Disgusted by Julian Assange, but still standing up for him

Birgitta Jonsdottir finds silence after decade of turbulence

She was the ally of Wikileaks chief Julian Assange and could have lead the first Pirate Party in Europe into government. However, the chance to really change something eluded the Icelandic poet Birgitta Jonsdottir: she couldn't break the power of The System and ended up in some kind of burn-out herself. What went wrong?

In an Icelandic summerhouse, Birgitta Jonsdottir for weeks analyses frame by frame the 38 minutes of video of an American military operation in a suburb of Baghdad, Iraq. Two Iraqi journalists from Reuters die, the case is covered up. Under the title Collateral Murder, after extensive analysis, Wikileaks puts the footage online in April 2010. Assange, but also supporters such as Jonsdottir and the Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp know from then on that they will be prosecuted by the FBI.

Jonsdottir: “My job was to make the stills. After looking over and over again, we found out the identity of the 11 fatalities. I was proud of it, but the sequel turned out to be a disappointment. We proved war crimes, but no one was prosecuted. There are certainly many more videos of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are nowhere to be seen, because they don't kill journalists from Reuters. I say it bluntly: human lives are worth little there and we look away.”

In 2013, Bill Condon directed the movie of the WikiLeaks operation in Iceland for DreamWorks under the title The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange. Carice van Houten played Jonsdottir and visited her in Iceland prior to the filming. See here an little interview with Van Houten and the trailer. This film did not turn out to be the success hoped for either.

“I left Wikileaks when Julian Assange started behaving like a dictator. He admitted that he enjoys exercising power, and as he gained more power, he became more ruthless. To his growing annoyance, I challenged his decisions for video production. I don't have the wisdom myself, so I like to be asked critical questions in order to be able to justify myself. Julian left us in the dark. He made ever-increasing demands in terms of working hours, concentration and content of videos. There were so few of us left already, and this behaviour exhausted us.”

Continuing with Wikileaks, the Icelandic activist observes, demolishes her. At the same time she says goodbye to Rop Gonggrijp, the Dutch patriarch of the hacker community that was 'manager and treasurer' at WikiLeaks, according to The New Yorker. Jonsdottir keeps warm memories of him.

2. Whistleblowing

The fact that the activist Assange turned out to be a dictator is no reason for Jonsdottir to also reject his performance as one of the world's most important whistle blowers with WikiLeaks. The threat that Assange will be extradited by the United Kingdom to the United States in January 2021, where the authorities want to prosecute him for his activities for Wikileaks, she sees as a direct attack on civil rights. She herself cannot go to the US either, because of ongoing investigations against the whistle blower’s website: anyone involved can be detained as long as proceedings are in progress.

“No, I didn't go to meet him in prison in London. I probably won't be very welcome. It is much more important that he is released, if only with an ankle bracelet. No matter how wrong Assange is with his egocentric and dictatorial behaviour with WikiLeaks, and no matter how upset he upset me, I will continue to defend him against extradition. The calls for extradition to, and prosecution in the US, from Amnesty International and from Reporters without Borders, get too little support. The media condemn his personality and overlook the danger the U.S. indictment poses to investigative journalism, even though Assange was mainly a whistle blower. This prosecution by the U.S. government criminalizes  news gathering and represents a great danger to the freedom of information and to the position of journalists.”

“I can try anything to get attention, but there is such a herd spirit in the media. They all follow one another and report on the same subjects. It's all about clicks and attention value. The people in charge are afraid of missing out on the big issues. I see that some journalists show the courage to investigate the real problems of society instead of going along with Trump's umpteenth stunt. So much more is happening in the world.”

“It is a fundamental right that citizens are informed and that they can keep elected representatives accountable. Whistle-blowing is not a dirty word, attacks are no reason to restrict human rights, we have to defend them. In the Netherlands, on the Press Freedom Day [of 2011], I spoke about legislation on the freedom of information. After my presentation, your Minister Donner gave a bureaucratic speech. Instead of defending his democracy and legal publicity, he started talking about the costs of these laws for the government and society. Whistle-blowers still receive enormous opposition from companies with deep pockets that initiate endless procedures, while the government and the public lose interest.”

3. Change

Even before Wikileaks, Birgitta Jonsdottir began the long march through the institutions: she wants to exert influence and bring about a direct democracy in Iceland; give the people real power and tackle the power of the institutions, ministries and banks. In 2009, her first party, Borgarahreyfingin (Citizen's Movement), won four of the 63 seats in parliament on a program of radical change and collective leadership. She entered the parliament, but left the party that same year to finally establish the Pirate Party, to pursue her ideals for direct democracy focused on social action.

In 2013, it got three seats. When the Panama Papers revealed in 2016 that the Icelandic Prime Minister was privately involved in financial claims against his country, the Pirate Party led by Jonsdottir was at the top of the polls for a long time, with about 40 percent. But the election results were  disappointing: 15 percent, or 10 seats. Nevertheless, an opportunity presented itself. The formation of the government is deadlocked, and the Pirates are allowed to try to form a coalition; if successful, the party could deliver the prime minister.

