Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Press

Iceland’s Supreme Court has ruled entirely in favour of news outlet Stundin and media company Reykjavík Media in a media injunction case that has been ongoing since October 2017. Kjarninn reports that on Friday, the Supreme Court rejected all claims made by Glitnir HoldCo Ltd, the corporation that oversees the remaining assets of Glitnir bank. The first of these claims was that the journalists involved in the case should be legally compelled to share evidence that might have bearing on it, even if they might, in the course of their testimony, inadvertently reveal information about confidential sources. The company’s secondary claim was that the information reported on by Stundin and Reykjavík Media—information that was obtained from leaked bank documents—should be protected by bank confidentiality.

Friday’s ruling did not address the validity of the original injunction, which was struck down by the Court of Appeals, or Landsréttur, in October 2018. At the time, Landsréttur ruled that Stundin did not have to give up the Glitnir files. It also found that further reporting from the files couldn’t be forbidden. In its ruling, Landsréttur stated that Stundin’s coverage had focused on the business dealings of then prime minister and current Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, as well as people connected to him, and that this information was undeniably important to the public, especially leading up to elections. It was Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s contention that the files could be used to report on individuals’ financial affairs which were not matters of public import, a claim that Landsréttur rejected. In that Glitnir HoldCo Ltd appealed Landsréttur’s decision to the Supreme Court, however, the injunction has remained in place since.

Protection of sources is of the highest importance

When the Supreme Court agreed to take the case in November 2018, it did so with the understanding that it would not be reviewing the validity of the initial media injunction, but rather the validity of Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s assertion that Stundin and Reykjavík Media should not be allowed to use the information found in the leaked files in their reportage and should turn the Glitnir files back over to the holding company. Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s claims were based on their belief that the data in the files should be protected by bank confidentiality.

The Supreme Court rejected all of the company’s claims. The main of these was that both the District Court and Landsréttur were wrong not to compel three known witnesses, all journalists for the media outlets, to answer questions related to the existence, content, and custody of the leaked bank documents. The company maintained that the courts’ decision not to do this stripped it of its legitimate right to evidence—namely, how the documents were leaked to the media in the first place. The company claimed that being denied this evidence was grounds for automatic dismissal of the first District Court case.

The Supreme Court rejected this claim, stating that compelling the journalists to testify put their source(s) at risk, since there was a significant likeliness that during such testimony, journalists would inadvertently share the names of, or information about, their source(s). With its ruling, then, the Supreme Court determined that the importance of protecting sources takes precedence in such cases.

Public figures necessarily have less right to privacy

On the matter of bank confidentiality, the Supreme Court found it significant that the original injunction was levied on October 16, 2017—just 12 days before parliamentary elections—which made it all the more important that media coverage related to elected officials should not be any more restricted than was absolutely necessary. It noted, however, that the outlets’ coverage was primarily related to the former prime minister’s dealings with Glitnir bank in the lead up to the failure of the Icelandic banks in 2008 and that the tenor and focus of the coverage has largely been the same from the beginning, even after the injunction went into effect.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court noted that is generally understood that individuals involved in public offices have less claim to privacy and confidentiality than private citizens. The role of the media in a democratic society must be considered in such cases, it continued, as must the relevance of the topics and dealings that were under discussion in this instance. “In light of the enormous overall impact that the banking collapse had on Icelandic society, it’s only natural that a reckoning like this would be conducted in the media and the public discussion that usually follows,” read the judgement. The business dealings of former prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson fall within the purview of open public debate, concluded the Supreme Court. Moreover, the business dealings of people close to Bjarni are also open to public discussion, as they are “so interwoven with” those of Bjarni’s that “they should not be separated.”

Finally, the court found that prior to the injunction, all media coverage of parties whose connection to Bjarni Benediktsson was not clear “immediately” was focused on parties who were publicly prominent in the run-up to, and wake of, the 2008 banking collapse and who, therefore, enjoy less privacy and confidentiality than the average private citizen. This was further evidenced by the fact that the media outlets’ coverage of these parties and their part in the 2008 banking collapse has not needed to be adjusted in any meaningful way following the injunction.

