Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir, Icelandic member of parliament and ex-WikiLeaks

"Birgitta Jonsdottir, ex-WikiLeaks, Crusades for Freedom of Information"

De Standaard Online [Belgian news outlet] - March 2, 2011 - by Dominique Deckmyn in Ghent, Belgium
OSC Translated Text [OSC is the CIA's Open Source Center.]
Icelander Birgitta Jonsdottir - poet, author, activist, and member of parliament - has now broken with WikiLeaks, but she is continuing to devote herself to making her country a haven for information, a Switzerland of the bytes. In the meantime, the American judicial authorities are trying to reach Julian Assange through her Twitter details.
Last week, Birgitta Jonsdottir was in our country for a while at Deburen's invitation in order to take part in an evening of debate on the state of the media today, partly organized by the Pascal Decroos Fund and the Investigative Journalists' Association. We met with her at the Vooruit (arts center) in Ghent. She immediately wrong-footed us: Instead of the eccentric Goth about whom we had read, we were welcomed by an elegant person with a captivating laugh. She talked in a soft voice but with a very great deal of passion about the importance of freedom of information. Although her "Movement" is not a real party and she surfed to parliament in 2009 on a wave of popular anger about the banking crisis, she has turned out to be a born politician who knows what she wants and how she is to achieve it.
Birgitta Jonsdottir is the driving force behind the Iceland Modern Media Initiative; the plan to provide Iceland with model laws on freedom of information. The laws are supposed to protect journalists and their sources and offer special protection for whistleblowers. It would also become much more difficult in Iceland to prevent the publication of articles or pursue media with claims for damages. Last June, Jonsdottir got a resolution through the Icelandic parliament, which now has to be translated into bills. "IMMI is much more important than WikiLeaks," she herself says. "We are trying to ensure that WikiLeaks is no longer needed."
But it was precisely her role in WikiLeaks which made the 43-year-old Jonsdottir a media figure and the subject of an investigation by the American Justice Department. She was one of the makers of the video showing how American servicemen fired on defenseless civilians. The video put WikiLeaks on the map in April 2010.
(Deckmyn) Are you still in touch with the WikiLeaks people?
(Jonsdottir) No, only with former WikiLeaks people. I am in touch with Daniel (Domscheit-Berg) and some others, although it is hard to define who does and does not belong to WikiLeaks now. Some people are semi-active or not at all active, and some people want never to talk to Julian Assange again.
(Deckmyn) The organization is identified with Assange personally in the media. Do you regret that?
(Jonsdottir) What is a pity is that the messenger has turned into the message. That means that the documents have not been paid the attention which they deserve. I no longer know how often I have refused to collaborate on yet another portrait of Julian Assange. It has come to revolve too much around one person, one hero, one messiah, even: That is what he is called on the fan page on Facebook. It is almost a new religion, but that is certainly partly the media's fault. They have decided to create this Icarus; they have blown a great deal of wind under his wings instead of focusing their attention on the real story - the contents of WikiLeaks. That has a great deal to do with the situation in which the media currently find themselves. They are seeking as many clicks as possible, and the stories which get the most clicks on websites are usually about sex scandals."
(Deckmyn) Do you believe in Daniel Domscheit-Berg's idea that there should be masses of WikiLeaks-like websites, such as his own new OpenLeaks?
(Jonsdottir) Well, WikiLeaks was originally supposed to go in that direction, but then it transformed itself into "MegaLeaks." I believe that it is a valuable experiment. I do not know whether it will be successful, but it should certainly be tried. We live in a world where secrecy is the norm, and no longer has to be justified. Secrecy around big companies, around politicians, and so forth. I am not in favor of complete openness; that is impossible, but I believe that what will remain secret should be decided on in a transparent manner.
(Deckmyn) Then what about the diplomatic cables which WikiLeaks published? Is there room for secrecy in diplomacy?
(Jonsdottir) Yes, of course. And also if an agreement is being drawn up: Drafts which leak out, that can create many misunderstandings. It is OK if a document is made public only when it is finished. Privacy is also important, but in every country there should be a debate on what should remain secret and what should not. Today, there are far too many secrets. If somebody in Iceland had leaked information from the banks before the banking system collapsed, maybe that collapse would not have been so serious.
(Deckmyn) The fact that the cables are being released only in dribs and drabs seems to be prompted more by the desire to achieve maximum media impact rather than the passion for openness.
(Jonsdottir) Precisely. And I do not necessarily agree with that, but that is just my personal opinion, and that is worth no more than anybody else's opinion.
