May 11, 2016 | Posted in:blog, News

Icelandic Modern Media Initiative

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative – a parliamentary resolution that was unanimously adopted in 2010 – was drafted by experts and activists to promote and protect the cornerstones of evolved democracy: Freedom of Exression and Freedom of Information.

The resolution sets about drafting and implementing best practice law in the following fields:

  • Access to Information: Securing FOI and strengthening transparency
  • Source Protection
  • Communications Protection: Data Protection, removal of Data Retention, and Intermediary Limited Liability
  • Judicial Protection: Equal Access to the judicial system, anti-SLAPP legislation and protections against Libel Tourism
  • Protection of Historical Records
  • Virtual Limited Liability Companies
  • Whistleblower Protection

Reform of defamation law is also within IMMI’s focus, moving defamation law from the penal code and into the civil code, thereby removing the threat of imprisonment on the grounds of expression. IMMI also focuses on Net Neturality and is involved in the Global Net Neutrality Coalition and advocates for Net Neutrality to form the basis of an official policy in Iceland.

IMMI

The International Modern Media Institute has, since its founding, focused on legislative and advocacy measures to promote and implement whistleblower protections, both locally and globally. The institute is founded by individuals behind the resolution referred to above. Whistleblower protection is an integral part of the Safe Haven for journalism and digital rights that IMMI fights for and the resolution takes to.

Whistleblower Protection

Whistleblower Protection must be ensured to strengthen transparency and accountability. Without whisteblowers the fight against corruption and illegality enabled by positions of power is futile. Even though the legal position of whisteblowers is weak, or defunct around the world, we have still seen brave individuals coming forth with information of great public concern. Many who have done so do so at great personal risk. Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers, was charged under the Espionage Act (though all charges would be dismissed), Chelsea Manning was charged and convicted under the Espionage Act, Edward Snowden resides in exile in Russia and Katharine Gun – who blew the whistle on the US spying on UN Security Council Member Countries in its efforts of garening support for invading Iraq – was charged with violation of UK’s Official Secrets Act, though the charges were later dropped. Incidentally, the UK’s Whistleblower Protection Act does not protect one from being charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, rendering those protections much less effective.

Many whistleblowers vindicated by history have first tried to go through internal channels – and whistleblower protection law may clarify through which canals it is appropriate to go, especially with regards to highly sensitive information. Ellsberg tried to go through internal channels, as did Thomas Drake and many others, to no avail. When the internal mechanism do not work – the only option is external canals. And indeed, whistleblowers have gone straight to the press. In order to protect investigative journalism in this sense, source protection must be absolutely guaranteed and the ability to use uncompromised systems of communication must be ensured, whilst protecting both encryption and anonymity.

Democracy rests upon, among other things, the right to free expression, freedom of opinon, the right to privacy, freedom of information and freedom of the press. When whistleblowers bring into the public domain information that is of enormous value to the public – to have informed opinions and to make empowered choices – whistleblowers are doing so at a great risk of their personal safety: physically, economically and socially.

In a meaningful democracy, this cannot be accepted. We must encourage people to bring forth information that belongs in the public domain and concerns our societies. And we must protect those who carry out such a service for the public good. To do so, we have to implement efficient best practice protections of whistleblowers, where their legal position is as clear as possible. Anyone can become a whistleblower.

#PanamaPapers

Recently we have seen what has been called the biggest data leak in history, the Panama Papers. It took an enormous International team of investigative journalists many months to work through the data and coordinate its efforts, which has now resulted in political casualties, investigations and, in Iceland’s case, early elections and a change of government. We have seen information on how for instance, Icelandic MPs – Ministers at that – have had offshore accounts, while the rest of the population contends with capital controls and can only keep its savings in an Icelandic currency publicly endorsed by the government, while many rich and powerful individuals – including Ministers and Chairmen of pension funds – hold their assets offshore, in foreign currencies, in secrecy, through layers of shell companies.

We have seen Finish tax authorities threaten to raid journalists offices to access the Panama Papers data, bypassing source protection and individual rights. It bears noting that Finland is currently ranked #1 in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.

Amazingly we do not hear about governments, heads of state, or major policy makers, talk about the need for whistleblower protections to promote transparency, empower democracy and hold power to account.

However, the whistleblower behind the Panama Papers, under the alias John Doe, has offered to assist authorities – if true whistleblower protections are put in place – in an address entitled The Revolution Will Be Digitized:

“I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing. Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment. Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded millions for his information concerning Swiss bank UBS—and was still given a prison sentence by the Justice Department. Antoine Deltour is presently on trial for providing journalists with information about how Luxembourg granted secret “sweetheart” tax deals to multi-national corporations, effectively stealing billions in tax revenues from its neighbour countries. And there are plenty more examples.

Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or on-going global media coverage for documents.”

The way forward

It is clear that whistleblower protections are needed globally, through an international effort, whereby the fight against corruption and abuses of power becomes a global fight. Local legislative protections are also of great benefit. With proper protections in place in one country, a whistleblower may be safe within a specific jurisdiction. This does not however alleviate the potential economic and social cost a whistleblower may have to pay, but may go some way towards protecting the physical safety of those risking themselves for the public good. Mechanisms need also to be in place to provide economic support to whistleblowers who can find themselves ostracized, out of work and isolated. To address the social cost, awareness needs to be raised of these important issues. A top-down approach, where governments and legislative assemblies truly and unmistakenly endorse the great public service of whistleblowers to the betterment of democracy, can achieve this. The first step is to implement whistleblower protection and welcome information that is vital for empowered democracies.

IMMI is working on establishing whistleblower protection in Iceland – a key aspect of the Safe Haven for Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information IMMI works towards. To this end, IMMI participates in a steering group (overseen by the Ministry of Education and Culture) tasked with implementation of the resolution referred to above. The steering group has drafted a bill on whistleblower protection which needs to be sponsored and presented by the Minister in Parliament. In other words, it is ready and waits on political will.

IMMI also helped draft an IPU resolution (the Inter-Parliamentary Union consists of MPs from 166 countries) entitled: Democracy in the Digital Era and the threat to privacy and individual freedoms:

“Strongly recommends that parliaments, as part of their oversight function, enact coherent and comprehensive legislation on the protection of whistleblowers in line with international standards and best practices”

The explantory memorandum clarifies this further:

“The draft resolution strongly recommends that parliaments adopt whistleblower-protection laws, with the aim of encouraging transparency, accountability and access to information, all of which are fundamental to any meaningful democracy”

An International effort to fight corruption and abuses of power – including violating fundamental rights – needs to be established. The physical safety of whistleblowers needs to be protected against abusive government measures to hush debate and keep information relevant to the public secret. With regards to this, countries that want to protect whistleblowers must be ready to withstand enormous diplomatic pressure and possible economic retaliation. Not least because of this, the cooperation between nations is important.

A fundamental part of democracy is speaking truth to power. Truth tellers need protecting, otherwise we are just paying lip service to a cause we recognize as vital yet we do nothing to promote and protect.

The International Modern Media Institute is an independent institute that relies completely on individual donations and project-based funding. IMMI is currently fundraising via Indiegogo here. You can also support IMMI here.