In Iceland, WikiLeaks could become a more powerful tool for journalists

Editor’s Note: Today’s Guest writer is Alexander Hotz, a multimedia journalist based in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @NYCtechnology.

By Alexander Hotz

alex_1-150x150Blame it on the holiday season or the industry’s own shortcomings, but last week the American press missed a major announcement concerning what could become the future of investigative journalism.

WikiLeaks.org, a Web site that specializes in the publication of classified or restricted information, announced that it’s pursuing an unprecedented avenue to sustain itself. Late last year the whistleblower organization began lobbying the Icelandic parliament to consider a series of bills, which if passed would transform that nation of 300,000 into a beacon of global free expression.

According to WikiLeaks’ reps, the new laws would be modeled on offshore financial centers or tax havens. The British Virgin Islands, for example, attracts the rich with a set of lenient/shady tax laws unavailable in most countries. Iceland, under the WikiLeaks’ proposal, would offer sources and journalists a strong package of legal protections thereby establishing itself as a sanctuary for free speech.

“So we could just say we’re taking the source protection laws from Sweden … we could take the First Amendment from the United States, (and) we could take Belgium protection laws for journalists,” said WikiLeaks’ spokesman Daniel Schmitt at last week’s Chaos Communication Congress (26C3) in Berlin.

Why Iceland?

Last year Iceland saw three of its biggest banks fold under a mountain of debt, the Icelandic currency the Krona plummeted and the personal wealth of every Icelander took a Madoff-like beating. Amidst this turmoil the government, previously seen as one of the most stable in Europe, collapsed. Forbes went as far to declare Iceland a “land without an economy.”

Understandably the Icelandic people are furious at the powers that were and WikiLeaks intends to harness that spirit. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” pledged WikiLeaks’ Director Julian Assange.

Although it has yet to become a household name in the United States, Wikileaks has broken a number of big stories. “Climate-gate,” the global warming scandal involving scientists from the University of East Anglia, first came to the world’s attention via WikiLeaks. The release of September 11, 2001 pager messages also originated from WikiLeaks. When Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account was hacked in 2008, again WikiLeaks.

Not surprisingly the organization’s success has earned it the ire of governments and large corporations across the globe. WikiLeaks has been taken to court in a handful of countries (including the United States) and banned in Australia and China.

If Iceland were to pass the laws WikiLeaks wants, it wouldn’t just “fit the freedom of information needs of the information society,” it could also ensure that WikiLeaks remains a powerful tool for journalists.

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