The woman behind WikiLeaks

by David Skok, Global News: Friday, January 14, 2011

Birgitta Jonsdottir is the living embodiment of Herman Melville’s belief that “the eyes are the gateway to the soul.”

Birgitta Jonsdottir

Birgitta Jonsdottir
Photo Credit: Peter J. Thompson / National Post, Peter J. Thompson / National Post
One look into her piercing blue eyes is all it takes to know this Icelandic politician and self-described internet pioneer is more than her slight, 43-year-old frame suggests.

As one of the key members of WikiLeaks, Jonsdottir has been at the epicentre of a phenomenon that has dominated headlines en route to reshaping how we think about privacy, information, diplomacy and politics.

Jonsdottir was in Toronto this week to deliver the first Samara/Massey Hall lecture of 2011, an inititative sponsored by Samara, an organization founded by former Alliance Atlantis head Michael MacMillan aimed at strengthening democracy.’s managing editor, David Skok, talked with the MP about her life, how WikiLeaks has changed it, and how she plans to change the world.

Political Life

Jonsdottir was not exactly a political neophyte when she decided to run for office in 2008. She had been an inventive opponent of the Iraq war, and had organized protests against the Chinese over their Tibet policies in advance of the 2008 Summer Games.

But formal politics was indeed new to the single mother when she decided to run for office, a decision she made just two weeks before Iceland’s federal election in the tense climate surrounding the 2008 banking collapse.

The island nation’s financial crisis was nothing short of catastrophic. As author Michael Lewis described it in Vanity Fair, “Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, “Well, at least we didn’t do that.”

In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850 per cent of their gross domestic product. As one of Iceland’s major banks headed towards the abyss, it attempted to block the media from disclosing its weak position before it eventually collapsed.

“Where does it say in our constitution that banks should be secret?” Jonsdottir asked. “It’s something they came up with themselves.”

The economic collapse and the secrecy surrounding it had, to Jonsdottir, the whiff of corruption, and she came to the realization the only way to fight corruption is from the inside. Meaning running for office.

“I had no idea (I was going to be elected),” she said. “I really like to jump in the pool and see if I’ll sink or swim.”

The Collateral Murder Video

Despite her long history of activism and her more recent advocacy work for information freedom, Jonsdottir is perhaps best known for her producing credit in the WikiLeaks video, “Collateral Murder.”The harrowing video shows a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 repeatedly firing on a group of men that included a Reuters photographer and his driver — and then on a van that stopped to rescue one of the wounded.

Jonsdottir was first shown the video by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on a laptop in a Reykjavík coffee shop.

“When I saw the video I was extremely moved to tears and I was angered by such a breach of the Geneva Convention,” she recalled. “I felt we needed this to not be another WikiLeaks leak that would not get worldwide attention. Introducing it (the video) with a press conference was necessary.”

That video, first released to Icelandic State Television in the spring of 2010, made WikiLeaks and Assange household names.

“Collateral Murder,” was the first of a mountain of documents leaked to the whistle-blowing site. American authorities allege the person behind those leaks is Bradley Manning, a United States Army private who was charged last July with the unauthorized disclosure of U.S. classified information. He is being held in solitary confinement in the U.S. and is expected to face a court-martial later this year.

Jonsdottir says she has never met Manning but is an outspoken and active supporter of his. “In my opinion, it is not a crime to report a war crime,” she said. “You are not a traitor if you do report a crime you witnessed.”

Julian Assange

By the summer of 2010, Jonsdottir’s relationship with the public face of Wikileaks — its founder, Julian Assange — had become strained.

“We just had different priorities,” she said. “My priority was to try and have a meeting with all the main activists on how to expand Wikileaks, because it was growing rapidly and needed better structures.”

It was Assange and his former Wikileaks partner, Daniel Schmitt, who first inspired her to create the legislation that would become the Modern Media Initiative, a framework aimed at creating a free-information haven in Iceland.

But Jonsdottir felt she was misled when the massive Afghanistan war logs were released with many names in the leaked documents not redacted to protect their identity.

“I was upset because most of us who had been involved thought it had been done,” she said. “I feel that all sources deserve the same treatment.”

