote in the status report.
Going forward, IMMI is trying to pick up steam and gain interest on a global front trying to establish a “global inter-parliamentary group on the subject of freedom of information, expression, speech, media and privacy,” Smári said in the April status report.
Additionally, IMMI representatives have been in touch with groups in Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain that wish to adopt some of IMMI’s goals, he said. “While this collaboration has started slowly, due to time and budgetary constraints, it shows much promise,” he went on to explain in the report.
And despite only gradual progress on making IMMI a law, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a free speech advocate and Parliamentarian co-sponsoring and co-authoring IMMI said to me in an email, “Everything is moving a lot slower than I would prefer,” but she is optimistic on its progress to date.
“We’ve got one more session to go next fall to put this all into place,” she added, referring to parliament taking up IMMI at its next session that begins October 1.
Iceland Has High Press Freedom, Relatively Speaking
For ten years Iceland has steadily ranked among the top countries in the world regarding the freedom of its press. The accolade, however, does not indicate the quality of journalism or newsgathering that occurs in Iceland. The honour measures violations happening against newsgatherers and media outlets, and relatively speaking, Iceland is pretty free.
At least two well-known press freedom indexes—Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RWB)—place Iceland high in their rankings.
The US-based bi-partisan organisation known as Freedom House, which researches and monitors democracy and freedom around the world, listed Iceland as “Free” in its 2010 Map of Press Freedom, noting at that time, “despite enduring problems associated with the global financial crisis of late 2008, the Icelandic press is still among the freest in the world.” The report went on: “Freedoms of the press and expression are protected under Article 72 of the constitution, and the government generally does not interfere in the independent media’s presentation of a wide variety of views.”
Meantime, another organisation that protects and defends press freedom, RWB, has consistently ranked Iceland among the top ten countries (out of more than 170) in its Freedom of the Press Worldwide Index. In 2002, RWB began this as a tracking tool of press freedom violations. Using a 44-question survey sent to journalists and partner media organisation, RWB gathers information on violence and threats affecting journalists and netizens, including murders, physical threats and attacks, harassment, abusive treatment and censorship. There are also questions regarding violations on the free flow of information via the Internet.
While the RWB index does not measure quality of journalism, it reflects the degree of freedom that journalists have and the efforts of that country to respect and protect press freedoms.
Over the years, Iceland has held the RWB number one position eight times (often tied with Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden among others). There have been a few fluctuations with Iceland moving to number nine in 2009, most likely reflecting effects of the financial crash, and moving back up to number one in 2010. In its most recent figures published in January, RWB places Iceland number six in terms of press freedom.
The slight movement downward is mainly due to “the impact of the economic crisis on this small and quite isolated information market,” Olivier Basille, Acting Director of RWB, said in an email correspondence. Additionally, reports of libel cases like Andrés Helgi Valgarðsson’s and Jón Bjarki Magnússon’s, the journalists being handed fines for alleged “violation of private life,” influenced Iceland’s position, Basille added.