Read my latest article about press freedom in Iceland published in the Fall/Winter 2012 Grassroots Editor, a quarterly journal of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE). Click on this link and scroll to page 27.
Two Years Old: IMMI Inches Through Icelandic Parliament, by Jennifer Karchmer, The Reykjavik Grapevine, July 6, 2012
I worked with the editor of The Reykjavik Grapevine (Iceland) to publish this comprehensive piece on Icelandic legislation that could have worldwide effects on press freedoms.
Click the image below to open the article in a new window.
This is part I in a series on freedom of the press. Read the next Fairhaven Free Press for an update.
As the Washington State Bureau Correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, a volunteer position I took on in 2010, I monitor freedom of the press issues, helping to protect the rights of journalists. My role is to keep an eye on censorship in Washington state and report my findings to the RWB-USA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
I advocate for my fellow journalists and bring awareness to First Amendment rights in the US. RWB, an international nonprofit organization with headquarters in Paris (known as Reporters Sans Frontières), works to improve the safety of journalists and to help defend those who have been imprisoned or persecuted for doing their jobs. RWB was started in France in 1985 with the intent to expose the mistreatment of reporters and to fight censorship and behaviors that undermine press freedom.
Today, RWB protects not only press freedom and journalists but also the right to inform and be informed. So whether you make your living as a professional journalist or you’re a citizen who uses the Internet to find movie listings, RWB is working in your best interests to protect the free flow of information.
To better understand press freedom in my home country, I began researching the concept of press freedom outside the U.S. and came across IMMI, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a proposed law in Iceland that could have implications around the globe.
Earlier this year, Western Senior Instructor and journalist Jennifer Karchmer was living in capital city Reykjavik, Iceland, which had record amounts of snowfall this season.
Basically, the idea behind IMMI (say “im-mee”) is to preserve and strengthen press freedoms worldwide. The proposal, introduced in 2010, would bring together some of the strongest media protections and free speech laws from other countries to create a progressive protection for journalists internationally.
The concept is explained in a short video on the IMMI website: immi.is/Home (runtime: 3:44). For more, an AP story posted on the WikiLeaks website sheds light on the issue as well: “Iceland court lifts gag order after public outrage,” by Herdis Sigurgisdottir, Aug. 4, 2009.
Apparently, Iceland is looking to position itself as a safe haven for journalists worldwide,
The overall topic has received coverage in the press, but my focus is the behind-the-scenes look at how news actually plays out.
Paying particular attention to how IMMI may have been sparked, I inquire: How was the news staff initially informed of the injunction? How did the decision-making process in the newsroom play out with just 5 minutes before airtime? What tools did the editors rely on to help them come to their decisions? How does the public perceive the journalism profession amid this transparency into the news cycle?
Over the past decade, Iceland has consistently ranked high (top ten) on the RWB Freedom of the Press Index. This measure of press freedom, first published in 2002, put Iceland in the top spot eight times (often tied with Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark). In 2009, Iceland was ranked 9th and then in 2010 moved back up to the top spot in a tie with several other countries—this time along with the inclusion of Sweden and Ireland. (For index results per year, click here and scroll down to the “Press Freedom Index” and “Choose a Year” drop down box.)
Another widely-cited press index, Freedom House also listed Iceland as “Free” in its 2010 Map of Press Freedom, noting “despite enduring problems associated with the global financial crisis of late 2008, the Icelandic press is still among the freest in the world.”
This leads to two research questions:
Meantime, despite these press freedom kudos, there are instances of practical compromises. In a few cases, an Icelandic journalist has been punished for what seems to be ethical, accurate and professional reporting. See the following stories:
“Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it”
In addition to publishing its press freedom index, RWB put out last December this list ofthe ten most dangerous places for journalists. Among the locations: Homs, Syria, where French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed Jan. 11; Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt; Veracruz state in Mexico; and the Khuzdar district of Pakistan.
Thankfully, as an American journalist who has worked for 20 years in the United States reporting for both MSM (mainstream media) outlets and small independent community newspapers, I have operated comparatively unrestricted and free of physical threats or attacks because of the words I print or say. However, censorship in the U.S. comes in a different form, more subtle as corporate influence is the foundation of much of the media messages we receive and digest. You can learn more at the Ithaca College Park Center for Independent Media. (Disclosure: Ithaca College is my alma mater.)
RWB’s slogan “Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it” rings true as I acknowledge and appreciate the relative liberty I enjoy as my fellow journos in Cuba, Mexico, Pakistan and China, among other countries, work and live in repressive states—in some cases requiring reporters to have special training on how to persevere in their profession amid threats.
