Panama Papers: Could Pirate Party Co-Founder Birgitta Jónsdóttir Become Iceland's Next PM?

April 06, 2016
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Birgitta Jonsdottir

co-founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party and member of the Icelandic Parliament.

Iceland’s Pirate Party has seen a surge of support following the publication of the Panama Papers, which led to the resignation of the country’s prime minister.

Leaked documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed that Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson owned an offshore company with his wife, which he failed to declare when he entered Parliament. He is accused of concealing millions of dollars’ worth of family assets. We speak to the group’s co-founder, former WikiLeaks volunteer Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who is now a member of the Icelandic Parliament.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Iceland’s prime minister resigned Tuesday, becoming the first major casualty of the Panama Papers revelations. Leaked documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed that Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson owned an offshore company with his wife, which he failed to declare when he entered Parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us is Birgitta Jónsdóttir. She is a member of the Icelandic Parliament, an official spokesperson of the Pirate Party, which has seen a surge of support following the publication of the Panama Papers. One poll has the Pirate Party at 43 percent. Who will be the next prime minister is yet to be known. She is joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland.

Can you relate what you’ve learned about the prime minister and his wife, what they’ve hidden, to what you represent in the Pirate Party, the planks that have grown so popular in these last, well, not just days, but weeks and months?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes. So, the Pirate Party is actually about exactly the reverse values that the traditional parties are representing that are in power now. So, our platform is about—well, I sort of describe it like we’re like the Robin Hood of power. We want to take away the power from the powerful and give it back to the people, which should be how democracy functions. In comparison, maybe—I’ve been following the U.S. politics a bit in the last few months and the campaigns for who is going to get to run for each of the two poles of your political spectrum. And the sense that—what I’ve seen from the Bernie Sanders campaign is where—how he is empowering the people that are part of his campaign is, in a sense, the same spirit that the Pirate Party is aiming for and has been working on. And that is, people have tremendous access to putting forward policies, access to us, the parliamentarians. We’re very much online. We are sort of like—I described, when I was on an interview with you just before last elections, and I didn’t—I had no idea if we would get a seat in the Parliament or not. We’re sort of a digital party, so to speak. We have very much focused on how we can make legislation more in the spirit of the 21st century when it comes to privacy, when it comes to access to information, when it comes to open governance, and, of course, direct democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, specifically with your prime minister, the revelations that came out in the last several days about him, could you summarize those?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, so, first of all, when he was seeking like to be leader of his party and was running for the—aiming to be the next prime minister, he failed to disclose to the general public and put it on the Parliament’s website that he was—you know, that he had this type of funds in that type of a haven. And it would never have been disclosed unless, you know, this leak would have been—was made public. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s in his wife’s name originally, which was disclosed in a special report. Him and his wife had equal ownership of this massive amount of funds, which she inherited from her father when he—was a part of her inheritance from her father, who owned a large car dealership in Iceland.

What is in particular disturbing about the prime minister’s conduct in this matter is that the day before new laws took effect in Iceland about how you declare and how tax havens are dealt with, because Iceland is a part of a sort of a campaign, international campaign, to stop tax havens being a part of a solution on how to get away from participating in paying tax in your own country. He signed—his sold his wife his share for one dollar the day before the laws took effect. And that, in itself, seems highly dubious. And then, he has actually been using his wife as a shield and saying that people that are criticizing him are attacking his wife. I actually think that this guy is in some sort of meltdown, because his behavior in the last few days has been so outrageous that it seems like we are stuck in a satire by Dario Fo, you know, in a complete theater of the absurd. And I’m just so deeply humiliated on behalf of my nation that this is what the outside world is looking at.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in addition to hiding his investments the way he did and failing to disclose them, didn’t he also—wasn’t he also involved in negotiating the—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —with the failed banks at the same time that his investments were owed money by those banks?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes, this is a—thank you for bringing up that point. This whole case is relatively complicated. But the most important point about this is that he, as a prime minister, has before—actually, before the elections, he said, "I am going to be going after these vultures, and I am going to be using a sledgehammer on these vultures to get, you know, the money from them, so that Iceland’s banks won’t be collaterals when they will start to, you know, demand to get their claims back when we lift the capital controls." Now, ironically, he has been negotiating, or at least he’s claiming he’s been negotiating, but he is the only minister that did not and was not demanded that he would sign a confidentiality paper about these negotiations. All everybody else that was involved had to do that, including parliamentarians that were a part of discussing how we would find solutions in doing it such a way that we would not just have all the foreign currency leak out of Iceland. So, he was actually on both ends of the table, because him and his wife had a claim—have a huge claim in one of the collapsed banks. So, that, in itself, is actually—might be a criminal conduct. But even if it’s not criminal, Icelandic people are really sick of this saying: "It is unethical, but legal." This was a trend before the collapse that, you know, those high-flying banking vikings used to use as their moral compass, which is actually something that Icelanders are just so fed up with that they’re willing to come out in masses and masses to show and demonstrate that enough is enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Birgitta Jónsdóttir, I wanted to ask you about the release of the Panama Papers, the significance of what Edward Snowden called "The biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption." He said, "The story behind the #PanamaPapers? Courage is contagious." Now, you know, this comes after Edward Snowden’s massive release, and Edward Snowden’s release comes after WikiLeaks. And, of course, you were deeply involved with that, particularly the release of what WikiLeaks called "Collateral Damage," that video of the military helicopter gunning down the group of Iraqis that included two Reuters journalists who were there investigating and filming the aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad. You were the subject—and this is going back a few years ago—of a closely watched legal case in which a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. government can continue to keep secret its efforts to obtain information from Twitter about you and two others connected to WikiLeaks. So, that was in 2013. They wanted your Twitter account. Talk about what came of that and the links you see here with this kind of digital release challenging of those in power.