“These talks became a huge disappointment. I received no support from opportunistic politicians who attached more importance to their power than to their conscience. The talks were frustrated by traditional power politics and silly details. While we had the support of so many Icelanders who thought it was time for fundamental change, starting with amending the constitution that had already been put to a referendum. We wanted more direct representation of citizens in decision-making, influence on the ownership of public services and goods. Those in power always see such changes as a threat. They knew how to make the process so complicated that it got stuck.”

Jonsdottir also received criticism within the Pirate Party about the direction and leadership. “My own party is just as responsible. Most people can't handle power. With a better team that knew the details, I might have been able to hack and tweak the system. That's more necessary than seizing power, just because it can be done. I don't want power, I'm an activist. Becoming prime minister was not my desire, the function would have destroyed me among all those scary men. If I wanted to be anything in that government, I would have wanted to be like John Bercow in the British Parliament, a truly independent representative on behalf of the people.”

The coalition without the Pirate Party is breaking fast, but in the new Icelandic elections in October 2017, Birgitta Jonsdottir was missing from the list of candidates. She couldnt do it anymore. “People started listening to me as a person with power and influence. That scared the hell out of me. What would become of me in such a powerful position? I was no longer myself, but I had to comply with the image of others. So get out of here, and quickly.”

4. Activist government?

Criticism of the system strikes a chord with voters everywhere in Europe. But parties that turn such criticism into an election victory do not change the system. How fresh were the ideas of Macron and the Five Star Movement? A compromise with the existing system and the incorporated power is inevitable, or else government participation will fail. Jonsdottir does not want her Pirate Party to be lumped together with populists:

“Voters really know when a newcomer only wants power. The attraction of populism stems from the marginalization of ordinary people, who pay their taxes while the government's performance is lacking: poor housing, problems in education. Populist politicians divert attention to the perceived threat from foreigners, refugees and migrants. If elected, they do not have the knowledge and experience to change the system.”

So pirates and populists do encounter the same system: “You see the same thing when a new minister takes office somewhere who wants to change the department's approach. Who is really in charge there? These are the senior civil servants who have perfected the system for decades. The series Yes Minister is not only a satire but also a documentary about how it works in public administration.”

“We activists are often told that our model does not work on the scale of ministries. Nonsense. We need to set up smaller units of government that are responsible for their own environment. You don't need any power at all to change things. I wanted to be the Robin Hood of power: take it from the powerful and give it to the powerless. If I would have acted as is normally expected of people with power, I would no longer be able to look at myself in the mirror.”

“Changes can also be reached differently, with compassion and understanding. Many writers and journalists have no idea of the influence their words can have. Look at Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama. They do not exercise power, yet they influence change. Not enough perhaps, but the reason is that the climate and the situation of the Tibetans still leaves too many people indifferent.”

5. Burnout and poetry

After her withdrawal from politics, fatigue struck. For two years the world heard nothing about Birgitta Jonsdottir, who sat at home with a form of burn-out: “I was exhausted after nine years with WikiLeaks and the politics in which I had to put so much of myself at risk. It was literally exhausting. It threatened my personality, my deepest being.”

She lived off her savings, now she rents out her apartment to get by. “I'm not a sociable animal, only I like his. At the moment I'm trying to learn to play the piano, but I could use some more money for a real teacher and a better instrument. If only we had a universal basic income, that would give so many people the opportunity to use their real capacities for the benefit of society.”

“In essence, I am a storyteller, that is the basis of all my activities and the different versions of my personality. Storytelling gives me structure. Maybe I can make a podcast about creativity. I know a lot of special people, but in interviews they always get the same questions. Nadia of Pussy Riot, for example, always has to talk about Putin, while she can tell so much more about the meaning of her life, vision of the future and creativity. Think of Edward Snowden, always talking about his revelations about secret espionage by the NSA. Such interviews become annoying. So our conversation for Arte with Snowden was not about that, but about the future of our democracy.”

“There are plenty of poems for a collection of poems and I've also worked on a biography and a novel, but it's hard to keep everything in your own hands. Conversations with literary agents and publishers are frustrating: you have to follow their directions, they don't help me enough to solve problems outside of writing.”

“Isolated living in sparsely populated parts of Iceland is normal and pleasant for me, so I don't suffer much from the limitations of corona. I don't fly twice a month and I can't go to events, but I don't experience this as a disability. I learn a lot from Buddhism and I am still looking for a good mentor. Difficult, because Buddhism is not really in vogue in Iceland.”

“You can achieve so much more if you are open to everything, if you don't let your expectations limit you. For me, there is a difference between what you need and what you desire. For me it's all about privacy, social involvement and the right to make myself heard. As long as that is okay, life is okay. It's nice to have your hair done in a hairdresser's salon, but I can also cut it myself and that's what I do…”

*) Thanks to Miro Lucassen for the editing and K.O. for the final editing.

**) Photographs by Peter Olsthoorn

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