The damage is “irreversible”

 Although today’s Supreme Court ruling was in the media’s favour, however, Stundin editors Ingibjörg Dögg Kjartansdóttir and Jón Trausti Reynisson and Reykjavík Media Editor-in-Chief Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson expressed dismay at the fact that although “Freedom Has Won,” in the end, the effect of the 522-day media injunction still had what they consider to be a seriously deleterious effect on public discourse. For one, it “…without a doubt, had a deterrent effect on people in our society who hold information or data that has significant relevance to the public, people who want to come to the media in the name of justice,” they wrote in a public statement on Facebook.  They continued by saying that the possible legal costs associated with losing a case like this are not enough to deter unlawful injunctions from being made about topics that are of vital public importance. Regardless of the outcome of the case, they concluded, “[t]he fact remains that there has been a violation of the public’s right to information and when you really think about it, the right to free elections.”

Ingibjörg Dögg repeated this sentiment in an interview with RÚV, wherein she said that although she and her publication felt a sense victory with the ruling, the entire situation remained “incredibly sad.” Given the relevance of the information that was being published had to the 2017 elections, the damage that this injunction did is irreversible.

Five of Eight Psychiatric Wards Receive Failing Safety Grade

Five of the National and University Hospital’s eight psychiatric wards have received failing grades in the hospital’s safety assessment, RÚV reports. María Einisdóttir, the hospital’s Chief Executive of Mental Health Services says that improvements sorely need to be made in many of the facilities, for instance to the bathrooms, window ledges and frames, curtains, and more.

Spokespeople for the hospital knew that conditions were not good, but the situation has now been shown to be far worse than expected. The safety audit was designed and conducted by the hospital itself, explained María in a radio interview on Thursday, as was the grading system.

The hospital has concluded that it needs to examine a variety of different ways in which it can ensure the wellbeing and safety of its psychiatric patients. María says that this broader topic can be divided into three subcategories. “We need to have safe accommodations in terms of suicide prevention—that’s number one,” she explained. “Secondly, we need to take account the prevention of infections, and last, but not least, the environment needs to be one that encourages recovery. Some wards are in great disrepair and for people who are extremely depressed and having thoughts about being worthless and that their families would be better off without them, walking into an environment that does not encourage recovery is terrible. The furniture is worn out, the floor rugs are all ripped up, the walls are white, and so on and so forth,” says María.

María says that inexpensive renovations have been done, such as repairing curtain valances, but more costly renovations, such as repairing the bathrooms have yet to be undertaken. She is urging for these updates to be prioritized but notes that this is a very complicated situation. “We want to be proud of our health care system and mental health system and our facilities need to be safe and reliable and encourage recovery. The last two Ministers of Health have made mental health issues a priority—this has led to there being a lot more conversations with the ministry than we’ve been accustomed to.” María continued that the hospital has done a great deal of policy work since 2017 and worked closely with Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who seems very well informed about mental health issues. However, she says, funding for the psychiatric ward improvements is still very much needed.

Iceland’s First Hamburger Was Sold in 1941

Hamburger and fries in Iceland

The first hamburger may have been sold in Iceland as early as 1941, Vísir reports. Visitors to the island may be more likely to think of lamb soup or cod cheeks when thinking of classic Icelandic fare, but while these are certainly more homegrown dishes, the country has long maintained a love affair with the hamburger. As such, Iceland’s preeminent food historian, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, has set out to determine when and where this delicacy was first sold to hungry Icelanders.

Nanna has been outlining her research for Vísir and also in televised interviews, which has yielded a great deal of information from the public about early sightings of the fast food favorite. In October 1956, Kjörbar in downtown Reykjavík started advertising “hamburgers all day” and a rest stop grill near the Hvítá bridge in West Iceland also had them on the menu. A restaurant called Ísborg in downtown Reykjavík began selling burgers and French fries in 1957. The much-beloved rest stop grill and gas station Staðarskáli began serving up hamburgers during the summer of 1960. And in January of the same year, a restaurant called Smárabar in the Westman Islands started advertising them on their menu.

Fittingly, it now seems that the earliest documented hamburger in Iceland was likely sold at a restaurant on Aðalstræti, Reykjavík’s oldest street.

