Scott Horton Interviews Birgitta Jonsdottir
Birgitta Jonsdottir, member of the Icelandic parliament, talks about the role the financial meltdown in 2008 played in the people there’s insistence on transparency in government and banking, the new whistle-blower protection law working its way through their system which would protect, computer servers, prevent judges from compelling disclosure of sources, the hero Bradley Manning‘s plight, the importance of Wikileaks, the inability of Iceland to protect whistleblowers from extradition, but their important ability to promise that whatever documents people do risk life and liberty to leak will reach the public and not be removed from the Web and the delay behind the release of the Garani airstrike video.
MP3 here. (15:04) Transcript below.
Birgitta Jonsdottir,is a member of parliament of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, formerly representing the Citizens’ Movement, but now representing The Movement. Her district is the Reykjavík South Constituency. She was elected to the Icelandic parliament in April 2009 on behalf of a movement aiming for democratic reform beyond party politics of left and right. Birgitta has been an activist and a spokesperson for various groups, such as Saving Iceland and Friends of Tibet in Iceland. Currently she is a spokeswoman for the website Wikileaks in relation to her role as a co-producer for the Collateral Murder video published by Wikileaks.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Birgitta Jonsdottir July 25, 2010
Scott Horton: Alright everybody, welcome back to the show. If I’m lucky, I have Birgitta Jonsdottir. I’m sorry, ma’am. Hi, welcome to the show. My Icelandic is horrible this time of year, can you help me?
Birgitta Jonsdottir: [laughs] Yeah, Jonsdottir. It was quite close, actually.
Horton: Well you’re very generous, thank you. And thank you for joining us here. Now, so everyone, I urge you to go and look at this very interesting article by Raffi [Khatchadourian] at the New Yorker magazine, called “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission for Total Transparency,” and it’s a really great piece. Apparently this reporter hung-out with the Wikileaks crew as the so-called “Collateral Murder” video was being assembled, and ma’am you take part in this story – uh you’re on scene, saying you don’t really believe in the State but as long as there is one you wanted to get a law passed to protect whistleblowers. Can you tell us about your adventures here?
Jonsdottir: Well the thing is, since I live in Iceland and – I don’t know if your listeners are aware of this but we had the biggest financial collapse in history in Iceland in 2008, so, you know, I got to go into parliament being an activist there – I used to be an activist outside the parliament.
And one of the things that everybody in Iceland has become aware of is the tax havens, and how they are being abused and how they create total secrecy. So we wanted to take the same principle and concept of the tax havens and pull together all the best possible laws from around the world to ensure transparency and freedom of information and expression. So we’re basically modernizing all the legislation in relation to strengthening these pillars of democracy. And what I have found during this quest – in a fairly complex journey – is that these basic rights are eroding at an alarming rate in our world, and in particularly in the so-called “Western World.”
So what I have discovered through this journey is that Iceland is not the only country that needs it, but there is a growing debate – particularly in Europe – that they need to change their laws as well – to face the fact that we are living in a world where information doesn’t have any borders anymore. And at the same time lawyers don’t have any borders anymore so we have to try to be one step ahead of them.
Horton: So exactly what is this law anticipating? Is it something like protecting the sanctity of privately-owned computer servers, that kind of thing?
Jonsdottir: Yes, it is dealing with the IP host problem, and dealing with, of course – this is extremely important for Iceland and it seems to the rest of the world – to ensure that journalists don’t have to reveal their sources. So both the journalists can’t – or it would be illegal for him to reveal the source, or he cannot be forced to do it by a judge. And we are also basing our whistleblower legislation on the Swedish one, which is apparently the strongest in the world.
Plus, encouraging people to do whistleblowing because it is very important that people are encouraged to, instead of what seems to be the case with the Bradley Manning case where it seems to be the case that your country wants to make him an example of how people should not do whistleblowing. And in his case if he is indeed the person that leaked the Iraqi video of “Collateral Murder” that he was obviously showing a hideous war crime that the rest of the nations that are participating in this war need to see.
Horton: And is this new legislation already a done deal or is it still going through the process?
Jonsdottir: Well since – I am – our task to the government is to change 13 laws in 4 different ministries, it is still in a process. It will probably take a year, a year and a half for all the laws to be implemented, but the good news is that when I got this into the parliament nobody really believed that this could happen. However once it went into voting, it was unanimously voted for, and in Iceland the system is such that the ministers are also parliamentarians, so they all voted for it as well, including the Prime Minister, which is sort of a corollary to the president.
In a body, it’s not all going to happen in a day because it is being written in different ministries, but the person who is handling it, or is the taskmaster for this, and will make sure the other ministries are also doing their part of this – they are very well aware of and acquainted with all of the suggestions that we have for legislative change. But I really encourage people, if they want to find out more, to go to our website; it is IMMI.is. And there is an English section with the whole process, the timeline and all the laws that we want to change.
Horton: That’s IMMI.is?