With freedom comes responsibility
As I continue my research into this enduring topic with in-person interviews on the ground in Reykjavik, Iceland, you won’t see me posting blips to Twitter or feeds on Facebook. Those may be fine tools for the breaking news reporter, but I prefer presenting news in a comprehensive and exacting fashion, work that goes way beyond a 30-second sound bite, 500-word brief or 140-character tweet. One of the most important tools we journalists have lost in this media landscape so very controlled by corporations and conglomerates istime—to immerse and reflect.
Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist who monitors and reports on freedom of the press worldwide. She is also a Senior Instructor in the Dept. of Communication at WWU. Read more at www.jenniferkarchmer.com
Journalist and former Whatcom Watch Editor Jennifer Karchmer is a volunteer correspondent with Reporters Without Borders-USA. She is living in Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik for six weeks talking with radio, TV, newspaper and web-based reporters on an independent research project studying the news profession and freedom of the press. Jennifer will return for the spring term at Western Washington University where she is a Senior Instructor in the Dept. of Communication.
Iceland (population 320,000) has been ranked at the top of the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index over the past decade. Karchmer has interviewed veteran newsman Bogi Ágústsson, considered the ‘Walter Cronkite’ of Icelandic news; reporters at the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið; and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Icelandic parliament who co-sponsored the Icelandic Modern Media Imitative (IMMI), a proposal that would strengthen press freedohhaks “Collateral Murder” video with Julian Assange.
In addition to reporting, Karchmer gave a lecture, “How US Media Consolidation Has Affected the News Industry” to graduate students at the University of Iceland on Feb. 7. She plans to publish reports in the English-language newspaper, The Reykjavik Grapevine, among other publications. You can learn more at www.jenniferkarchmer.com.
Following is an informal piece she shared with Editor David Camp on Feb. 6 via email.
Here’s what I’m learning so far. RWB ranked Iceland #6 on its Press Freedom index for 2012. This is down from #1 where Iceland ranked for about 10 years (along with Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and some others). Icelandic journalists are “worried” about the state of their profession. Similar to the situation for journalism in the USA, budget cuts have meant layoffs in the newsroom, veteran journalists leaving the profession and young, newbie inexperienced students coming into the newsrooms. They’re wide-eyed and well trained. However, losing the veterans means losing the very watchdogs who have spend the time covering government. Since the financial crash here (2008) (known as “hrunið”), the country is feeling frustrated with government, politicians, and media, blaming the media in some ways for not giving the whole story of what has been going on with the banks.
The theme now is transparency, or lack thereof, in reporting stories. Journalists I spoke with admit that overall they enjoy and appreciate a relatively “high” level of press freedom (no death threats, car bombs, imprisonment...). Yet interference comes in more subtle forms of censorship, such as libel cases filed directly against journalists, who are then saddled with monetary fines and the hassle of court proceedings.
Also, journalists say that press protections are different for print versus broadcast journalists. Print journalism protections are becoming more and more outdated as the Internet becomes a more prevalent form of communication.
The other big theme is cronyism/nepotism: family members doing favors for others and getting them into places of power due to their connections versus qualifications. With a country of this (small) size, it has been a way of life. In some cases this has been positive and beneficial. But now with the financial crisis, people are waking up to the negative ramifications of this chumminess.
Transparency and Accessibility
Nepotism is a term I regularly hear people use openly. In fact, the financial crisis is talked about openly, regularly in the news, even the tourist publications. There’s no hiding the situation. People are pissed off, and despite some new parties in government (national and city level) some say they don’t see much changing. Maybe you’ve heard the City of Reykjavik Mayor is Jón Gnarr, a comedian/actor, kind of a Stephen Colbert who actually got elected. He won as part of the “Best Party.” You can “Google” his name or under YouTube see his party’s spoof on Tina Turner’s song, Simply the BEST! It’s very funny. I’ve seen him several times walking down the street and at a coffee shop.
Yes, politicians are easy to get an appointment with. No going through a PR spokesperson and security. In fact, you ask someone at a store and they most likely know, or are related to, the person and can get you in touch. Or, you just look them up in the local phone book, by first name, and reach them. Journalists say that politicians are accessible and get back to them in a pretty timely fashion.
Financial Crash from 2008
Just walking down the streets in the heart of Reykjavik, you see lovely clothing stores, cafes, restaurants, tourist stores selling stuffed animals (puffins), key chains, Icelandic sweaters. The city is lovely, especially when snowing. Lots of music venues, very artistic scene. If you’re a 20-something and like to drink on the weekends, you’re in the right place. Because alcohol in the bars is expensive, people go to happy hour (cheaper), go home for a bite to eat, have more drinks at home, then go out at midnight. Things just get started at 1 a.m. (So I hear!...lol).
I see tourists in the restaurants even during wintertime, the heart of the off-season. Thankfully, no Starbucks on every corner. In fact, all of downtown is filled with unique, one-of-a-kind Icelandic places and stores. In the outskirts though you will see a Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominos. In fact, McDonalds was here for several years but eventually pulled out. Apparently, from what I hear, Icelanders liked the Mickey Ds… it was a financial decision by the franchise to exit due to the cost of importing all of the raw materials.
