Iceland Strikes a Blow for Freedom of Information

You ever get tired of reading about how terrible governments are and yearn for a piece of good news that one of them has done, somewhere in the world? It seems we live in a chaotic age where the news is generally depressing… but the upside is the chaos gives people a chance, occasionally, to make a real impact.  To whit, the Icelandic Althing, the world’s oldest parliament (founded in 930 A.D.!), has given us something to smile about this morning: it has passed what might be the most extensive laws in the world protecting freedom of expression and the press.  The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative creates:

  • The Icelandic Prize for Freedom of Expression
  • An ultra-modern Freedom of Information Act
  • Whistle-blower protections
  • Source protection
  • Source-journalist communications protection
  • Limiting prior restraint
  • Protection of intermediaries (internet service providers)
  • Protection from “libel tourism” and other extrajudicial abuses
  • Statute of limitations on publishing liabilities
  • Process protections
  • Virtual limited liability companies

This comes in the wake of attacks on the whistle-blower website, Wikileaks, in recent weeks.  Wikileaks was indirectly involved in the passage of the law; last year the Icelandic bank Kaupthing succeeded in obtaining a court order gagging the nation’s largest broadcaster, RUV, from reporting a risk analysis report showing the bank’s substantial exposure to debt default risk.  The report remained available on Wikileaks – and with the collapse of Iceland’s economy due to the machinations of bankers the law found nearly unanimous support in the Althing.

Even more surprising, one of the law’s cosponsors, Birgitta Jonsdottir, was quoted as saying she wants Iceland to become

“the inverse of a tax haven,” by offering journalists and publishers some of the most aggressive protections for free speech and investigative journalism in the world. “They are trying to make everything opaque,” she said. “We are trying to make it transparent.”

When was the last time you heard a lawmaker, anywhere, say something like that and mean it? It really does almost make you think there might be some home for part of the species – just perhaps.

We can immediately grasp the surface significance of the law: in our internationalized world, while information goes viral almost as soon as it appears online, most laws for protection of the press have lagged behind in the era of print and national broadcast media.  Iceland is really the first place to provide wholesale protection for journalists, publishers, and ISPs with the express intention of fostering disclosure of information.  Governments have become incredibly adept at lying, obfuscating, and pressuring intrepid investigative journalists and volunteer whistle-blowers – this is a positive step in the opposite direction.

Yet, there is a larger significance here.  In a democracy, for citizens to truly be able to make informed decisions, participate, and control the economy and society, information must be readily available and free (or easy to access).  Secrecy in a democracy is a paradox, and points to either the limits of democracy or the general tendency of rulers in any state to hide data from citizens, whether the state is autocratic or not.  The media is an arm of class and state control – what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent” of the governed (though the term was originally coined by Walter Lippman).  While “the ideas of an age are ever the ideas of its ruling class,” in a so-called ‘democracy’ (what I would prefer to call capitalism with representative institutions), the state cannot club too many of its citizens into submission without risking a revolt.  Instead, the media (through private ownership and weeding out of troublesome journalists) typically propagandizes for the state’s ruling economic system and ideology.  We are socialized in that from birth so most people generically believe that America is a good nation, our rulers want democracy around the world, and that our soldiers may make mistakes, but there is no systematic policy of murder in the lands we occupy.

In earlier eras there was a vibrant press that was funded by the labor movement or radical parties which provided news that might otherwise not be heard.  During the 1960s and 70s the advent of television cameras broadcasting American conflicts and the press’ willingness to ask tough questions of a series of corrupt presidential administrations provided a small but necessary balance to the official ideology of the state.  Today that role has largely been abdicated by the press as it has more and more become a total prop of what Gramsci called the hegemony of the ruling class.   Take a look at this if you don’t believe me.

That leaves sites like Wikileaks, which have none of the abilities of the private or government-run broadcast media, to give us access to the violent and shocking realities of state and corporate actions.  I think, in this, it is more dangerous than other types of media.  Wikileaks is not able to be bought off with threats to its advertising revenue or government funding.  Its contributors do so not for a paycheck, but because they believe the public has a right to see, and make up their own minds, about what their government has done.  A state truly run by its citizens from the bottom-up would have no right to complain about this; but the reality is we live in a world divided by classes dependent on filtering our access to information.  The last thing a corporation wants is a free press providing unbiased examinations of its products, any more than the United States government wants us to see what its agents are really doing the world over.  The power of Wikileaks is that it has the ability to crack that hegemonic facade of ideology and power, which is why it is such a delightful surprise to see a government moving to protect it and sites like it.

So, bravo, Iceland.  We should all raise a glass and cheer tonight while listening to your daughter, Björk.


“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson

Thomas "TJ" Jefferson


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