Brook Gladstone: This is On The Media. I’m Brook Gladstone.
Bob Garfield: And I’m Bob Garfield. Imagine a place, a journalistic haven, where an ironclad shield law protects sources and reporters from having to testify in court, or a state-of-the-art Freedom of Information Act helps assure government transparency, where the strongest whistleblower protection in the world protects leakers, and where First Amendment rights guard against frivolous libel suits. This week, a new group called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, also known as IMMI, proposed legislation that would make Iceland exactly that journalistic haven: to news organizations what Switzerland is to the very wealthy. Why Iceland, perhaps you wonder? It all goes back to the economic crisis. In 2008 and 2009, Iceland’s economy collapsed, due in part to risky and unethical behavior by the country’s biggest banks, behavior whistleblowers and journalists could not reveal for fear of lawsuits. The lesson? Too much secrecy brought down the economy. The editor of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is one of the principal advisors to IMMI. Assange says a leaker risks a year of jail time for sharing secret information about financial institutions in Iceland. That’s why when Wikileaks posted a secret record of a major bank’s loans on its site last year, it caused quite a stir.
Julian Assange: On July 31st, 2009, we released the largest bank in Iceland’s secret loan book to the public. And the next day, the national broadcaster, R.U.V., or RUV, the BBC equivalent, tried to make the contents of that loan dossier their main news item for their 7 p.m. news. But only five minutes before the news was to go to air, an injunction landed on the news desk, preventing them reporting the contents of that loan book.
BG: But RUV did manage to get around it by using the period it had intended to devote to the story about the banks to showing images of your website, Wikileaks.
JA: So, this had the effect of directing the entire Icelandic population to the primary source document itself.
BG: Now, it’s shocking to imagine that a court would issue any kind of injunction against a financial report, no matter how explosive. Up until that point, July 31st, was Iceland in other ways lacking in certain basic press freedoms?
JA: Reporters Sans Frontieres had Iceland listed in 2007 as first for the defense of press freedoms. By 2009 it had dropped to ninth. It’s not that the law became any weaker during that time, rather that the motivation to suppress the press had increased with the greater scrutiny of these rich organizations and individuals who were trying to hide their money or evade discipline as a result of the crash.
BG: So the episode became an opportunity to codify and even strengthen the press freedoms, and the IMMI movement began. Tell me what an IMMI regime would do to protect journalists and sources.
JA: From one angle there’s the Freedom of Information Act. The last Freedom of Information Act here was passed in 1997, before the Internet was really a significant factor. So there’re all sorts of opportunities to pull in some of the best modernizations that have occurred in the rest of the world, in Estonia, in Norway. And then there’s the protection of the rights of a source to stay anonymous.
BG: This you lifted from Sweden’s laws.
JA: Yes, the Swedish Press Freedom Act is very progressive. In many other countries, the, the angle journalists have taken is that we want to be protected when we are forced into court. But the angle taken in the Swedish Press Freedom Act is that it is the source who deserves the right to communicate to the public, and the public who deserves the right to know, and the journalist is an intermediary in this process. So the journalist must be protected, but the journalist also has a responsibility to protect. And if that responsibility is broken, the source can ask that a criminal prosecution occur.
BG: I’m curious whether, as you’ve shopped the aisles of the world’s press laws, if you plucked anything from the U.S. shelf.
JA: Absolutely. One thing that we have looked at in particular is some quite progressive anti-SLAPP legislation in California.
JA: The idea of SLAPP lawsuits is not to win in the end; it is to soak up time and resources of press organizations.
BG: Wars of attrition, waged by people with deep pockets.
JA: Yeah and, in fact, that is the biggest problem in the United States at the moment. For example, Time Magazine, in defending its suit against Scientology, spent seven million dollars and won in the Supreme Court. It was protected under the First Amendment. But which publisher has seven million dollars to spare to take an investigative article all the way to the Supreme Court and spend years and years on it? Even the biggest publishers don’t have that sort of cash anymore.
BG: So you’ve skimmed the cream of media protection and source protection laws from around the world, from the U.K., from Sweden, from Belgium, and so forth, with the idea of benefiting Icelanders or of, in fact, becoming a haven where journalists from around the world could take refuge to do their work without fear of government interference?
JA: Some people say haven, but we want to aim for heaven. Yes, it’s actually possible to use a law in one jurisdiction to strengthen the press in another. For example, we were involved in a case in South Africa where the South African Competition Commission released a redacted report on cartel behavior in the South African banks. We then released the redacted portions, and a prosecutor was appointed to go after our source. We used the Swedish and Belgian law successfully in that case to argue that the investigation team in South Africa was at risk of becoming party to a crime in Sweden and Belgium. People don’t want to risk that, and they don’t want to risk fighting that out in court or having their assets seized overseas or having problems when traveling. That’s the, the reason source protection and other protections of the press can have positive effect in jurisdictions around the world.
BG: Now, you talked about heaven. I’m afraid I have to ask you about hell. I wonder if a regime of blanket protection for journalists and those who are legitimate sources wouldn’t also protect those who would wish to hide behind these impregnable shields to create mischief, whether it’s libel or blackmail or simple journalistic irresponsibility?
JA: You have to remember there are not absolute protections. For example, malicious libel is not protected against in the new package of laws. And, I mean, what country is suffering from too much press freedom? Can you name the country that is actually at risk of having a too vibrant and free press? There is no such country.
BG: Let me ask you how the initiative is going. The proponents need 51 votes to pass in the Icelandic Parliament. Where do you stand?
JA: The proposal has just been filed, and there are over 20 names on it, from every party in the Icelandic Parliament, including the two parties that are in the governing coalition. And the politicians tell me this will sail through.
BG: Well, Julian, thank you very much.
JA: You’re welcome, Bob.
BG: Julian Assange is the founder of Wikileaks.