I’ve heard at least a few people say that they are starting to see effects of access to fast food, an obesity situation, although not as bad as we’re having in USA. It’s the younger generation glued to the computer and prevalence of the junk food on every corner. In that way, the country is much like US, with lots of American influence in terms of music, movies. US had a military base presence from WWII up until 2006 when they closed the base in Keflavik (location of the international airport, fifty miles southwest of Reykjavik).
There are homeless, folks who live in poverty and people who have left for Norway because they’ve lost their jobs, homes, and/or cars after the crash. You just don’t see that on the street level. Not one panhandler or person who “seems” homeless. Not like walking down Railroad Ave. in Bellingham. With such a small community of people, there is a pride, you don’t show your face if you’re in that predicament. There are social services, and the Red Cross has ramped up its services especially post crash. So again, that’s reality but just not evident as you walk down the main streets. Also, some other folks with decent jobs say they have food on the table and things are generally fine, but items are just more expensive, such as groceries. In one anecdote, an acquaintance said that instead of taking that annual trip abroad (Oslo, London), they’re not doing that as much. Still, Iceland enjoys a relatively high standard of living, good access to healthcare and education.
These are prevalent and scattered all over the country with several around the city. In fact, I’ve made it a routine to hit the pool once a day. There is a big swimming pool where you do laps, then a smaller, wading area where you can just hang out or for kiddies (shallow), then hot pots (what they call hot tubs) in increasingly hotter temps for soaking. Basically you just keep bopping from the pool, to the hot pots, then into the steam room. By the time you get out of there, your body welcomes the freezing temps. It’s pretty amazing to be doing laps with steam coming off the water and it’s snowing outside. Even funnier is in the afternoon when kids have swim lessons, you see the coaches on the pool deck outfitted in huge snowsuits and warm hats and mittens calling out strokes (in Icelandic).
Most everyone speaks English, very good English in fact. In school, kids start learning formally around age 10, but they are exposed so much earlier than that through movies, video games, TV, products, printed instructions for appliances, etc. In the past, the compulsory languages were Icelandic (native language) and Danish as a foreign language (Iceland became independent from Denmark in 1944). In just the past few years I think, English has become the mandatory foreign language over Danish. Many Icelanders readily say that Icelandic is a difficult language for visitors and I agree. “Tak” is thanks and “bless bless” is bye bye.
It’s similar to Bellingham – variable minute to minute. I arrived amid snowstorms, blowing, blizzard conditions my first two weeks. Apparently, the country experienced the most snowfall in about 30 years. Now the temperatures have warmed up into the mid 30s (F) and we’ve had lots of rain. Icelanders are sick of winter and ready for springtime so I’m familiar with that sentiment. We’re coming out of the dark days. In wintertime, the sun officially rises at like 10:30a, so often I leave my room and it’s pitch dark (9a). Sun goes down 4:30p or so.
That’s all for now. I’ll have a full report when I return. Bless bless.
After I submitted this story to The Reykjavik Grapevine, an English language newspaper in Iceland, this is the dialogue that followed once the story was posted to Facebook with the header: "Does this ring true?"
Iceland is among the top countries that apparently respects freedom of the press, according to Reporters Without Borders press freedom index published today (see map below).
In fact, over the past decade, Iceland has consistently ranked high (top ten) on the RWB Freedom of the Press Index, a measurement tool published since 2002. The index has placed Iceland in the top spot eight times (often tied with Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark). In 2009, Iceland moved down to ninth and then in 2010, moved back up to number one in a tie with several other countries – this time along with the inclusion of Sweden and Ireland.
Despite the slight up and down shifts, Iceland has consistently been among those countries that report a high degree of freedom for journalists and news media.
From today’s RWB press release: “This year’s index finds the same group of countries at its head, countries such as Finland, Norway and Netherlands that respect basic freedoms. This serves as a reminder that media independence can only be maintained in strong democracies and that democracy needs media freedom.”
At the other end of the index, RWB ranked the following: Eritrea (179), N. Korea (178), Turkmenistan (177), Syria (176) and Iran (175).
Here’s an explanation of how RWB compiles its rankings: <http://en.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/how_the_2011-2012_index_was_compiled.pdf>
As I embarked on my six-week reporting assignment in Iceland, many of you asked:
why would an American journalist venture to Reykjavik to study freedom of the press?
A brief explanation...
Press freedom: what does it mean exactly?
As the Washington State Bureau Correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, a volunteer position I took on in 2010, I monitor freedom of the press issues, helping to protect the rights of journalists. My role is to keep an eye on censorship in Washington state and report my findings to the RWB-USA headquarters in Wash., DC.
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'Don't wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it.' - Reporters Without Borders