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, thank you for asking about that. And I just want to mention one person that is the inspiration for everything that’s been happening, and that is Chelsea Manning. And I want to express my gratitude to her for her incredible courage that has certainly been contagious all over the world. And I just want to remind people about her. She’s going to be sitting for 30-something years in a military prison for actually transforming our world in what we expect from leaders and those that are elected to look after interests of nations.

My Twitter case was very interesting, because, you know, I was involved with WikiLeaks, and I was primarily working with them on looking at all the best laws in the world to create a comprehensive legal framework to enable stuff, what we’ve been witnessing, to enable investigative journalists to do their work, to encourage whistleblowers, to have access to information and to sort of legalize WikiLeaks. And I got it passed in the Parliament, the resolution of this kind, unanimously, and it is still being worked on. And as a matter of fact, we’re actually launching a campaign to raise awareness about this work that we’ve been doing. And I just found out that the webpage that’s been hosting these leaks is partly in Iceland, because of the work we’ve been doing in the legislative framework to protect IP hosts and so forth, so that they can have material online that might be flammable in some countries.

Now, my Twitter case is still sort of—it’s still unclear what’s happening with it. It has not been closed. I have, however—I did a test in 2013 to actually go to the United States and see what would happen, if I would be arrested or questioned. I was a member of Parliament at the time, and I of course did a lot of preparations before I went. I asked for a specific visa so that I could get an answer before I would go, if I would be stuck. I got the visa. I had the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Iceland. The State Department did speak both to the Department of Justice in the United States and the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, and I was given guarantees that I would not be harassed, which actually I was not harassed at all. And I’ve been able to go quite often to the United States after this. But my case is still pending in the sense that there are two other companies that were given the same demands to hand over metadata. And it’s never been disclosed what other two companies it was. I mean, it’s easy to suspect that it was perhaps Facebook and Google, but I have not been able to have that disclosed yet.

And, of course, these attacks on whistleblowers and those that are trying to provide information to the general public, information that should be in the public domain, is disturbing. And I have been saying to people—I was at the Munich Security Conference talking about cybersecurity, and I’ve been saying to people that don’t take the leaks by Snowden seriously, that say, "Oh, it doesn’t matter. We have nothing to hide," and so forth, and I ask them, "How would you feel if all this information, these billions of terabytes about the general public in the United States would be accessible to a President Donald Trump if he would ever become a president?" And people actually start to realize how serious it is, this collection of very sensitive data from the general public. So, my fight for awareness building about those issues is still very vibrant. And it’s very important to raise awareness about these issues, both at home and abroad, like Snowden asked us to do in his first interview.

AMY GOODMAN: You have Chelsea Manning, who is the U.S. soldier who served in Iraq, was convicted of releasing documents, saw information, particularly disturbed by the video, "Collateral Damage," when Reuters had applied for it over and over to see what happened to its employees, its reporters Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, how they died on the middle of July 2007, Chelsea Manning ultimately in prison for more than 30 years. You have Edward Snowden, who is in exile in Russia, wanting to come home. You have Julian Assange, who is in the Ecuadorean Embassy still, got political asylum from Ecuador but can’t step foot outside of the embassy for fear of being arrested by the British government and sent off to Sweden. Your thoughts on what it means to be one who deeply believes in the release of information and transparency, and what happens to those who do it?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, we have to carry on the work of awareness building in relation to the importance of whistleblowers. And, you know, I really want to thank the whistleblower who stepped forward or, you know, who provided the world with the Panama leaks, and encourage others who have similar information about all the other related financial white-collar crimes, because the white-collar crimes of the 1 percent of the world is one of the reasons why we’re dealing with such imbalance in our world, such incredible accumulation of wealth on the hands of few, while so many people are starving or sick and not getting proper care and so forth. So, thanks to every whistleblower that does the right thing.

