“My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values.
The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for
people over internet freedom,” American whistleblower, Edward Snowden,
said in his June 2013 Guardian interview. Regardless of what Edward was
specifically referring to, one result of the comment was furthering the
already prevalent trend of misconceptions about IMMI and what Iceland is
currently able and willing to do for international whistleblowers.”
IMMI is the shared acronym of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and International Modern Media Institute. The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is a parliamentary proposal aimed at developing legislature that is more effective at protecting free speech and freedom of information in an age when digital development has outgrown existing legal frameworks. The proposal was unanimously passed by the Icelandic parliament in June of 2010. The International Modern Media Institute, founded and run by MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir and information freedom activist Smári McCarthy, is a small research-based organisation created to further the development of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and connect with other organisations and countries doing similar work.
Information, not people
The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is still in a developmental stage. The proposal has passed, but the laws are still being written by a steering committee appointed by the former Minister of Culture and Education.
Indeed, IMMI legislature has been moving notoriously slow. “This is mostly, but not entirely, due to the enormous amount of filibustering that happened during the last parliamentary term,” Smári wrote in an email correspondence. There are, however, some laws that have already passed. Thanks to IMMI, Iceland has very high quality source protection, and IMMI has raised the overall standard for any future laws passed in the categories it addresses.
Birgitta hopes that more laws will be put before parliament this fall. One of the laws she’d really like to see pass is greater protection for whistleblowers, but it’s important to understand that the IMMI laws aimed at protecting people are only domestic.
The IMMI legislature cannot directly protect foreign whistleblowers. This seems to be the origin of some confusion. “I think that there is a misunderstanding, which has been coming from [WikiLeaks spokesman] Kristinn Hrafnsson. I have never claimed—and Smári McCarthy has never claimed—that the Institution or the Initiative can protect whistleblowers from other countries,” Birgitta said. “On the contrary, what we are trying to do is to ensure that the stories that are being published are safe, that they cannot be taken down. That was the sort of information refuge, the safe haven element. But that was not for people. We recognise that we cannot protect people unless they are based in Iceland.”
In the weeks leading up to Edward Snowden formally applying for asylum on July 1, WikiLeaks took on a primary role in providing him with needed assistance. On June 12 investigative journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson stated that he received a message from Edward Snowden asking him to notify the Iceland government that he wanted to seek asylum. Kristinn tried to talk with the Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, but neither was able to meet.
“I expected them to reach out and extend a helping hand to a man that was requesting a shelter from the political persecution that he’s under,” Kristinn said over the phone. Kristinn was told that Snowden could not apply for asylum unless he was either in Iceland or at an Icelandic embassy. “He can however apply for citizenship from wherever, which is what the “Fischer approach” amounts to. This is a route that has not been travelled, presumably because the people who have the ability to communicate with Mr. Snowden have not informed him of the formal mechanisms,” Smári McCarthy wrote on June 24. Applications for asylum and citizenship go through the Directorate of Immigration.
Edward Snowden did eventually apply for asylum through an official route—a fax of his application was reportedly sent to the Icelandic Embassy in Moscow. As to the formalities of granting asylum or citizenship, Kristinn noted that, “there are exceptions to every law and basic rule, and if ever in history when it comes to asylum seekers and even granting of citizenship, that should be it. That should have been that moment for exceptions.”
Insanity of asylum
The “Fischer approach” is in reference to Bobby Fischer, an American chess player who was granted Icelandic citizenship in 2004 while detained in Tokyo. He faced US criminal charges for violating sanctions when he accepted prize money after playing chess in former Yugoslavia. Iceland seemed to have an affinity for Bobby Fischer because of his famous Cold War era match in Reykjavík.
Bobby didn’t mess around with asylum, and the reality is that Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration (UTL) does not have a good track record when it comes to handling political asylum seekers. The UTL has complained of being understaffed and having bad working conditions, and its true that pressure has increased in the past few years as the number of applications for asylum and citizenship have risen substantially. However, many activist and human rights groups think that that long processing periods for applicants and the often-ambiguous decisions of the UTL are unethical. There have also been a number of incidents where the UTL has deported asylum seekers still considered to be at high risk.
“Iceland’s asylum record is abysmal, mostly due to the blatantly hostile tendencies of the Directorate of Immigration. That said, the concept of asylum would hardly be of much value if extradition treaties could trump asylum, and until a final decision would be made on the subject, there would be little chance of [Snowden] being extradited,” Smári wrote.
Birgitta agreed that asylum in Iceland was a bad option for Snowden. “If he would have asked for citizenship much earlier on, it actually would have been an option to process it. I tried every possible way that I could to make this clear. But unfortunately the message was maybe never delivered to him, or he got advice that was not the best possible advice on this regard.”
By the time Iceland received Snowden’s request, which Birgitta said was still not entirely formal, it was July 4, the last day of parliament before summer recess. Six members of parliament from the Pirate Party, the Left Greens, the Social Democrats, and Bright Future sponsored a bill to grant Snowden citizenship. “We put forward a bill and since we did it on the last day we never anticipated it would be agreed on,” said Birgitta. Realistically, she hoped the bill would be put on the fall agenda, but it was rejected that day. “The Progressive Party, well, they have been more interested in these same issues I’ve been fighting for. Both the Foreign Affairs Minster and the Prime Minister have their names as sponsors on the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, so I was surprised. I thought they were more…progressive,” Birgitta said with a small laugh, “except there were I think five MPs that abstained, they were on the yellow button.”
Pressure from the US
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently received a letter from the American Embassy in Reykjavík regarding legal assistance with a US citizen. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn’t further divulge the content of the letter beyond saying it had been forwarded to the Ministry of the Interior, which was unauthorised to give information, and the American Embassy would not even confirm that a letter had been sent. Other countries where Snowden applied for asylum also reportedly received this letter. It hasn’t been confirmed when exactly the letter was sent, but Birgitta thinks it probably affected parliament’s decision.
As of July 19, it has been only 34 days since the Guardian released the Edward Snowden interview. And only three months since the new Icelandic government was elected. Its not a matter of blaming the Icelandic government for what it did or did not do in regards to Edward Snowden, which would divert attention away from the core issues in the content of Snowden’s leaks.
This is a matter of paying attention to how governments react when they are put under a spotlight and given the opportunity to hold themselves accountable for connecting the values they claim to represent with the actions they actually take.
This applies as much to Iceland as it applies to the United States.
This article is part of our issue 10 feature, which spotlights the ongoing, interconnected saga of WikiLeaks, IMMI and the rise of the surveillance state.
Read our interview with former WikiLeaks volunteer/FBI informant “Siggi the Hacker” here.
Read WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson’s response here.
Read informant Adrian Lamo’s comments on the case of Siggi here.
Read about espionage in Iceland here.
Read about the US’ attempts to gather intelligence on WikiLeaks head Julian Assange by spying on Icelanders (including an MP) here.