Icelandic Activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir Reveals How WikiLeaks Changed Her Country Forever

The former WikiLeaks supporter and current member of Iceland's parliament explains how real political change happens.

Icelandic Activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir Reveals How WikiLeaks Changed Her Country Forever

(Photo: G20NWD/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Sam Knight is a freelance contributor from Washington, DC.

Following Iceland's 2008 financial collapse and the government's subsequent resignation, poet and activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir was elected to that country's Parliament, where she has consistently fought for greater transparency and journalistic freedom. (She joined the newly formed Pirate Party last year.)

In 2009, WikiLeaks published the sketchy loan book of a failed Icelandic bank, Kaupthing, but an injunction from a judge prevented the national newscaster, RUV, from reporting it. Viewers were referred to Wikileaks for the information instead, and the secure, anonymous dropbox for whistleblowers became an overnight sensation. Wikileaks' Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg were invited to Iceland; and Jónsdóttir volunteered for the organization, eventually becoming the producer of Collateral Murder, the gunsight-view video of the killing of civilians by U.S. troops in Iraq that catapulted the organization into American consciousness in 2010.

In 2010, Jónsdóttir and like-minded colleagues introduced legislation in Parliament for transparency reforms and journalist protection— the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). It and other innovative post-collapse reforms – an attempt at a new constitution, drafted using crowdsourced techniques; websites designed to get the city of Reykjavik and parliament to address popular proposals; an anonymous online submission form for whistleblowers who want to connect with journalists; and others —drew attention to Iceland as an alternative to the post-collapse reforms (or lack thereof)  in the U.S. and Europe.

The right-wing party tied to the collapse might now be back in power, as the junior partner of a center-right coalition government, but, as Jónsdóttir told TakePart, the past few years have given her cause for optimism.

TakePart: How would you describe the role that imperfect information played in the financial collapse in Iceland?

Birgitta Jónsdóttir: We live in a very, very tiny society. There are 320,000 Icelanders, and if you leak information it’d be really easy to trace it back to whoever did it. So there was just next to no encouragement for people to blow the whistle on what was going on; we don’t have any proper whistleblowing at all. We’re working on that now as part of a parliamentary initiative I put forward after the crisis.

We also have a very weak media. For example, we have a national broadcaster, which is paid by our tax money. It’s just always a little bit soft for the government because the government controls its budget. And then we have one major media corporation, which owns all the mainstream media: They have the radio stations, the only other TV station, magazines, and a free newspaper. And guess who owns that?

Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson?

Yeah. He was the owner of one of the banks, and all the main food chains, and the import companies that import the food wholesale. So we were just basically owned by a few families. Then all the big banks were privatized at the same time. They just lent each other money, and of course the people didn’t know about this. This was a huge scam.

But there were warning signs.

There were private jets and crazy stuff going on, which we’re very not used to in Iceland—these sort of Billonaires Club elements. Then there was an interview with an economist in one of the media in Iceland, and he basically was saying, “This [real estate boom] can’t be real. There’s something fishy going on here.” At the time our Minister of Culture said, “He needs to be re-educated.”

I was one of the very few Icelanders laughing, because I was just too poor to buy a home, and I didn’t have any major debt. I’m not an economist and I don’t know anything, but it was just common sense: When people started taking out loans on 90-to-100 percent of the value of their homes, I said, “Look, the banks are going to own all the properties in Iceland in a few years if it’s going to carry on like this.” I didn’t understand why people got so upset with me when I was trying to give them warnings, and I was just a poet. But nobody would listen because the media was very biased towards this insanity.

What were your ideas for using transparency to restore, as you put it, common sense?

Well, after the financial collapse I was one of the very few people that was a known protester.

The Shock Doctrine planted a lot of seeds in me, and I realized that during times of crisis you can make good stuff happen. But why are those of us who want to change things for the better not ready?

So I was asked to help coordinate all the different grassroots groups, and I helped organize a big protest, in December, 2008. As a consequence, I joined a group of people called the Academia Group, although I’m not an academic. We were primarily talking about what sort of government we needed instead of the current one, what sort of constitutional changes we needed, and how we would get people to become aware that we needed a popularization of power — all that sort of stuff.

Gradually we started to talk about the media, and of course the politicians that are working for the system. Transparency then became a part of that larger packet. It wasn’t an aspect that I was focusing on at first; it came later.

As all of this was happening, Naomi Klein wrote a really interesting article about Iceland that a lot of people in Iceland read, and I became interested in other stuff that she’s written, like The Shock Doctrine. It really planted a lot of seeds in me, and I realized that during times of crisis you can actually make good stuff happen too. You can make really bad stuff like the Patriot Act and the chaos that Klein wrote about. But why are we—those of us that want to change things for the better—not ready?

It was never my intention, but all of a sudden I was one of the movers and shakers of promoting transparency. My first meeting with all the different groups was about creating alternative media. I called everybody I could think of that would be interested.

It really was not until the report by Iceland’s national broadcaster, RUV, on the misdeeds at Kaupthing — when the reporter, Bogi Ágústsson, came on TV and said, “A judge is preventing us from talking about this, so here’s this website called Wikileaks” — that Wikileaks became well-known in Iceland. Would you say that’s right?

The bank threatened to sue unless they removed the material, and their response, which I later found out was just Julian Assange, was really defiant: We’re not taking anything down.

