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Internet Freedom During Election Season

October-November 2012

Take a Look at Iceland

Internet Freedom During Election Season

by Jennifer Karchmer

Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist based in Bellingham. As a volunteer correspondent with Reporters Without Borders-USA, she protects and advocates for fellow journalists around the world. In 2011, Karchmer served as Editor of Whatcom Watch. She also teaches communication and journalism at Western Washington University.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Bellingham-based independent journalist Jennifer Karchmer spent six weeks in Reykjavik, Iceland covering freedom of the press and developments related to IMMI, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which if approved this fall in Iceland Parliament, could have worldwide influence on freedoms associated with speech, expression, the press and the Internet.

While in Reykjavik, Karchmer conducted dozens of interviews with journalists, citizens, politicians, activists and travelers. Among them were interviews with veteran Icelandic newsman Bogi Ágústsson; reporters at the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið; and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Icelandic parliament who helped produce the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video with Julian Assange. Jónsdóttir is a leader in developing IMMI.

Karchmer chose Iceland (population 319,000 as of 2011) because it has been ranked at the top of the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index over the past decade and is currently developing a movement to position the country as a safe haven for journalists and as a leader in protecting Internet freedom.

Following is a continuation to her article, “A Letter From Iceland,” published in Whatcom Watch, March 2012. You can read more of Jennifer’s coverage at

Portions of this article appeared in the English-language newspaper: “The Reykjavik (Iceland) Grapevine,” published July 6, 2012.

Election Rhetoric?

With four Presidential debates scheduled this month (Oct. 3, 11, 16 and 22), you’ve probably been reviewing the party platforms and hearing all of the rhetoric on job creation, growing the economy, military spending, taxes, education and civil rights. But where is the talk of the Internet and open access to information?

Both major parties mention Internet access, privacy and free speech in their platforms, as posted on their respective websites. The Democratic Party states: “President Obama is strongly committed to protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech, unfettered by censorship or undue violations of privacy.”

On its party website, the Republicans say, “Recognizing the vital role of social media in recent efforts to promote democracy, we support unrestricted access to the Internet throughout the world to advance the free marketplace of ideas.”

So how do you get past the canned statements and press releases and find out exactly where candidates stand on Internet freedom? Do we take for granted going online to shop for kitchenwares, rent a movie from Netflix or email our friends and family on a daily basis?

On the Road Again

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of social media website Reddit is traveling across the country as part of an Internet 2012 bus tour to drum up discussion. While shooting footage for a documentary about the Internet, he is trying to get candidates at all levels to talk about Internet freedom (or lack thereof) and move toward building strong policy to protect our freedom in the digital age.

If you haven’t heard of Reddit, it’s probably because you’re too busy checking your Facebook account or sending out Tweets from Twitter…LOL (Laughing Out Loud). Or you’re not one of the millions of users who apparently log on to Reddit (it’s OK, I just learned about it too).

Considered an online version of a bulletin board and known for its open nature, the San Francisco-based website allows registered users to submit links, stories and comments, on any topic, and other users to rate posts, effectively sending them to the front page of the social media site or further down based on popularity. President Obama got into the mix on Aug. 29, participating in a 30-minute forum of AMA (Ask Me Anything), a real-time dialogue on Reddit between a notable person and registered users.

Known for its free speech cheerleading, Reddit joined Wikipedia, Reporters Without Borders and other websites on Jan. 18 this year blacking out their websites to protest SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), the online piracy acts that threatened the open nature of the Internet and which many said would effectively censor the web. Google joined with a blacked out version of its logo that day and Congress eventually dropped the proposed legislation.

Reddit’s Internet 2012 tour has scheduled stops in Denver, Co. and Danville, Ky., two cities where Presidential debates are being held.

Go West

Meantime, in early August, as Reddit folks were organizing their cross-country tour, self-described computer geeks were gathering about 200 miles west of Bellingham, as far out on the Olympic Peninsula as you can go, to attend ToorCamp, a five-day “American Hacker camp” with lectures, workshops and guest speakers for “hackers, makers, breakers and shakers,” according to its website.

In her remarks to attendees, ToorCamp organizer Eleanor Sattia addressed what she perceived as an encroachment on First Amendment rights. A self-described hacker, designer, artist, and writer, Sattia is now serving as the Technical Director for IMMI using her experience researching complex systems and technology.

“In the past few years, even just in the US, we’ve seen a previously unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, we’ve seen serious suggestions that newspapers should be subject to prior restraint, having to clear potentially sensitive stories with the government,” she said in a prepared statement. “We’ve seen journalists repeatedly pressured to reveal confidential sources, and we’ve seen freedom of information act requests either repeatedly go unanswered, or be answered in ways that make a mockery of the intent of the law. If you care about media freedom, you understand how deeply troubling this is,” she added (see additional links at the end of this article for more information).

Iceland Leading the Charge

While Congress, citizens, hackers, students and others are hashing out the fate of digital freedom, IMMI, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, turned two years old in June half a world away. Supporters cheered a few accomplishments IMMI has made toward protecting freedom of information. However, the 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 organization 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 whistleblowers. 

The impetus for IMMI

To appreciate the beginnings of IMMI, let’s go back to August 1, 2009—a day 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 criticized 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 during an interview earlier this year that IMMI faces challenges because it is run by a handful of volunteers, with no centralized 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 traveling around the world attending conferences and speaking on news programs about IMMI. Smári explained on the since-canceled Wash, DC-based current affairs program ‘The 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 still 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 Icelandic 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 overnight 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 at the TV studio in February. “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


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 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 ended his libel case on the same story. Andrés was sued for quoting publicly available records about the neighbor 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 ($16,325.00 USD) defending himself. That’s separate from the 950,000 ISK ($7,795.00 USD) 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 program at University of Iceland, says the profession is in “a crisis.” 

“Our media was badly hit by the crash,” she tells me during a meeting at her faculty office in the University of Iceland. She’s 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 liberalization policies that many attribute to Iceland’s financial crisis, not to mention the fact that 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, which is sometimes the case in the United States as well. 

With the influence of IMMI, the Icelandic 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 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 [this] fall to put this all into place,” she added, referring to parliament taking up IMMI at its current session.

Article Sources and Links for Further Reading

• What is Reddit?:

• Reddit election tour:

• Obama on Reddit:

• Icelandic Modern Media Initiative:

• IMMI in The Reykjavik Grapevine:

• Eleanor Sattia and ToorCamp 2012:

• NY Times photog arrested:

• Wash Post analysis Obama Administration on transparency:

• Smartphone surveillance:

• NY Times the lead police:

• Filmmaker detained:

• Internet freedom and candidates:

• Democrat 2012 platform:

• Republican 2012 platform:

• Presidential debates schedule:

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