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?
A: The "Collateral Murder" video..[a classified U.S. military video depicting the slaying of a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff] We produced it with Icelandic State TV. We felt we needed to do fact checking. We sent a journalist to Baghdad and spotted children in the van to see if he could find the witnesses, a soldier carrying them. The journalist found the children and their mother. The man driving the van was their father and he was driving them to school. Showed video to families of Reuters staff. Hardest thing about process was putting faces to names of bodies being torn apart. That was one of my jobs.
Wikileaks was criticized for the name "Collateral Murder". I didn't like it either. But we didn't have an agenda against the U.S. authorities. Despite the criticism on the name of the video, we did actually go through it very, very carefully. I did some of the background work and we found out about the names of the journalists and their families. The more we discovered the more humane the story became. I was in Iceland and heard from a solider on YouTube messaging system. He said 'I was the soldier who found the children in the van and who is carrying them. I could never stop thinking about them'. He has come forward and publicly apologized to Iraqi people and become active in Veterans for Peace in the U.S. But none of the U.S. media was interested in picking up his story. We printed out his letter of apology and gave it to the press and none of them picked it up. So I often question the ability of the media to dig a bit further and to do their job with this sort of material. It is troubling that the media doesn't care. That's why Wikileaks has gone further and further to try to get attention to the leaks.
The reason I left Wikileaks was what happened around the "Collateral Murder", I realized this was going to grow into a massive organization or would bring attention to the organization. I felt it didn't have the structures in place in how to utilize volunteers and security. I was concerned about lack of transparency in relation to the money issues. I wanted a meeting. I became obsessed that we had to have a meeting to create the structures and if you don't have proper structures and a means for people to communicate in a functional way, it's a disaster. I couldn't get the meeting. All the volunteers wanted the meeting except one. He didn't feel it was necessary.
Q: Can you impose structure on anarchy?
A: That's not my agenda. My agenda is to make it possible for sources to be sources and for whistle blowers to be encouraged and for info to be made accessible that is already online, and to limit prior restraints and efforts to stop media from publishing stories. I am troubled by the fact that in the U.K. when you publish online it has an infinite lifetime. That is messing with our historical records and falsifying the history we are living. I am not seeking for everything to go online. I don't care about your personal life. These lines have blurred so much. Those who have had success with libel cases are very powerful. As a legislator and individual I want to have access to information about corruption.
Q: Who gets to decide what is secret?
A: The public should be able to ask why. Should be a process where they can get an answer to why. There is nothing wrong with transparency. We haven't suffered because of lack of transparency or too much freedom of information. We have suffered more because of secrets.
There are efforts afoot to create Green Leaks, a website similar to old Wikileaks based on environmental leaks. That's brilliant.
Open Leaks project should be ready in the next couple of months.
The Sahara Report focuses on Africa. It would be great to have something on Latin America. If Wikileaks would stop today, it would not stop this process.
There is lots of media interest in our legislation. It is so difficult to work within a libel system; you have to have deep pockets to publish stories and sometimes it's not worth it. Even if we got all the laws in place, it won't create a miracle. It won't help people who will endanger themselves by publishing information about Tunisia. It's a horrific situation there. However we could make sure that the story they blog could not be taken down. And that is very valuable in our world today. If the environment in the U.S. is such that social media companies cannot guarantee their users the privacy that is the foundation of these medias, people will look to have these sites hosted in other countries. If you don't have freedom of information online, it certainly won't exist offline either. And the pillar of democracy is freedom of speech.
Q: Are you surprised at the degree to which the controversy involving Wikileaks has become personified in Julian Assange?
A: Yeah I don't know how many interviews I have rejected where I've been asked to be part of a profile on him. I say why don't you go deeply into one of the leaks. I don't think he is responsible for that. I have a saying about the media, they love to find an Icarus, put a lot of wind under his wings, and then watch him go and burn.
Julian, every time he opens his mouth he says something controversial, but there are a lot of people like that. The media likes to create larger-than-life people, but in the end they want to see them as human. So many brilliant people helped Wikileaks become what it is, but they're never given any credit for it. It is just this laziness that creates hero-making, hero-worship.
Q: Is he in part responsible for that?
A: When I knew him well we would both talk about how it was despicable, every time the media, if he tried to push a story, there would be an article on how he looked, or moved or spoke softly, that is not something he is trying to do. An endless description of him being the man who fell to earth.
Q: How did you even meet him and Bradley Manning?
A: I met Julian originally and Daniel [another former Wikileaks collaborator]Dec. 1, 2009, Iceland National day, and we were speaking at the Digital Freedom Society at the University in Reykjavik. I thought they had a brilliant idea. I had a grassroots meeting with Wikileaks people and other people and after it I approached them and a guy from Digital Freedom Society who had helped arrange for them to come said "let's do this, let's make Iceland into the reverse of a tax haven". And we started to work on it. Julian, Daniel, and some other people came and we looked into the different aspects of this, morphed into the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.
I do whatever I need to at the time when most needed. That's the kind of activist I am.