Jonsdottir said the final straw came last August when, after facing criticism from Amnesty International about the identification of sources, Assange offered the terse and threatening public response:

“I’m very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses.”

She recalled that “at that stage I said I cannot support you any longer and I left.” The two have not spoken since last October.

Despite not being on speaking terms, she still holds Assange in high regard. Jonsdottir the activist can’t help but admire the activism of Assange.

“Despite all the differences I have with Julian Assange and his style of organizing, Wikileaks is something that obviously comes from him. It is his heart and soul.

“He has pushed the dialogue about freedom of information further than any other person and he has changed the way we see our world. It might be right, it might be wrong but he has still been an incredible catalyst and I respect him for that.”

Twitter Subpoena

Last week, Jonsdottir was informed by Twitter that the micro-blogging social media tool had received a subpoena from the U.S. government demanding Twitter hand over her personal information.

Fittingly, she broke the news that she was being targeted by U.S. officials via a tweet: “USA government wants to know about all my tweets and more since November 1st 2009.”

Jonsdottir said her support for Manning and her relationship with Assange were the catalysts for the subpoena.

“They are trying to build a case against Julian Assange and Bradley Manning and they’re trying to use my information to do that. I didn’t know he (Manning) existed.”

She said she will fight the subpoena. “It’s about the principle. Is it OK to put me under investigation? Is it OK to criminalize whistle blowing?”

And while she said she’s not afraid of the investigation and won’t be cowed into inaction, Jonsdottir won’t be entering the United States anytime soon, on the advice of Iceland’s foreign ministry. Her trip to Canada had to avoid a landing in New York – typically the easiest route to Toronto.

The Wikileaks Effect

At the centre of the debate around Wikileaks and its high-profile activities is this question: does Wikileaks actually strengthen democracy, as supporters argue, or ultimately does it hinder freedom of expression through its unintended consequences?

One of those consequences can be the shuttering of once-open societies. Since there have been very few leaks from closed societies like North Korea or China, maybe the more open states will further clamp down information access to prevent further leaks.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Jonsdottir said, “and I hope that is not going to be the case.”

She said there are people who have been affiliated with Wikileaks who have worked very hard to open up information from China, but because of security concerns these attempts have not been in the public eye.

Besides, Jonsdottir said, Wikileaks is more about waiting for leaks to come to them, rather than seeking out leaks or potential leakers.

“If there is a similar leak coming out of China it would be published, but we are not getting the leak.

WikiLeaks and Journalism, along with many other news outlets and individual journalists, have been wrestling with both the editorial and ethical issues posed by Wikileaks since the site entered the world stage. Do those within the organization view it as a form of journalism?

“It’s a grey zone,” said Jonsdottir. “The original function of Wikileaks was to be the middle man: the handover of the envelope.” Which wouldn’t have qualified the site as journalism, but recently that has changed. “In the last year or so it’s been moving more into the form of journalism by some sort of editorial process in the leaks.”

And with that enhanced role, Jonsdottir said, the site deserves to be covered by traditional freedom-of-press protections.

The Modern Media Initiative

The main focus of Jonsdottir’s work today in the Icelandic Parliament is her particular focus on the Modern Media Initiative.

Described as the media equivalent of a tax haven, she envisions a set of laws and protections as the first step in the transformation of politics.

“People are fed up with secrecy and welcome a transparent process.”

She sees Wikileaks as just the first ‘leak’ site to take advantage of Iceland’s media freedom.

“I’m encouraging others to set up sites that focus on specific issues: ‘GreenLeaks’ focusing on environment issues, ‘Pharmaleaks’ focusing on pharmaceutical and drug company issues, ‘BankoLeaks’ focusing on banking and finance issues.”

Despite the potential boon this could create for source-hungry journalists, Jonsdottir said the main opposition to her initiative has come from journalists themselves.

Attempts to get journalism groups involved in drafting the law have been met with indifference, she said. People in the news industry, she noted, are so pre-occupied with internal issues like wages, benefits, and working conditions that they don’t see access to information as their biggest future obstacle.

She sees a direct line between openness of information and the level of democracy around the world.

“Being an advocate for freedom of information is trying to put a shield around the pillars of democracy,” Jonsdottir said, “and I would like to live in a democratic environment if it’s real.”

(To watch video of the full interview click here).



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