Iceland intends to become a bastion for global press freedom under a package of laws proposed by opposition MPs to defend freedom of speech, protect sources and fight libel tourism. With the help of Wikileaks, the online whistleblowing site, the MPs have launched the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, with the goal of turning the country into a global haven for investigative journalism.

The proposal, which has widespread backing among Iceland’s 51 MPs, is scheduled to come before the Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament, next Tuesday (February 16).

“It is a good project for political change,” said Robert Marshall, of the ruling Social Democratic Alliance party. “We’ve been through a difficult period and this is an initiative that can unite the whole political scene.” As a former journalist, Mr. Marshall is keen on the creation of the Icelandic Prize for Freedom of Expression.

A haven for free expression would, he said, help counter the growing practice of libel tourism. British courts in particular have become a favoured destination for complainants seeking to take advantage of the U.K.’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws. The House of Lords, the Upper House and highest court of law, recently established a government panel to look into the possibility of amending legislation to make it tougher for foreigners to bring defamation suits in Britain, amid fears that current British law was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

With a population of 320,000, Iceland’s ambition to transform itself from a country heavily dependent on fishing into a financial powerhouse went up in smoke after the 2008 credit crunch. The failure of Landsbanki and the bailout of its online savings bank, Icesave, left Icelanders picking up the tab after the government had to find funds to repay creditors in Britain and the Netherlands.

The new legislation has won support from Wikileaks’ co-founders, Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt. The pair reportedly went to Iceland in early December to discuss their idea for a publishing haven.

Mr. Assange wrote in an E-mail from Iceland last week about advising on a cross-party proposal — “a jurisdiction designed to attract organisations into publishing online from Iceland, by adopting the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world”.

Mr. Assange said as Wikileaks editor he had fended off many legal attacks. “We’ve become good at it, and never lost a case, or a source, but we cannot expect everyone to go through the extraordinary efforts that we do. Large newspapers are routinely censored by legal costs. It is time this stopped. It is time a country said, enough is enough, justice must be seen, history must be preserved, and we will give shelter from the storm.”

Wikileaks, which publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive documents while attempting to protect the identity of whistleblowers, has currently suspended operations, other than the submission of material, because of financial problems. The website says it will resume once costs have been covered.

When, because of a super-injunction, the Guardian was prevented from publishing documents on the alleged dumping of 400 tonnes of toxic waste on behalf of the commodities trader Trafigura, the material ended up on Wikileaks days later. The site played a role in Iceland’s financial crisis when a TV broadcaster was blocked from revealing creditors in the banking debacle. The broadcaster ran the url for the Wikileaks disclosure instead. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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