Entries in samara (3)


Interview: Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Part Two)

This is the second part of my interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir. We got to talking in a bit more detail about her views on freedom of information, transparency, WikiLeaks, and the evolution of media and the internet. She was in town last week to speak to Samara, and shortly before she arrived she received word that she was the target of a US government subpoena, which was trying to get Twitter to provide information about her account.

Q: What is the connection between your general sense that the “system” is broken, and your more specific interest in freedom of information, transparency, and so on? Is the “transparency agenda” that you are interested in a way of fixing government, or is it just something that you think needs to be done because it is in the broader public interest?

A: The latter.

I don’t think that you can “fix government,” you need to fix the entire system. On the bigger scale, when it comes to transparency issues, what I am calling for more than anything is for a dialogue on what should be transparent, what should not be transparent, why should it not, be transparent, or why should it be transparent.

Q: So you don’t consider yourself a transparency absolutist?

A: No. Because it is not my role. But I really feel, and one area where I am an absolutist, is that government should never, ever, decide what to filter out for me, or for you.

Q: So you are an absolutist to the extent that a government should not have secrets?

A: No, that’s not what I am saying. I am talking about lists that governments make of websites that should not be accessible. I am asolutely against that. When it comes to government and secrets, this is interesting because I have participated in sensitive projects like negotiations over IMMI. And if we leaked or published online the drafts, it would have defied the purpose of transparency, because the unfinished draft might have created a lot of fear or misunderstanding and undercut the process.

But once the file is complete, it should be public. And if the question is why it should not be public, there should be a debate over why we need this type of document to be secret.  I want to be able to go to a KKK website and know what they think. It’s not going to go away if we take it away from the Internet.

As a lawmaker, I find it crazy to think “I don’t like this thing, it’s really disturbing, I’m going to make a law so no one can see it.” I try to analyze what is it, in Iceland, that should be absolutely secret. And I’m thinking, and thinking, and thinking… and I can’t think of anything! Because all of it is already available somewhere, and the way we have used the Internet since the early days, the earliest webpages, there has been this culture of cultivating fear of information.

Q: What is your general view, with WikiLeaks and now IMMI, of the function of media in a democratic society? Is it part of holding the government to account? Is WikiLeaks a new media outlet? Traditional investigative journalism has had, ideally, some sense of responsibility to the broader nation that it serves. But in the WikiLeaks era, you have information about all governments put out to everyone, so the connection between responsible government and responsible journalism has been severed. Do you see this as a problem?

Q: I see WikiLeaks as originally a sort of add-on, like a plugin that makes your web browser work better. What has confused people is that WikiLeaks has morphed. It began as a sort of button that would lead you to leaks or raw material to work with. And now it is more of an editor, deciding what cables will go out at what times. So it is less of an add-on to journalism and now it is like a cheap editor for a lot of media in a lot of countries.

So it has morphed, and I haven’t been a part of that process. Being a big fan of horizontalism and spread-out responsibilities, I want to turn the information pyramid on its head. I want to support the sites that are popping up that are more like the original WikiLeaks.

I’m not trying to downplay what WikiLeaks is doing with the big leaks, and there could be speculation for a hundred years as to what is the right way to do it. But I would like to see much, much more media with access to the cables, to put it into perspective. Because you have, say, a diplomat in China talking about, say Burma, and someone in the West writing on the same story. And if you only get the story about the cables from one place, you don’t get the three-dimensional picture.  I think the countries that can’t afford to be part of the WikiLeaks process right now should be given more access, the more poor countries the better. But I don’t know how they [WikiLeaks] are going to do it, I’ve been trying to encourage them…

I think we are in the middle of a massive change when it comes to journalism. The consumption of traditional media is getting less and less everyday, and they haven’t figured out how to make money off the internet. So I see the media as in a really fragile state.

In the early days of the internet, it felt like the wild west. You were sort of finding new territory, shaping it, and now it is the second big wave, with the internet getting industrialized and corporatized. At the same time, there are a lot of fantastic qualities about globalization, and one of these is the internet. I would not be who I am if I had not stumbled on the internet in 1995, and it has shaped my life in incredible ways, especially as a poet.

When I started my adventures on the internet, I was giving up on being a poet. I was a political “peoples poet,” and that was very uncool at the time. I was being ignored everywhere and it felt very lonely. But I got online, started my website, and suddenly I was part of an international community of like-minded people, who were doing experiments with teleparties, where poets would have events in many different place.

What I want to emphasize is that we have to do everything we can to preserve the freedom of information online. We have to have a dialogue about this, and that is why I am happy the US government is going after my information, because it allows us to have a chance to talk about it.


Interview: Birgitta Jonsdottir (Part One)

Last week I had the chance to interview Birgitta Jónsdóttir. She is an Icelandic parliamentarian, a member of the political anti-party called The Movement, and a former spokesperson for Wikileaks. She came to Toronto at the invitation of Samara and talked about her work for the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a push to make Iceland  a haven for freedom of information.

I intended to ask Birgitta about Wikileaks and other such topical issues, but we got to talking about more abstract questions. Here's part one:

Q:  I was struck by your remark, at the beginning of your talk, when you mentioned that you were inspired to enter politics after reading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. Was that because of her general thesis, or was it because you had specific worries that Iceland was going to get “shock-doctrined” in the wake of the economic crisis?

A.  I had been on the forefront of fighting against the aluminum business in Iceland -- Alcoa and these other companies. Alcoa got to build a massive facility and was getting energy from the Iceland government four times cheaper than it was in Brazil. So I was concerned where Iceland was heading long before the economic collapse; I was concerned, and it was so annoying to be in the role of Cassandra.

