On not going to Iceland

The issue of Index on Censorship’s potential legal liability as a publisher and advocacy group is currently in my in-tray, so my first thought on Iceland’s plan to convert itself into the free speech equivalent of an off-shore tax haven was to ask myself if the organisation’s work in either department would benefit from moving to Reykjavik.

That would really mean relocating everything, including separating from our current publishers and distributors (unless they moved to Iceland too) and breaking the link with our parent charity after nearly 40 years. As long as Index had a presence here we would be vulnerable to the UK courts’ jurisdiction, defeating the whole point of the exercise.

I can see how such an arrangement would protect anonymous sources, but our named contributors might be more exposed to legal action in our absence, hauled over the coals inside and outside the courts by plaintiffs seeking declarations of falsity or judgments in default. Meanwhile we’d be sitting in Iceland, abandoning them to their fates.

Investigative journalism based on leaks or targeting litigious types might benefit up to a point, but you do have to ask which serious media organisation would up-stakes from London or anywhere, so they could publish more freely in Iceland than they feel they can now. Even in the UK, home to high stakes libel tourism, the system’s worst features are being addressed, thanks not least to Index’s own joint campaign to that end.

It is true that as an organisation we have become more cautious about libel suits in recent years. We have been advised by lawyers to drop names of gangsters and corrupt politicos linked to the murder of journalists, even ones publicly identified and exposed at length elsewhere by US free speech groups and Russian journalists.

Some time ago we did look into moving Index the publisher to the US (to benefit from the US First Amendment rules), but keeping Index the charity in the UK as guardian of the Index principle (and doing a little academic & education work on the side). So some kind of concoction like that might work for us in Iceland.

And looking positively on the idea, Iceland’s use of best practice legislation will be a useful corrective to the European habit of going for the lowest common denominator on freedom of information, as it tends to when setting up region-wide rules on anything.  

However the defamed do have a right under English law to protect their reputation against falsehood. Asking a sympathetic court to block publication of the defamatory material in print and online may be presented as their only recourse.

On the back of that, I’d worry about the UK, EU or other states rushing through new laws new laws to build Chinese style great firewalls around countries, initially to block material that a court outside Iceland had found false and defamatory in the absence of the defendant.

The great unspoken sub-text of the Google deal was that the US State Department did not leap to Google’s defence when China fell on its throat. For it is just as much in the US’s interests as China’s to balkanize the internet – to create geographic areas of control over the web – for a host of reasons, ranging from copyright protection to national security.

Sure the technically literate could circumvent the walls to access dissident web samizdat, but that would hardly help a mass media operation or an international advocacy group.

So who else would go into Iceland with their data, if not mainstream media or organisations like Index that would need a presence outside Reykjavik and staff directly engaged with the outside world?

There’s a lot of nastiness you could publish with that kind of freedom from accountability and regulation. You wonder if it won’t just be dominated by neo-Nazi holocaust denialism and hardcore paedophilia?

I’d also worry about the space being used to host the darker kind of Psyops material or deliberate state disinformation fabricated to attack critics. We’re seeing a lot more of that these days. Also the whole pot would be overseen by a probably overworked Icelandic media regulator, which does not inspire confidence, given the record of its banking regulators.

The worst thing that might happen is this: the kind of essential truth-telling that Wikileaks facilitates, sitting in a giant pot of pornography, slander and fabricated material about Jessica Simpson’s sexual preferences. The whole world would quickly dismiss the lot in one, as supermarket tabloid-type ‘made-up stuff from Iceland”.

We would be better served by keeping our attention  firmly focused on making English libel laws less repressive and, in particular, on supporting Anthony Lester’s defamation bill and Index on Censorship’s own campaign for libel law reform.

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