“The American army arrived in July 1941,” notes Nanna, “and that same month, they start offering hamburgers there.”

There are also stories of American soldiers teaching Jakobína Ámundadóttir, the owner of a cafe near Öskjuhlíð (the hill on which Perlan is located), how to make hamburgers during the war years. According to her sister Íris, Jakobína opened her café when the British built their base on the site of the Reykjavík Domestic airport and intended it to serve Icelanders who worked on the base. When the American soldiers arrived, however, they craved burgers and French fries from home and in addition to teaching Jakobína how to make a hamburger are said to have also baked hamburger buns for her to try as well.

These early hamburger-adopters would have been among several places that advertised burgers in newspapers that were published specially for servicemen, such as The Daily Post and The White Falcon.

Even as the meal gained popularity at cafes serving soldiers stationed in Iceland, however, it does not seem to have made a big impression on Icelanders as a whole for close to ten years. In a travel article written by Vísir journalist Thorolf Smith after a trip to America in 1952, for example, he describes hamburgers as a strange, unknown phenomenon: “some kind of ground beefsteak between two pieces of bread.” Another news article describes an Icelandic man’s shock at being served a hamburger for dinner by the chef of a canteen at the American base in Keflavík.

Nanna says that the American base in Keflavík became the de facto home of the hamburger in Iceland, but that by 1956, it had made its way to Reykjavík and had given rise to a number of hamburger joints, such as those mentioned above. All of these early restaurants are closed now, except for the Staðarskáli rest stop and grill. Nanna believes that it’s likely that Staðarskáli holds the honor of being the place that has sold hamburgers longest in Iceland.

Yellow and Orange Weather Alerts Around Iceland

winter tires reykjavík

The Icelandic Met Office has issued a series of serious weather warnings for much of the country on Friday.

An orange alert has been issued for Northeast Iceland, the East Fjords, and Eastern coastal areas, where blizzard conditions are expected to begin in the early morning and continue as late as 7:00 pm. Hurricane-strength winds and moderate to heavy snowfall is expected. Slippery, snow-covered roads and limited visibility make travel inadvisable from Varmahlíð to Akureyri, Akureyri to Egilsstaðir, and Egilsstaðir to Djúpivógur.

Yellow warnings are in effect for Reykjavík and the surrounding capital area, as well as Northwest Iceland, the Southeast, and the Central Highlands. Considerable snowfall and hurricane-strength winds of up to 28 m/s are expected between Vík and Djúpivogur between noon and midnight and as such, travel is, during this time, inadvisable in the region.

There is also considerable danger of avalanches (3 on a scale of 5) in the Westfjords and mountainous areas around Reykjavík.

You can keep up to date on the most recent weather alerts by checking the Icelandic Met’s English-language page, here. Safetravel.is is another very good source of travel and weather advisories in Icelandic, English, French, German, and Chinese.

Indigo Partners Call Off WOW air Negotiations – Icelandair Renews Interest

WOW - Icelandair - Keflavík Airport

Indigo Partners has cancelled negotiations to invest in WOW air. Subsequently, the board of Icelandair Group has agreed to reenter negotiations with WOW, according to a statement released by WOW air last night. In an announcement to the stock exchange, Icelandair Group stated that the negotiations will be in consultation with the government and that they should be concluded this Monday, March 25.

Government hopes for successful resolution

This is the second time Icelandair Group enters negotiations to buy WOW air but talks had previously been suspended November of last year, shortly before Skúli Mogensen, owner and CEO of WOW announced that he had begun negotiations with Indigo Partners. In their statement to the stock exchange, Icelandair notes that “If [Icelandair Group] will be involved in the operation of WOW, it will be based on how competition laws regard failing firms.” This would allow the companies to merge without intervention from the government, despite their competitive status.

In their statement, Icelandair Group has claimed the talks are conducted in consultation with the government. The government also released a statement, stating that they have been following difficulties in international airline operations and the competitive position of Icelandic airlines. They will continue to monitor the progress of the negotiations closely and hopes that they will be successfully resolved.

