In 2009, WikiLeaks released a confidential document listing Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank’s exposure to mega loans. The bank had loaned billions to a golden circle of major shareholders and attempted to manipulate its share price. The state broadcaster, RUV, was gagged from reporting the WikiLeaks exposé. As a result a radical initiative called the International Modern Media Institute received unanimous support in parliament. Sean Finnan spoke to Smári McCarthy, one of the organisers of the IMMI and also one of the founders of the Icelandic Pirate Party.
Ireland’s national broadcaster was gagged last year and lives in perpetual fear of one of our wealthiest businessmen. Ireland isn’t alone in this new wave of oppression of the press though, is it?
Things have been getting pretty bad all over Europe for a while now. Have you seen what’s going on in Poland right now? A new government took over after elections a couple of months ago under the lead of Beata Maria Szydło. It’s the Law and Justice Party which will tell you what political angle they come at things from. They’ve adopted new media laws which are modelled very strongly on the Hungarian ones from 2011 highly restricting media movement and putting heavy fines on publications that are considered to be ‘unfair’ or whatever.
Then they did the double whammy thing of media law and constitutional change – intended to cement their power and guarantee it.
Turning Iceland into a haven for reporters, a “Switzerland of Bits”, could you tell our readers a bit about the history of IMMI and how such a radical proposal got passed in parliament?
So the project started in 2009 as a series of conversations with various free speech activists and so on in Iceland. We decided that the best way to try and strengthen the media rights, the free speech rights and also transparency would be to cherry pick the best things from different countries around the world and make a big proposal for legislative change.
We worked on that until the end of January 2010 and then it got entered into the parliament on February 1. We decided not to make it a bill because bills are very hard to get through especially as our main sponsor at the time was Birgitta Jónsdóttir who was in a minority party (she and I and various others co-founded the Icelandic Pirate Party in 2013).
But in that project we put IMMI forward as a “parliamentary resolution proposal” to hand the project over to the government to come up with bills on these current issues. On the 16 June that year the parliamentary resolution proposal went through the parliament unanimously – a rare thing.
Ireland’s position within the EU denies us the chance to follow Iceland’s lead. Does the EU, in fact, hobble the rights of journalists?
The EU can be used to protect these rights as well in a way that a lot of the really bad stuff that’s happening in the UK and in Hungary, Poland whatever… some of the worst of it has been prevented by EU law. So it’s both an asset and a problem.
I think what every country can do is make certain changes internally. Fix libel law so, for instance, telling the truth isn’t considered libellous. Guarantee freedom of information in the ‘third generation’ sense. The first generation (of freedom of information is) where you’re allowed to ask for any document but you need to typically ask for exactly the document you want and you don’t necessarily know which documents exist. The second generation said ‘ok you can ask for any document and here’s a list of the documents’. The third generation is, since we have this list why don’t we just make it clickable and publish everything a priori unless there’s a specific reason to hold it back. Currently Norway is the only country that has that kind of third generation law.
You were one of the founders of the Icelandic Pirate Party. Can you tell me how the Icelandic Pirate Party is connected to IMMI and what is the idealism behind the party?
A lot of the people who were involved with IMMI to begin with were also involved in the founding of the Pirate Party. But the Pirate Party stands for a whole lot more than just IMMI. IMMI is very focused on media, on publication, on free speech and transparency whereas the Pirates are trying to approach the entirety of politics from a somewhat different holistic model of understanding politics.
The comparison I have made is that in the 1940’s we saw the beginnings of social democracy movements and they basically took the entirety of politics and started to look at it through the lens of public welfare. Then in the late 50’s, early 60’s you started to see green movements popping up. They started off as just environmentalist movements but then they started to re-align to become mainstream political movements and saw the entire world through the lens of environmentalism.
Because our understanding is in order for you to have democracy as we understand that term you need to have two things: you need first off to have the information that is required of you to be able to make good enlightened decisions and secondly you need to have the authority to make decisions. If either one of those things is missing then you have something other than democracy.
Once you start to look at the entire world that way then it becomes a question of how do you guarantee people the greatest amount of control over their own lives and how do you guarantee people the greatest amount of information upon which to make good decisions. Turns out that that small bit of logic goes through everything we talk about. I like it, it’s pretty cool.
Across Europe anti-austerity groups have been trying to protect what was, rather than attempting to appropriate power by rethinking how society operates. Would you say the Pirate Party is different?
Yeah, I’ve got friends in groups like Podemos and these various, mostly anti-austerity parties and I totally agree with what they’re trying to do but that the end result is something like trying to keep social democracy on life-support instead of making something new. They aren’t really looking too hard at the economics of what modernity looks like because we’ve got raging populations, we’ve got massive migration of people all over the world, more globalization of the economy, Europe is no longer the industrial centre of the world that it once was so you know, what is left?
And the answer cannot be let’s just bring everything back here and start up the factories again, close the borders and you know dump all the money in the healthcare system because that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.
With the recent Panama Papers leaks it seems that journalism is increasingly becoming a conduit for leaks where it’s the actual means of taking information, of taking uncensored data that is providing the momentary shock to the establishment. Is this where you see journalism going?
It’s tricky. To some degree journalism is about that, speaking truth to power and making sure that authorities are accountable. But there’s also more to journalism than that. There’s a degree to which it is a form of analysis of the current social condition and understanding society and making sure that analysis is disseminated through society.
Looking for the structures, that’s what I do for a living. I work with an organisation that is [analysing] data to discover large scale corruption and organised crime. And the reality of that is right now it is really, really difficult to do that. It is incredibly expensive work and the reality is everybody gets excited about a big data leak. We worked on the Panama Papers and we got record traffic. It was excellent but now we’re two weeks down the line and everything is back to normal and nobody cares anymore.
So either it continues to get less funding and the entire thing becomes a competition about clickbait, how many clicks can you get and how much advertising can you sell or there needs to be some good economic mechanism which quality journalism is funded alongside a change in these assumptions.
For more on the International Media Initiative check out their website. Illustration By Katie Blackwood.