HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Open-mic journalism: How The Arizona Republic found success with storytelling events
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 16, 2010, 11:51 a.m.

What will Iceland’s new media laws mean for journalists?

The Icelandic parliament has voted unanimously to create what are intended to be the strongest media freedom laws in the world. And Iceland intends these measures to have international impact, by creating a safe haven for publishers worldwide — and their servers.

The proposal, known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, requires changes to Icelandic law to strengthen journalistic source protection, freedom of speech, and government transparency.

“The Prime Minister voted for it, and the Minister of Finance, and everybody present,” says Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who has been the proposal’s chief sponsor. Her point is that Iceland is serious about this. The country is in the mood for openness after a small group of bankers saddled it with crippling debt, and the proposal ties neatly into the country’s strategy to be prime server real-estate.

But although the legislative package sounds very encouraging from a freedom of expression point of view, it’s not clear what the practical benefits will be to organizations outside Iceland. In his analysis of the proposal, Arthur Bright of the Citizen Media Law Project has noted that, in one major test case of cross-border online libel law, “publication” was deemed to occur at the point of download — meaning that serving a controversial page from Iceland won’t keep you from getting sued in other countries. But if nothing else, it would probably prevent your servers from being forcibly shut down.

There might be other benefits too. Wikileaks says that it routes all submissions through Sweden, where investigations into the identity of an anonymous source are illegal. Wikileaks was heavily involved in drafting and promoting the Icelandic package, and whatever your opinion of their current controversies, they’ve proven remarkably immune to legal prosecution in their short history. Conceivably, other journalism organizations could gain some measure of legal protection for anonymous sources if all communications were routed through Iceland.

All of which is to say that issues of press censorship have long since passed the point of globalization. When an aggrieved party in country A can sue a publisher in country B through the courts of country C (as in these examples), press freedom must be understood — and fought for — at an international level.

“It has not only an impact here, but in changing the dialog in Europe,” Birgitta Jónsdóttir told me.

But it will be some time before the full repercussions of Iceland’s move are felt. For a start, the new laws are not yet written. Icelandic lawyer Elfa Ýir of the Ministry of Culture is leading the drafting effort, and expects to have the help of volunteer legal experts and law students. (“Iceland is still suffering from the financial meltdown,” says Birgitta Jónsdóttir.) The complex legislative changes will be passed in several parts, possibly beginning late this year.

“It should be done in about a year,” Birgitta Jónsdóttir said. “I’ll be following this very closely.”

And then it may be further years before we understand, from case law, exactly what an “offshore freedom of expression haven” means to journalists worldwide. Nonetheless, I hope to get a discussion started among the high-powered media law types at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute next month, and we’ll see if we can get a more precise understanding of the practical consequences of Iceland’s move — and how journalists might use it to protect their work. If you have some insight, do drop the Lab a line.

Photo of Iceland by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 16, 2010, 11:51 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Open-mic journalism: How The Arizona Republic found success with storytelling events
The four-year-old program has helped boost the newspaper’s events business and helped strengthen relationships with the community through nights of storytelling.
Newsonomics: Buying Yelp — and making it the next core of the local news and information business
The pricetag would be high, but it might be worth it to reassemble one part of the old newspaper bundle — tying together local news and local services.
Crossing the streams: Why competing publications are deciding to team up on podcasts
Low financial risk and a desire for word-of-mouth sharing have led news sites to collaborate, sharing audience and infrastructure.
What to read next
953
tweets
The State of the News Media 2015: Newspapers ↓, smartphones ↑
The annual omnibus report from Pew outlines a story of continued trends more than radical change.
561The Upshot uses geolocation to push readers deeper into data
The New York Times story changes its text depending on where you’re reading it: “It’s a fine line between a smarter default and being creepy.”
422Knight Foundation invests $1 million in creator-driven podcast collective Radiotopia
The money will help PRX’s collective of public media-minded shows develop sustainable business models and expand with new shows and producers.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
TBD
Yahoo
NBC News
Global Voices
Tampa Bay Times
The Awl
Houston Chronicle
Spot.Us
The Christian Science Monitor
Plaza Pública
MediaBugs
Drudge Report