Yeah, absolutely. Before that, one of the first things I did as an MP was to write a blog for one of the newspapers about what’s really going on within the place of power, to sort of pull away the curtains. So the transparency started there, and then when this incident happened with the RUV report I just felt, "Oh my God, this [blog] is just the beginning." But I wasn’t sure what to do. I had gone to the Wikileaks website a few times. Then they became known and sort of hailed as heroes not only because of what they posted but also their response to a letter from the bank’s lawyer. The bank threatened to sue unless they removed the material, and their response — which I later found out was just Julian — was really defiant: “Screw you, we’re not taking anything down.” [Ed. note: Assange did not actually write, "Screw you."]

Then Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg came to Iceland to speak at the Digital Freedom Society Conference. I was invited to some party or something with them, and I’m very antisocial, and I was like, "Do I have to go?" But then I met them the next day because we were both speaking there. They gave this really fascinating speech about how Iceland could become the reverse of a tax haven, but for information. Total transparency.

Digital Freedom Society and my political movement arranged a meeting with Julian and Daniel that would explain what Wikileaks was about. And I remember I said to Julian after the meeting, “Well, why don’t we just do it?” And that’s how my collaboration with Wikileaks started, which resulted in something really amazing.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative—IMMI.

Yeah. Of course I had no idea that I was venturing into historical events. So Julian, Daniel, and [an anonymous individual known as] Mr. M were all here in Iceland, and I started to arrange meetings to go over with them what should this entail.

The beauty of Wikileaks was basically they had this big dropbox where anybody can drop stuff without being able to find out who it is. And it is important to know that the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning, Chelsea Manning, could upload material without the Wikileaks staff knowing who it was. And that was done so we could, in this digital era, protect sources. And the best way to protect the source is not knowing who that source is. That of course entails risks since we have to know if the documents are real or not. It’s easy to fake documents.

Basically the idea [of IMMI] was to make a 21st century law for freedom of information, expression, and speech. Many countries have really good laws just in one or two fields, whereas no country actually has a proper shield law [protecting journalists from being forced under penalty of law to reveal anonymous sources to the government]. I remember, in the first months, I was trying to explain IMMI and I was dumbstruck because it was just so difficult to explain before you could find the correct metaphors in the offline world for it—what it meant and how it should function. For me to explain it to the other parliamentarians was just very abstract. I decided to have a workshop and just invite people from all different parliamentary groups to it.

When IMMI finally passed, it was passed unanimously in the Parliament.

Yeah, I don’t know what happened.

But the mechanics of it, all the reforms have not been implemented yet, is that correct?

Yeah, it’s been going very slowly, but we’re talking about some really big stuff. We’re talking about analyzing all the different laws for public servants about secrecy or transparency. We now have the best source protection laws, in Iceland, because of IMMI. I’ve spoken with some people to define what is privacy and how can we ensure that other governments cannot go into Icelandic citizens’ privacy.

The constitution that failed earlier this year, it was written partially with crowdsourcing methods?

We’re talking about some really big stuff. We’re talking about analyzing all the different laws for public servants about secrecy or transparency. We now have the best source protection laws in the world.

Yes. It had a beautiful freedom of information act, it had really awesome direct democracy tools, it had some flaws in the human rights elements because it wasn’t written properly—the people who wrote it weren’t lawyers. It could do with a few amendments, but as a spirit it has the total agreement of what a nation would want to be. It was beautiful. I would have been proud to be an Icelander under such a constitution.

It would have basically turned the electorate into another branch of government.

Yes.

The parties that were most responsible for the banking collapse are now back in power. Do you feel that activists such as yourself have had kind of lasting effects?

I don’t know. We do have very few permanent things, and all these laws can be undone. There are many things that I felt were good that the previous government did that are being undone. We don’t even have an Environmental Minister any more. People are distressed.

But we have Better Iceland, which is a website where if a certain percentage of Icelanders put forward and support an idea, then we [would] have to take it into process in the Parliament. So that is a way to engage the public.

Do you think that Icelanders were not quite ready for this—that these reforms might have been ahead of their time?

Yeah, I think so. But I’m a chronic optimist. Whenever something goes wrong I see opportunities. I don’t know how many times I speak to people in the States and they’re all, “We can’t change anything.” As soon as we allow ourselves to believe that things are fixed then they’re unchangeable. But there is absolutely nothing fixed.

If you want to be aware of how to change a society, hear this, and whomever you ask to help you facilitate change, remind them about this: Crises are great, and the only time for real and proper change. But the key is timing. If you want something done, you’ve got to do it immediately.

Those of us that are willing to do stuff on behalf of the greater good or not just for personal reasons, we just have to be much quicker and much more prepared. Because you never know when a crisis is going to come. You might not see signs, and once it happens you have to be prepared.

There’s IMMI, there’s the constitution, there’s Better Iceland — although Parliament has not committed itself to it, and Better Reykjavik, the most popular ideas of which Reykjavik City Council has committed itself to discussing. So there are tools. Maybe next time there’s a crisis,  you’ll be more ready to make lasting change.

Absolutely. It’s been my impression we’re not losing momentum, we’re gaining momentum. I think we will be seeing in the next month if the government is going keep its promises. We will see if they can. And then if they won’t we will see what happens. It’s going to be very interesting either way.

It’s interesting times all over the word. There’s a lot of things shifting and changing. We are in these times of uncertainty and quickening, and we all need to be prepared with solutions. Everybody needs to understand—I don’t care who it is, that is receiving this message—if you live in a democracy I got news for you: It is work. It is work, and it’s a lot of work, and particularly if your democracy is all wrong like most of our democracies. We need to recreate new systems. We’ve been fed these constant lies about that there are no alternatives. But they’re everywhere. We just need to find likeminded people, and they’re everywhere, too. We’re not alone. 

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