Marketplace Scratch Pad

A free speech haven?

Scott Jagow Feb 16, 2010

People in the news business are always talking about how to save investigative journalism. But a proposal offered in Reykjavik today has a different premise: How investigative journalism might save Iceland.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative proposes creating a “safe haven” for journalists, just like certain countries provide tax havens for people:

Iceland could become an ideal environment for Internet-based international media and publishers to register their services, start-ups, data centers and human rights organizations. It could be a lever for the economy and create new work employment opportunities.

If this proposal became a reality it could improve democracy and transparency in Iceland, as firm grounding would be made for publishing, whilst improving Iceland’s standing in the international community.

Icelandic journalist Alda Sigmundsdottir explains how the safe haven might work:

It is important to state that the idea here is not to make it easy for people to freely publish all sorts of trash in Iceland and get away with it. In other words, it is not to make Iceland a haven for tabloids, pedophiles or similar low-level activities. Anything that is illegal will still be illegal — the resolution will not change that. The idea is merely to create a framework of increased protection whereby investigative journalism and free speech can thrive.

The supporters of the proposal claim that, if it were to become a reality, any foreign paper or media outlet could set up an office — or even just a server — in Iceland, and publish from there. They would thereby be covered by the Icelandic law.

This is similar to how WikiLeaks operates (or did operate. It is temporarily defunct). In fact, the people behind WikiLeaks helped draft the Iceland proposal.

But some see little chance that Iceland’s free speech haven would actually work. From the Citizen Media Law Project:

See, the problem is that whatever Iceland does, it can’t change the 500-pound gorilla of international media law: the principle that publication happens at the point of download, not the point of upload. The poster child case for this principle is Dow Jones & Co., Inc. v. Gutnick, a case that reached the High Court of Australia in 2002. In that case, Gutnick sued Barron’s Online for publishing an allegedly defamatory article about him, and despite the fact that no one in Australia other than Gutnick’s lawyers actually read the offending article, the judges unanimously ruled that Australian laws applied, and thus Dow Jones (publisher of Barron’s Online) was liable to Gutnick.

At least at the time, the High Court of Australia was the highest court worldwide to hear a case involving this issue, and for better or worse, its ruling has carried the day in similar cases around the world since.

The free speech proposal comes as Iceland is desperate for an economic turnaround. The country’s voters will decide next month whether to pay back the British and Dutch governments for bailing out British and Dutch investors who put their money in an Icelandic bank that eventually failed. The polls suggest Icelanders will take a stand against refunding the bailout money (see my previous post on this), even if it means the country’s credit rating is destroyed.

Iceland is one intriguing place these days.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.