I’d been reading books, including The Shock Doctrine, and I was very concerned when I heard the IMF was coming to Iceland. And I was concerned how the regulations were being chipped away when the banks were privatized…in 2007 we were ranked the most developed nation in the world. Where are we now? Third largest collapse in the world. 

It draws this incredible parallel, even if not as extreme, with what happened in Argentina. We have a complicated situation in Iceland with political extremism: the neo-conism from before the collapse, and the new extremism saying the only solution is to join the EU.  I am a member of the foreign affairs committee that has oversight over the application to the EU. I say we should tighten up our garden before trying to join another garden. 

Because we are such a young democracy, and so few in number, when I look at former colonies in Africa, the parallels between their independence and ours is striking. There was a guy who contacted me many years ago: I git this email in 1997 or so, and at the time I had one of the only personal web pages from Iceland.

There’s a strong belief in Iceland about the “hidden people” – these mythical creatures who live in the hills amongst the rocks. I talked about them on my website, and this guy contacts me and asks if I believe in them, and I say yes, and he sends me this remarkable letter. And he says he has been appointed to be the “spear” to lobby for American corporations to enter Iceland.

I couldn’t tell if this guy was real, but it turns out he had a high ranking authority in the California government, and he says that he had been visited by hidden persons, and they gave him a message saying he should stop doing what he was doing, and he was worried we would be exploited if American corporations discovered how vulnerable we are.

We are very vulnerable, we need help from the international community. Members of the environmental activist community were the first to see this in 2005, when we organized the first protests against the aluminum industry. That’s the first time I was classified as an environmental terrorist; the worst thing we did was to padlock some machinery, and someone climbed up a crane.

But we pushed the barriers a bit. Which is basically what WikiLeaks does; they are an activist organization that pushes the barriers of the norm, and others feel empowered to go further, in sort of an evolutionary process.

Q: As a parliamentarian, you clearly feel you can make a difference by working within the system. Is that because you think Iceland is small enough and has a flexible enough political culture that working within the system can make a difference?

A: Well, I wanted do an experiment which is why we founded this party that was defined as neither left nor right. We made a checklist of things we needed to achieve. If it is foreseeable that we can’t achieve these goals, we have to dissolve the party. We have max eight years. One of the things on the checklist is to sever the ties between then corporate and the political.

Q: Meaning, no corporate donations to political parties?

A: To have a severe limit to it, no large corporate donations. Some of them obviously try to go around it...

We, for example, would never accept large corporate donations. We are actually having difficulties raising money because we don’t want to have any members – nobody could be a member of The Movement. It makes it hard though, to organize volunteers. People wanted to pay to become members of the Movement, so we are looking into ways to solve that. So our idea is that if you want to be a member, you can also be a member of any other party as well. Because we don’t want to define ourselves as a party.

I wasn’t sure if it would make a difference, but the reason why we haven’t become like the others, and it has been successful, is that we have two fundamentally different aspects. First, you cannot run for us if you have been a politician, because we want to build a bridge between power and the people.

Second: We are very horizontal (inspired by Horizontalism, a book from Argentina). So we rotate leadership roles, only because you have to have an appointed party group chairman. If we have to do leadership stuff we throw dice… the key is, we don’t take it seriously, so we don’t become like them. We take the pledge to be the annoying fly in the tent, and don’t let anyone feel comfortable around us. We have a jar we have to pay money into if we sound like a politician.

The same with the media. The media hates us, because they love to have the leader of the party for interviews, and they are used to the same structure of power. … It is so critical to understand that there is nothing worthy to sacrifice for power.  So as long as we can keep those things integrated…

I was trying to figure out, everything’s still fucked up, what can the people ask for? They don’t want another government because it’s just the same parties. We have got little attention so people haven’t understood what we are about yet. Many voted for us as part of a protest, because they don’t trust the system.

What I realized is the system is the problem. We have this whole breed of people, most countries have been taken over by this breed called bureaucratic lawyers. They control everything; they work directly with lobbyists. Some of the law that has come up since the financial collapse was written by people from the banking sector. The ministries are filled with people who have got their job not because they are qualified, but because they have the right connections. Meanwhile you have qualified bureaucrats that never get any authority within the civil service.

I used to think I lived in a democracy, and I never thought that it would be so blatantly obvious to me that the system is basically controlled by lawyers. (laughs). And I thought, that’s no good.

The problem is that systems tend to defend their mistakes – as the US is doing right now with WikiLeaks. They look to every possible way to say they didn’t make a mistake. And so we need to do like the Argentinians did, and protest the model of the system. I’ve talked to people from all over the world and there is the same level of distrust in the system, and that we don’t have the tools to change it.

That’s why I think it is important in Iceland, the development of national referendums. If people can call for a referendum, with passion, that they should have the right to have a referendum on issues that are important to the entire nation, then being an active citizen becomes more of the norm, and people will have to educate themselves about the issues.


Politics and Authenticity Week (Win a copy of AH!)

My friends at Samara have been running a "guess who said this" contest this summer, using quotations from the exit interviews they did with former Canadian members of parliament. The prizes are usually classic books in Canadian politics, but this week they're offering a copy of the Authenticity Hoax to the winner. You don't have to be Canadian to enter, though it probably helps. Here's the quote:

In keeping with the theme of the book, this week’s quote comes from a former House Leader, reflecting on one of the less enjoyable elements of his 13 years in politics:

“My favourite saying is that 'I don’t like politicians.' And I don’t think I ever did enjoy politicians’ company. I still don’t that much. Some I do, but a lot I don’t.”

To enter, follow this link.