Horton: Ok, now, so you may very well be aware of the fact that there’s a new series in the Washington Post about the length and the breadth and the depth of the national security state in America. And in part one, they say there’s – let’s round up to – a million people public and private that are now at the top-secret access level. So let’s say hypothetically that 100,000 of them stole, no, liberated important documents from their masters in the bureaucracies and leaked them to, for example, Wikileaks.org. Could they then flee to Iceland and be protected from extradition by the Icelandic government for their heroic act which may in fact be technically criminal here in the United States?
Jonsdottir: Um, no. They can’t flee to Iceland, but they can – if it is stored on Icelandic servers, or Sweden’s for that matter – their case would then be taken through that legal system and not the US legal system. And the laws would be in their favor – not as the laws that they are trying to pass in the US about the whistleblowing.
So I think the law is very much – a different aspect of the law – is very much considered to be sort of a safe haven for investigative journalism. And let’s say that I am a blogger in China or in Tibet or Sri Lanka, and I want to take a big chance by revealing what is going on. Now I can not – or this law will not ensure that these people risking their lives to bring out the truth – will not be arrested or tortured. But we can assure that the story with this law – that the story that they are willing to risk their lives to publish is not going to be taken down, which is equally important, I think.
But this is not an over-all – this is not a magic bullet. There is still a lot of things that we, both globally and in our individual consciousness need to address, and need to make ourselves aware of, when it comes to all the secrecy that is – if anything – always increasing. But another thing which is very disturbing, and that is all these so-called “gag orders” on journalists – and all these lawyers – it seems to be international lawyers at corporations that focus on going into suing the media corporations about stories that may be tracked back ten years. So they are always pulling out stories about corporations, and their criminal activity out of the historical records. So we are starting to have a very wrong image of our modern-day history if their activities are constantly being taken out and completely erased off the internet.
Horton: Right absolutely, well, it is so important, I think, for – I hope people already recognize and agree on the importance of things like Wikileaks and the kinds of protections you’re providing for people who work with institutions like Wikileaks, because as you said, we live in a world of more and more centralization of power, and expansion of power and expansion of secrecy. And there’s more and more secret information that’s got to be able to get out somewhere at the same time that the press is more and more cowed and doing their job less and less. So it’s the supply and demand: we demand Wikileaks and, I’m sorry…
Jonsdottir: And I think one thing that’s occurring and that is a very interesting development when it comes to media in general, that citizen journalism is always growing stronger. And because of that, the traditional media is really losing ground. And if they don’t start to act differently in the Internet world in particular – because all the media is moving on to the Internet – and there is this transitional period which is so dangerous, so we have to both strengthen those that are in the traditional media that want to bring up news by creating strong platforms for them, protect the platforms for their stories to live on.
Horton: So, this is sort of a technical thing – it’s very well said on all the principles there – but I was wondering if you could help us understand, for example, why it takes so long for – or why it is taking so long for the Garani massacre video to be released. It’s been rumored and I guess confirmed for months now that Wikileaks is in possession of the Garani video, and people are wondering well, “Go ahead and release it then.” Or if it is true, for example that Wikileaks obtained State Department cables from Bradley Manning, as is alleged, we want to see them. What is it that takes so long in the process? Because it says here in this New Yorker article that you really have an inside view of how this works. I was hoping you could help us understand that.
Jonsdottir: Basically I am not a spokesperson for all the other projects that Wikileaks is doing. I did co-produce the “Collateral Murder” in the sense that I put a tremendous amount of work in it. However, maybe they are having, you know because they get so much volume of stuff and some of it can be encrypted and so-forth, so maybe they want to verify if this is indeed what they think it is, just like we did with the Collateral Murder video. When I was working on that we made sure to send journalists off to [Partha] to try to find the children that were discovered in the van and other witnesses to make sure that the credibility of this video could not be put into question. So maybe it has something to do with that, and I think one of the things that I find to be so disturbing about the Bradley Manning case is that there has been no attention in the bigger media about this incredible case. He has been charged with leaking the video and for leaking 60 cables and might be facing up to 50 years in prison. And no journalist and nobody has asked to see how he is. I mean he is only 22.
Horton: Right, they’re still holding him in Kuwait.
Jonsdottir: Yes, I really encourage everybody that wants to follow his story to go to the BradleyManning.org website. There is a team of people from various organizations and countries that want to support him in any which way possible, and if you want to write him, or just to try to follow-up what’s going on then I really encourage your listeners to support this brave man.
Horton: Very well said, again, thank you very much. Let me see if I can say this well, Birgitta Jonsdottir – nope – Birgitta Jonsdottir – is that better?
Jonsdottir: Uh no. [laughs] It’s ok. I’m used to my name being butchered so it really doesn’t matter.
Horton: Well it’s embarassing for me, but anyway…
Jonsdottir: Good luck with you and thank you for your website and your show. It is very important.
Horton: Well, thank you very much. Well, please tell people where they can look up – oh you already did say it, it’s IMMI.is.
Jonsdottir: Also there’s a lot of good material if you Google News and write, “Icelandic modern media initiative.”
Horton: Ok, great. Thank you so much.
Jonsdottir: Thank you. Have a good one.