Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic MP, writer, artist, activist and former Wikileaks collaborator, spoke to the Globe and Mail’s editorial board on Tuesday. She is in Toronto to kick off the 2011 Samara/Massey journalism seminars. (Samara is a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy.)
Ms. Jonsdottir has led a movement in her country to advance free speech, freedom of the press and transparency in government. This initiative, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, aims to bring together transparency laws from multiple jurisdictions to create the strongest media freedom laws in the world. This week it was revealed that the U.S. Justice Department, which is trying to build a criminal case against Wikileaks, is trying to access Ms. Jonsdottir’s Twitter account, as well as the account of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, saying they have relevant material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
Q: There is no indication they [the U.S.]are targeting you?
A: You don’t know because of timing. They might think I have some information or might want to interrogate me or get my computer. Or they might just turn me away at the border. I left Wikileaks in early October 2010, late September.
Q: What are you doing in Toronto?
A: I’m very impressed with Samara. It’s what we need to do to get citizens to co-share their society. I will primarily focus tonight on why I got into politics. I never aspired to be a politician. And the importance of handing the power back to the people. To believe in a democratic society you must participate. I will speak about why we should modernize our legislation in relation to freedom of speech. I was reading a report on Freedom of Information in Canada and it’s scoring poorly because it has not been upgraded for the times we’re living in. We have so much material online, but difficulties accessing it.
The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) is an open source legislation so any country can take it and adapt it and cherry pick from the best laws around the world. We know how difficult it is for investigative journalists because of all the gag orders and privacy restraints. I see Wikileaks as people who do direct action and move the barriers for the norm, and thus it will be easier for others to go a bit further. If we claim we live in a democracy but don’t have free press or freedom of information online, then we are obviously not in a very democratic society.
Q: With Wikileaks, the response has been to the contrary, with governments looking at ways to better secure and protect information so there will be no paper trail. Can you address that?
A: I think what governments need to learn instead of trying to create more secrecy is that the process around secrecy is unchecked. A lot of material is labeled secret because it can be. There is no transparency in the process and no explanation. Maybe governments can learn something instead of becoming defensive when their weaknesses are exposed.
Q: But Wikileaks disgorged a vast amount of government information, so is that the same as whistle blowing?
A: I don’t agree. Bradley Manning...[the U.S. soldier and suspected leaker]does this because he sees so much wrong and all this wrong isn’t being exposed The material uncovered from Iraq war logs, all these unreported civilian deaths, U.S. military establishment turned a blind eye to the torture. Why isn’t that being investigated further? Most media analyzes Julian Assange, instead of the content of the leaks. Whoever leaked it, they had no intention of trying to make the U.S. look bad, had very same reasons as any other whistleblower who wants to expose a crime, always the question of how do you process that material. There were some mistakes around the Afghan war logs. Not enough effort went into redacting the names. It was not a proper process. They have learned from the mistakes and made sure Iraqi war logs were released differently. The cables are going out very slowly and being redacted to ensure nobody will get into serious trouble.
Q: Why did you leave Wikileaks?