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An Offshore Journalism Haven? February 15, 2010

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Civic Media, Convergence, Journalism, News, Social Media, Trends.
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As powerful groups around the world seek to smother the journalistic freedom to reveal information, the business of “refugee hosting” is an idea whose Web time has come. An emerging class of refugees could be publishers like those behind Malaysia Today, which is no longer published in Malaysia but hosted in neighbouring Singapore.

Iceland may become an offshore “journalism and transparency haven” for leakers and investigators. Under a “Modern Media Initiative,” Iceland intends to become a bastion for global press freedom and a global haven for investigative journalism.

The package of laws, launched with the help of Wikileaks, the online whistleblowing site, seeks to defend freedom of speech and protect sources and fight libel tourism. The idea is to reform Iceland’s media law to be an attractive jurisdiction for investigative journalists.

The media law mix could go like this:

Source protection laws from Sweden
First Amendment from the United States
Belgian protection laws for journalists

With a population of 320,000, Iceland is seeking to transform itself from a country dependent on fishing into a destination relevant to knowledge-based enterprises.

By positioning itself as the first jurisdiction to offer the necessities of an information society, the hope is that journalist-friendly laws will encourage media businesses to move to Iceland.

The idea is akin to the offshore financial havens that corporations use to avoid government tax regimes – only for free speech. Could global news organizations with a home office in Reykjavík soon be as common as Delaware corporations or Cayman Islands assets?

The IMMI aims to pull together good practice from around the world and incorporate it into a single body of law. The proposal will come before the Icelandic parliament tomorrow in the first step towards turning the idea into law. The people behind Wikileaks have been involved in drafting the law.

Indeed, a haven for free expression would help counter the growing practice of libel tourism. British courts in particular, have become a favoured destination for complainants seeking to take advantage of the UK’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws.

The House of Lords recently established a government panel to look into the possibility of amending its laws to make it tougher for foreigners to bring defamation suits in Britain, amid fears that current British law was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

We’ve become good at fending off many legal attacks, and never lost a case, or a source, but we can’t expect everyone to go through the extraordinary efforts what we do.

Large newspapers are routinely censored by legal costs. It is time this stopped. It is time a country said, enough is enough, justice must be seen, history must be preserved, and we will give shelter from the storm.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor

Wikileaks is a non-profit website that has established a reputation for publishing leaked material. It recently had to suspend operations because of a lack of funding. The website says it will resume once operational costs have been covered.

Wikileaks has succeeded in bringing sensitive materials to light through a combination of technical and legal means. Submissions are anonymized and routed through countries with comprehensive journalistic source protection laws.

High-profile documents hosted on the site include a copy of the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, a document that detailed restrictions placed on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

When the Guardian was prevented from publishing documents on the alleged dumping of 400 tonnes of toxic waste on behalf of the global commodities trader Trafigura because of a super-injunction, the material ended up on Wikileaks days later.

The site played a role in Iceland’s financial crisis last summer when a national TV broadcaster was blocked from revealing a list of creditors in the country’s banking debacle. The broadcaster ran the url for the Wikileaks disclosure instead.

Following that, Wikileaks editor Julian Assange went to Iceland to discuss their idea for a journalism publishing haven on a talk show, then in a more detailed presentation at Reykjavík University.

The idea of a journalism haven is nice, but in practice it might be too complex to distinguish what is deemed ‘right’ comment from what is obviously wrong.

Protected from prosecution or libel by this ‘free press’ law, we can almost see media titles from China, Venezuela, Malaysia and Singapore publishing in Iceland, the new tower from which anyone can spout comment intolerable elsewhere.

Legal resiliency is in some ways the reverse of “libel tourism,” where plaintiffs file suit in a jurisdiction likely to give a favorable result. One famous case involves a suit filed in London by a Saudi billionaire against the Wall Street Journal Europe in Brussels, for a story originally published in the Wall Street Journal in New York.

Some courts have ruled that placing an article online counts as publication if it is accessible from their jurisdiction, which would mean that a web story could be declared libelous anywhere in the world.

In the video below, Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt of Wikileaks discuss their vision of the information society, and the role of the whistle-blowing website in it. It was given at the Chaos Communications Congress hacker conference in Berlin on Dec. 27.em>

Further reading
Wikileaks: Web Censorship Won’t Work
WikiLeaks editor: why I’m excited about Iceland’s plans for journalism

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