I’m, of course, very worried about how whistleblowers have been treated, not only—they’re treated not only badly in the United States, but in many other countries. We just happen to have more access to information from what happens to the United States for some reason. I think it’s—and I’ve actually been working a lot in the international community of parliamentarians in relation to awareness building about the importance of international protections of whistleblowers. I was tasked by the International Parliamentary Union, who is a union of parliamentarians that’s been around since 1889, consists of 166 countries—unfortunately, the United States is not a part of it right now. But I was tasked to write a resolution inspired by Snowden’s first interview from Hong Kong, where he said, in order to be able to protect our privacy, we have to both fix our local and global laws and ensure a better awareness about encryptions and the need for that. And I wrote a resolution titled "Democracy in the Digital Era and the Threat to Privacy and Individual Freedom." It was unanimously adopted by these 166 countries. And in it, you have really good tools to set new standards for that type of legislation all over the world. And I will further my work on that, and if I will still be a parliamentarian, if nothing has changed in Iceland, I will be having a special side event to discuss how we can implement this resolution in Geneva in October. But things are kind of up in the air, so it’s difficult to plan, except one day at a time right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Birgitta Jónsdóttir, do you see a connection between the surging support for your party, the Pirate Party, that according to one poll may have as much as 43 percent support now, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain and Bernie Sanders here at home and his surging success as a Democratic presidential candidate?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, I do see some correlations in the sense that the—really, the unexpected people who are getting support, people that are—you know, don’t have like—at least we don’t have professional PR people to direct us through the heavy waters of politics. We just try to come to the door as we’re dressed and speak like human beings. None of us are professional politicians. But our speciality, I guess—and maybe that is also more reflected in the dialect from Bernie Sanders—is that we will need to change our systems, that it’s not enough just to make a regular shift in left-and-right politics. We really need to start to work on what we build our societies on.

And one of the things the Pirate Party in Iceland has discussed a lot and is very important for us is that, you know, in Iceland in the wake of the crisis, we had this unique process of where the nation actually wrote its own constitution for themselves. And it was a beautifully strong new social agreement reflected in the highest law, that would be our constitution. And, you know, doing that in such a crowdsourced way like we did was an incredibly healing process for the nation after this huge collapse. But once it had been put into a national referendum, the Parliament did not have the capacity, the political will, to finish it. So, we have been calling for that this new constitution would be honored as our highest law, and actually we’re willing to take huge risks in order to—you know, political risks, in order to create a new foundation for how we run this society. And I think it’s very important to do that.

I sense that this is the—this is the same dialogue all over the world. And we do not—we don’t—do not see ourselves as left or right in the traditional sense. We do not want the nanny state that is often the traditional leftist perspective in Scandinavia. But we want to empower people. We want to have a proper, true division of power. We want to have a modernized system of democracy where the general public can be engaged in co-creating the reality they live in. And I guess we are, in a sense, more like Podemos, but we are sort of unique, because—and I think that we might be able to learn a lot from the others, and they might be able to learn something from us. And that is the beauty of being in politics today, is that we are indeed a globalized world. And that is not only negative; it can also have positive aspects. I just was in a panel with Zizek last weekend, and there I met some people that had been working with Syriza, Syriza in Greece, and I got some insights on how I can learn both from their success and failures. And so that’s—that’s what we need to do for the future, is that we need to help facilitate a new way for the next generations to be the architects of all the new systems that need to be created. And we are indeed living at an incredible, transformative times, and it is exciting to be alive, because we get to shape the new systems.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Birgitta—

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: And that’s sort of—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: If you did become the prime minister of Iceland, what would be your first act in office?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: My first act in office would be to start to prepare for the new constitution to be implemented, to make sure that we have a national referendum, that was promised to the nation if we want to carry on with the EU bit, and then start to analyze how we can strengthen the Parliament, because the parliaments in our world are way too weak. I don’t like to see democracy where the parliament, the legislative platform, is just a processing machine for laws that nobody knows who writes. So I want stronger Parliament, strong foundation, and engage the general public to be a part of shaping our society for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: And how will it be decided who is prime minister? How does Icelandic system work?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, that’s—usually, prime minister is the leader for the biggest party. So, since we don’t have a traditional leadership structure, we don’t have a pyramid of power but see ourselves more like a circle of power, we will just try to find the person that would be the most fit to be in that position at these critical times for our country.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you were chosen, would you accept the position?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: If that would be the proper demand, I would certainly consider it. I have to say that it’s a little bit—it’s not my ideal work to be a prime minister, but I don’t know if I am the best one to do it, so I have a difficulty in answering this question affirmatively. But if nobody else can do it or wants to do it, then, you know, I would do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there, and we will follow what happens in Iceland, whether the next time we’re speaking to you we’ll be talking to the prime minister of Iceland. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, I want to thank you for being with us, currently a member of the Icelandic Parliament, representing the Pirate Party.


AMY GOODMAN: She’s speaking to us from Reykjavík. This is Democracy Now!

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much—, The War and Peace Report, speaking to us a day after the prime minister of Iceland resigned in the aftermath of the release of the Panama Papers.

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