Iceland’s parliament votes for laws to create ‘haven’ for investigative journalists

By Sylvia Hui, AP
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Iceland parliament votes for strong media laws

LONDON — Iceland’s parliament voted Thursday to create what supporters hope will be the world’s strongest protections for free speech and journalism, passing measures intended to make this Nordic nation a safe haven for investigative reporting.

The legislation — passed unanimously with only a single abstention — requires the government to draft regulations changing Icelandic law to strengthen journalistic source protection and shield reporters from foreign libel judgments. While the measures were mainly aimed at improving the nation’s own transparency, Iceland hopes to lure Internet-based media and data centers that would use the country as a base of global free speech.

“This is changing the way the world sees us,” said lawmaker Brigitte Jonsdottir, who said that strengthening free speech laws would restore credibility to a nation mired in an economic crisis linked to bad debt and murky deals.

Bolstering the media laws gained traction with Icelanders after the country’s devastating economic collapse in 2008, a crisis which many in Iceland said showed that relations between government and the media had become too cozy. Foreign reporters were the ones who uncovered much of the corruption in the small island nation’s financial system, prompting calls for improved access to information access and more protection for whistle-blowers.

“It’s extremely valuable to us as we are trying to establish trust again,” she said, adding that many of the nation’s 320,000 residents back greater openness in a bid to put the crisis behind them.

“Protection of whistle-blowers is especially important in a small community like ours. People are afraid to leak things here,” she said. “This is what the nation wants, and this legislation will put it into stone.”

Supporters said the aggressive media protection laws will entice foreign media and data centers to host their websites in Iceland, and Jonsdottir said there was already substantial interest from foreign news organizations.

But experts say the law’s international impact is still unknown — and will likely be less dramatic than its boosters expect.

“You can’t say anything conclusively yet,” said Joshua Benton, of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. He said the intention was “to create this all-star set of laws, but we won’t really know until the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed.”

The proposed measures aim to counteract challenges to media freedom from other countries such as Britain, which has become known as a center for “libel tourism” because its libel laws heavily favor the plaintiff.

They would also protect journalists against libel judgments issued in other countries — similar to U.S. legislation now being considered to shield American reporters from court judgments abroad.

Benton said the idea that Iceland could somehow shield writers and journalists from libel judgments elsewhere “strikes me as a bit of a harder sell.”

Nevertheless, he said he could envisage a situation in which some media organizations move their Internet servers to Iceland to prevent them from being searched or seized. And in general, he said the push was admirable one.

“In so many places these sorts of regulations are driven by powerful players,” he said. “It’s a good thing that in this case the driving force is something that seems a bit more idealistic. Whether it will be effective or not we’ll see.”

Associated Press Writer Raphael G. Satter contributed to this report.

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