(Deckmyn) The American judicial authorities have demanded your Twitter use details. Are you surprised that you personally are in conflict with America - surely a free country with a progressive president?
(Jonsdottir) Yes and no. No, because I know how desperately they want to lay hands on Julian Assange. Nobody has embarrassed diplomats' entire bureaucratic machine more than WikiLeaks, and so they are seeking ways to pursue him. But they are entering an extremely dangerous minefield. I am a member of parliament, I sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I have a seat in the NATO parliament. Suppose they lay hands on my Google accounts and Facebook information; channels through which I am in touch with other members of parliament! How can they then be critical if China, for instance, tries to lay hands on similar information about American senators who are working for Tibet? But I am not surprised. However, it is quite tiresome that I can no longer travel to the United States. I already could not go to China, so now I cannot go to the United States, either.
(Deckmyn) Then do you run a risk there?
(Jonsdottir) They could subject me to a very unpleasant interrogation. They are known for that. They accept soft torture, like they are now torturing Bradley Manning.
(Deckmyn) Do you believe that Bradley Manning - the serviceman who gave WikiLeaks the war documents - is being tortured?
(Jonsdottir) Of course that is happening. It is not a matter of belief; they admit what means they are using. Waking up somebody every five minutes, making him sleep on a kind of sheet which gives you burns if you move in your sleep, not allowing him any movement: That is torture. They are probably trying to break him in order to reach Julian Assange, while WikiLeaks is just an intermediary. It is crazy that they are going only after Julian Assange, because he worked together with a whole set of media, but he is an easy target.
(Deckmyn) You mean that they want to attack him as a symbol?
(Jonsdottir) Yes. I assume so. We will see what happens. Well, what is currently happening around Assange, that case in Britain; that has nothing to do with the United States.
Sexual Offenses Case
(Deckmyn) Assange himself is convinced that America is behind the attempts to have him extradited to Sweden in a sexual offenses case.
(Jonsdottir) Then what evidence is there for that?
(Deckmyn) You are working to make Iceland a kind of haven for freedom of information and freedom of expression. Where did that idea come from?
(Jonsdottir) It began with John Perry Barlow - one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He was in Iceland in 2008, and he talked at th e Digital Freedom Society conference about that idea of a "Switzerland of the bytes." The following year, that idea also formed the nub of the speeches which Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg delivered at the DFS conference. When I heard them say that Iceland could make a difference in this sphere, I immediately thought: Yes! I know that in times of crisis very bad laws are often made, but I thought: Let us seize upon this time of crisis in order to make something good. So I brought together a number of people - Assange, Daniel, Rop Gonggrijp, and a number of others. We brainstormed and researched intensively for a month, and then we wrote the proposal. WikiLeaks's contribution was that it had practical experience as regards the question of which laws work and which laws do not work in order to keep information online, keep sources secret, and repel all judicial attacks.
(Deckmyn) What are the most important threats to freedom of information today?
(Jonsdottir) The first one is that all the media are in a very fragile state. More and more people are finding their news online and no longer buying newspapers, but the media have not yet found a way to make money online, so they are badly off financially. And who is then the first casualty? Investigative journalism, because it is expensive, while somebody who makes cut and paste reports about Britney Spears does not cost much and generates many clicks.
At the same time, the media are also exposed to another threat. Lawyers have found ways to block reports. Our historical archives are being changed and falsified every day. As BP chief, I can have a report of 10 years ago which I do not like removed from the historical archives.
There are also the super-injunctions which have developed in Britain, with which reports can be blocked. And then you have attempts to turn off the internet, as in Egypt and Libya. There is a bill in the American Senate nicknamed the internet kill switch which gives them the power to turn off the internet.
And the greatest danger for freedom of information is for people to be asleep. They do not understand that when telecom companies filter your internet, they filter out more than you want. In Iceland, the internet companies offer a filter to block porno, but it also blocks shareware websites. Australia has a very controversial filter. China has filters. But in that threat also lies an enormous opportunity, because, as we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries; they tried to turn off the internet, but it backfired. The information which leaked out was paid extra attention.
(Deckmyn) How will history look back on WikiLeaks?
(Jonsdottir) Hard to say. I believe that they have changed the debate on freedom of information, lack of transparency, the need for stronger laws to protect sources, and so forth. They are the icebreaker. If you look at real icebreakers, they all look very dented, and you never know when they will be holed, but they have created space for others.
(Deckmyn) And how will history view Julian Assange?
(Jonsdottir) I do not know.
(Description of Source: Groot Bijgaarden De Standaard Online in Dutch -- Website of right-of-center daily; URL: