Internet threat to press freedom


As media organisations migrate online, a combination of falling revenues and legal challenges is putting pressure on the activities of journalists, writes ADAM MAGUIRE

GOVERNMENTS need to recognise the intrinsic link between internet and press freedoms as news media makes a rapid transition to online, according campaigner and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir.

Speaking at the Internet Freedom conference, hosted in Dublin this week by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Jónsdóttir said legislators had a role in supporting the press, which has been weakened by commercial and legal pressures.

“They still see internet and press freedom as two separate matters and it’s slightly worrying because almost all media is . . . moving onto the internet at a fast pace,” she told The Irish Times during an interval in the conference.

Jónsdóttir said the media is also more vulnerable online, as companies are making less money there and are also having to deal with international jurisdictions and the greater potential legal pressure that comes from that.

She said there are legal teams around the world that specialise in out-of-court settlements and it was unfortunate to think that many media outlets now had more lawyers than investigative journalists.

“Thus the compromising and self-censorship is even stronger online than it is offline, so you need to have stronger protections, or at least the same protections and legal framework for the media to operate as middlemen between the public and complex information,” she said.

Jónsdóttir has become one of the more notable international campaigners for press freedom through her advocacy for and work with Wikileaks, which included her helping to produce the organisation’s infamous “Collateral Murder” video.

The video showed footage of a US air strike in Iraq in which numerous unarmed civilians, including two Reuters war correspondents, were killed.

Her time as a spokesperson for Wikileaks has brought Jónsdóttir to the attention of the US Justice Department, which last year went as far as to subpoena her tweets as part of an investigation into the website and Julian Assange.

Jónsdóttir – who is an artist, writer and poet in addition to be an activist – won a seat in the Icelandic parliament in 2009 in elections that followed the country’s economic collapse and has used that platform to continue her campaign on internet and press freedom.

She was speaking in Dublin as part of her involvement in the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), which has developed a list of proposals it says are necessary to allow the press to function properly in the modern world.

These include the likes of source protection rights, protection for whistleblowers, improved freedom of information access and a prohibition of “libel tourism”, where cases relating to online material are pursued in jurisdictions with libel laws deemed most favourable to the prosecution.

To help counter this trend, Jónsdóttir has been at the centre of a push to make Iceland adopt a set of standards that she believes would turn it into a haven for press freedom internationally.

The goal is to make Iceland the opposite of what a libel tourist seeks, setting an international standard around press law in the process.

In order to achieve this, the IMMI has gathered together what it deems to be the best – and most practical – laws from around the world, similar to what a tax haven would do.

“We have to specifically create laws that address the different reality of the online media and the different reality of verifying information and protecting sources,” she said.

“It is very easy to track sources online if you don’t have proper protection, for example. Wikileaks did have proper protection and that was a very well thought-out part of the organisation from the start.”

Jónsdóttir said it was also important the media avoided what she described as “modern- day book burnings”, where an online article is changed – perhaps because of an out-of-court settlement – but the reader is not made aware of this fact.

“When it’s changed, it’s like you burn a page from a book in every library in the world and it is the altering of our current historical records that make us draw conclusions into the next step of our future that is extremely troubling to me,” she said.

What is needed at a legislative level is a complete rethinking of the way people communicate, Jónsdóttir said, though she accepted that such an overhaul ran the risk of creating new, unforeseen problems.

She said what was needed to avoid this was to create a law that was as simple as possible, with the “spirit“ and context in which it is drafted held up as its most important aspect.

“I’m really sick of people who are always trying to cheat on the spirit of the law by looking into the legal lettering like it’s the Bible,” she said.

Jónsdóttir said she was also troubled by the realisation – which was confirmed to her when she became an MP – that politicians do not write the laws they vote on. She said greater transparency on this process would help to change this and allow people to know who was responsible for legislative wording.

She said an increasing number of people in Iceland are beginning to see her point of view on the importance of more suitable press legislation and how it would affect their lives.

However, she said international progress has been considerably slower as many governments remain unaware of its importance.

Challenges aside, Jónsdóttir was also optimistic about the benefits potentially available to journalists as the industry moves online and – as she hopes – information becomes more accessible.

“My dream is that journalists would collaborate more on international stories,” she said. “That was an experiment that Wikileaks did that was, for a while, actually quite successful and saw all these large media outlets and many small ones working together.

“We had all the knowledge and expertise working around these vast quantities of information that were made available.”


REGULATION OF the internet – and technology in general – could restrict activities that are currently a part of people’s everyday lives, according to author, blogger and copyright activist Cory Doctorow.

Speaking at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Internet Freedom conference in Dublin, Doctorow said the regulation debate was about more than copyright and impacted upon areas such as the ability of users to communicate and access educational material freely.

“Every day the number of people for whom the internet is critical for the way they live their lives goes up, so every day the stakes go up,” he said.

“My grandparents are not what you would call ‘techie’, but when they learn that the only way they can see their great-granddaughter for 11 months and two weeks of the year is through Skype, all of a sudden internet policy had an intimate connection to the way they live their lives.”

Doctorow, who has long campaigned for a more modern and liberal copyright law, said the online campaign against proposed internet regulation acts in the US, namely SOPA and PIPA, made him optimistic that normal users could work together to push for a workable solution.

He said the concerns expressed around this kind of legislation generally had nothing to do with people wanting things for free but instead centred around personal liberty.

“The reason people care about these issues is that some are proposing roving – wireless wiretaps to ensure you are not in breach of copyright law,” he said.

“[It's about] the potential exposure of everything in your life and potential curtailment of everything you do.”

Doctorow was also critical of groups within the entertainment industry, who he said were becoming nastier in their attacks as they engage in what many consider to be a fight for survival.

He said the blocking of certain websites or programmes proposed by them did not remove the target but simply stopped people from seeing it, making it tantamount to censorship.

He also rejected the suggestion that legislators were not properly equipped to create laws for such complicated matters.

He said politicians did not require an expertise in architecture to develop a building code and computing was much the same.

“Politicians just have bad heuristics because we’ve never had something that was both complicated and general purpose in our society before, and so the framework on which we regulate technology is nonsensical when applied to computers and the internet, he said.

Adam Maguire

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