Amidst all the talk of tax havens and political leaders caught hiding undisclosed assets offshore, it is easy to lose track of the difficult situation journalism is faced with.
Although the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its partners made a major impact with the production of the Panama Papers story—which over the weeks since its publication has led to the resignation of political figures in Iceland, Armenia, and Spain—the sad truth is that almost all journalism is currently subject to an ever-worsening legal environment, and a tightening economy.
If this trend continues, quality journalism may slowly fade into obscurity as the remnants turn to vapid articles with politically insipid content, served as clickbait.
At the heart of the problem lies an international free speech environment that was created to protect and regulate the print industry, centuries ago. Many of the laws read as foolish at best now, as even the best ones fail to anticipate the needs of a society where anybody can publish anything in an instant and make it available to virtually everybody on the planet. Archaic laws requiring copies of any printed publication to be handed to the national archives, or provided to the local police to guard against sedition, are hopelessly impotent against the realities of modern technology. Some of the good intentions are still relevant, but the implementation needs to be reconsidered.
The threats to free speech posed by despots and tyrants are now easily confused with threats coming from supposedly liberal democracies: the Turkish government is persecuting journalists, but so are the governments of Germany, Luxembourg, and the UK, while whistleblowers have been persecuted and imprisoned by the US.
Some years ago now, the Icelandic parliament decided to draw a line in the sand. It unanimously adopted a resolution proposing to modernize laws relating to freedom of expression, privacy protections, government transparency and the protection of journalistic processes.
However, this work has stalled under the right-wing government elected in 2013—the former head of which, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was implicated in the Panama Papers. Although nominally the work has been led by Minister of Education Illugi Gunnarsson, none of the many bills which have been written have been brought to parliamentary debate. Paying lip service to a value is easier than taking action to preserve it.
Instead of pushing an ambitious plan to strengthen the country’s stance on protection of fundamental human rights, Iceland’s right-wing government has allowed the country to sink from #1 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, to #19. Meanwhile, public trust is incredibly low and calls for anti-corruption measures such as transparency and media freedom grow louder.
Not all of the problems facing journalism will be fixed in one fell swoop. But the upcoming elections in Iceland, spurred by a great work of investigative journalism, foster the possibility that the next government of Iceland will finally fulfill the promise of a free speech haven.
The International Modern Media Institute, founded in 2011 to promote such a haven and the development of media protections globally, is now seeking funds to put this discussion at the forefront of the coming elections in Iceland, and to guarantee that the Switzerland of Bits becomes a reality.
Smári McCarthy lives in Sarajevo, where he conducts research on organised crime and global corruption. Smári is a co-founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party and is also a chairman of IMMI (the International Modern Media Institute).