Altered circumstances

The projected three-day negotiations will be short, especially in light of the fact that the Indigo Partners negotiations have taken three and a half months. The secretive talks with Indigo were supposed to be resolved before Feb 28 but once it was clear that would not be sufficient time, the deadline was extended to March 29. In early March, it was reported that Indigo was prepared to invest up to 90 million USD in WOW.

In an interview on the Channel Two morning radio, Steinn Logi Björnsson, former Icelandair CEO claimed the negotiations are a last-ditch effort to rescue WOW. According to him, the situation of both parties has changed since the last negotiations were inconclusive. He claims Wow is in a worse position than they were before Christmas but Icelandair’s position has also changed due to the Boeing 737 MAX planes they grounded. Icelandair had three of the 737 MAX planes but was expecting six more to join their operations.

‘Harsh Police Response’ to Refugee Protests Under Review

The actions taken by police against protestors in Austurvöllur square on March 11th were discussed at an open meeting of Alþingi’s Judicial Affairs and Education Committee on Thursday, RÚV reports. Individuals who had worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Andrými, a radical social space, were invited to the meeting, as were individuals from the Icelandic Red Cross, capital area police chief Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir, Chief Superintendent Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson, and the police oversight committee.

On the day in question, an anti-deportation demonstration being held by the group Refugees in Iceland took an ugly turn when police pepper sprayed a number of asylum seekers and protesters and made two arrests. According to Vísir, this is the first time that police have used pepper spray since 2009, despite the fact that there have been 130 public protests since then. Police maintain that the actions they took were justified, saying that protesters were preparing to camp illegally in the square and to set fire to a pyre they were building from cardboard and wooden pallets. Demonstrators contend, however, that they were simply writing protest signs and had, moreover, obtained permission from the city to set up tents.

Logi Már Einarsson, the chair of the Social Democratic Alliance, was among the first to criticize police behaviour on March 11. “Today I witnessed an unusually harsh police response against a group of people in a particularly vulnerable position,” he wrote in a Facebook post on March 11. “I don’t remember such a comparatively small protest having been met with such actions. I saw, at least, nothing to justify such.”

Police Say Use of Force Proportionate

During Thursday’s meeting, however, Vísir reports that Chief Superintendent Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson said that police response was proportionate, giving the example of a protester who he said repeatedly kicked an officer and another who tried to prevent the kicking protester from being arrested. Ásgeir Þór also said that police used pepper spray after officers were “ganged up on” by a group of thirty to forty people and that an ambulance was called immediately to treat those who had been sprayed.

Left-Green MP Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir was also in attendance at the protest, however, and said she disagreed that the police response was measured and proportionate. “I have to say, I was appalled and shocked. I thought it entirely without cause, this harsh police response.” She continued that the event made her wonder if the police responded the way they did because of who particularly was protesting.

More Concern for “Lifeless Statues than Living People”

Outside of this open meeting, the asylum seekers’ recent protests—including a silent demonstration outside of Alþingi that ended with three arrests—have been the cause of much discussion in parliament, although many MPs have argued that the debates have not been focused on the important aspects of the matter. MP bickering about logistical aspects of the protests, such as whether protesters should be allowed to use the bathroom in Reykjavík Cathedral (which is located on Austurvöllur square), drew criticism from MPs from three parties, who believed discussions would be better focused on the protesters’ demands. “The right to protest doesn’t live or die with whether we like the cause,” remarked Reform Party MP Sigríður María Egilsdóttir. “The right to protest lives or dies with democracy itself.”

Sigríður’s opinions were seconded by Pirate MP Sara Elísa Þórðardóttir and Left-Green MP Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé, the latter of whom chided his fellow parliamentarians for showing what could be interpreted as more concern for “lifeless statues than living people,” instead of taking a position on whether asylum seekers were supposed to just sit quietly by and wait to be deported.

The issue of police treatment of demonstrators will be referred to an independent committee who will review, among other things, video footage taken on March 11. This committee will have three months to complete their review; a final report on the matter is expected in roughly four months.

Video footage of the pepper spraying incident has been widely circulated by the group Refugees in Iceland and can be seen below:

https://www.facebook.com/refugeesiniceland/videos/309085886439468/

 

This article has been altered to reflect that Andrými is not an activist group but a social space where several grassroots organisations come together.