Samherji Issues Partial Apology Amid Media-Targeting Scandal

Director of Samherji Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson

Fishing company Samherji issued a statement yesterday in which the company apologises for the behaviour of its management, which “went too far” in its “harsh” response to negative media coverage, according to the company. Leaked documents show the company’s lawyer, PR consultant, and a ship captain in their employ co-ordinated a campaign targeting journalists who had published investigations into the company’s alleged bribery and tax fraud. While Samherji has set a new tone with the statement, it has left journalists and the public unconvinced.

In 2019, a joint investigation by Icelandic media and Al Jazeera into leaked documents from Samherji alleged the company had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds off the country’s coast, as well as avoiding taxes by leveraging international loopholes. The investigation made international headlines and led to the resignation and arrest of high-ranking government officials in Namibia.

In Focus: The Samherji Scandal

Icelandic media outlet Kjarninn published an investigation earlier this month into leaked communications between several Samherji employees who referred to themselves as the company’s “guerrilla division.” The employees worked to gather information on journalists who had published negative press on Samherji as well as trying to discredit them and disqualify them from writing about the company in the future. Several government ministers, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, condemned Samherji’s actions after the investigation came to light.

Samherji released a short statement yesterday in response to the investigation. It begins by asserting the coverage of the company’s operations over the years to have been “one-sided, unfair, and not always based on facts,” stating that in such situations, it can be “difficult not to react.” It labelled the leaked communications between its “guerrilla division” members as “unfortunate.” The statement concludes with an apology of sorts, stating: “Samherji’s management has also reacted harshly to negative coverage of the company and it is clear that those reactions went too far. For that reason, Samherji would like to apologise for that conduct.”

RÚV journalists expressed their hope that the statement signalled a change of direction for Samherji, whose owners have refused to grant journalists an interview since the Fishrot Files scandal broke in 2019. They were, however, critical of its vague wording and lack of reference to specific company executives, actions, or even who the apology is directed towards. “Maybe this apology would have been better if it had been clearer who was apologising to whom and for what,” Heiðar Örn Sigurfinsson, Deputy News Editor of Iceland’s National Broadcaster RÚV wrote in a Facebook post.

Directorate of Immigration Condemned for Withdrawing Support of Asylum Seekers

religion in iceland

The Church of Iceland has issued a resolution condemning the Directorate of Immigration for withdrawing housing and food allowances for a group of asylum seekers that are set to be deported, Fréttablaðið reports. The Directorate of Immigration revoked housing and food allowances from 14 men, most from Palestine, after they refused to undergo the testing for COVID-19 required for their deportation. Hundreds participated in a Reykjavík protest in support of the group last Saturday.

The Directorate of Immigration withdrew housing and food allowances from a group of 14 men earlier this month after they refused to undergo COVID-19 testing that was a prerequisite to their deportation to Greece. The men have also been barred access to other services, including healthcare, with at least one reporting that a medical appointment was cancelled following the Directorate of Immigration’s decision to withdraw services. Most of the men are from Palestine, while others are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other countries.

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The Directorate aims to deport the men to Greece, where they have received international protection. Asylum seekers entering Europe often do so through Greece and are consequently granted international protection in the country allowing (though not obligating) other European countries to deport them back to Greece. The Council of Europe, the Red Cross, and many human rights organisations have deemed living conditions in Greece to be unfit for refugees, who often lack access to basic services there including healthcare, housing, and education. The Palestinian men within the group have issued a statement pleading for the government to reconsider their cases (see post above).

Read More: Asylum Seeker Deportations from Iceland

“It is highly reprehensible that the Icelandic government is using force and deliberately making people homeless in a society that aims to have Christian values ​​and human rights as a guiding principle. It is also unacceptable that people should be sent back to conditions in Greece that are by no means safe, as many international reports indicate, and that people’s only choice lies in deciding in which country they want to be homeless,” the Church’s resolution states. The Church’s statement calls on Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir and the Director-General of the Directorate of Immigration to take immediate action to reverse their decision.

Reykjanes Eruption: Lookout Evacuated Due to Encircling Lava

volcano Reykjanes geldingadalir

The end of the main hiking path to the ongoing eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula was closed yesterday due to encroaching lava. The path ends on a hill overlooking the erupting crater that could soon become entirely surrounded by lava. The lookout was closed to prevent visitors from becoming trapped but not all are obeying authorities’ instructions to stay off the hill. Mbl.is reported first.

Harder to Approach Eruption

The hill that has been evacuated has served as the main lookout for eruption’s visitors. Visitors will be hard-pressed to find a better viewing spot for the spectacular event. “The longer the eruption continues, the harder it will be to come near this erupting crater,” stated Gunnar Schram, Chief Superintendent of Suðurnes Police. “That stands to reason as the lava spreads out. There are good vantage points there but this changes it a bit.”

Experts cannot say exactly when the hill will become fully surrounded by lava but they expect it to happen within the next few days. Anyone trapped on the hill would have to be rescued by helicopter, which is expensive, says Hjálmar Hallgrímsson, police officer and president of the local council of nearby Grindavík. Hjálmar says authorities may increase surveillance at the site to dissuade trespassers.

Read More: Man-made Protective Barriers Submerged by Lava

If the hill is surrounded but remains uncovered by lava, it will be known as an óbrennishólmi or óbrynnishólmi in Icelandic: an area of land surrounded by younger lava flows (literally “unburned island”). In English, geologists use the Hawaiian word kīpuka to describe such formations. The Geldingadalir eruption has been ongoing for over two months: experts say there is no way to know how long it will continue.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Randomised Vaccination Likely Begins This Week

Icelandic healthcare system

Icelandic health authorities expect to administer 14,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the Reykjavík capital area this week, aiming to complete vaccination of remaining priority groups and all residents born before 1975, RÚV reports. If there are leftover doses on scheduled vaccination days, authorities will begin to call in the general population using a randomised selection system. Ragnheiður Ósk Erlendsdóttir, director of nursing at capital area healthcare centres, stated that randomised vaccination among the remaining age groups would begin across the country in the coming days.

Pfizer, Moderna, and Janssen COVID-19 vaccines will be administered in the capital area on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week respectively. While Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be administered to remaining priority group members such as those with underlying illnesses, the Janssen vaccine will be administered to school staff. A notice from capital area healthcare centres states that authorities will aim to complete vaccination of all those born 1975 or earlier this week if supplies allow. Individuals will be invited for vaccination via SMS. “There are no open vaccination days on the schedule in the near future,” the notice stated.

Vaccination Lottery for Remaining Population

Health authorities are now completing vaccination of priority groups, including the elderly and frontline workers. An Icelandic study presented in early May found that randomised COVID-19 vaccination in the remaining population would be a faster route to herd immunity than vaccination by descending age groups. In an interview last Friday, Ragnheiður stated that the names would literally be pulled out of a hat after being grouped by birth year and sex.  “We’re going to put all these individuals together on the basis of birth year, and then we’re going to pull them out of a hat, or a mug, with either women or men from the given year of birth being selected,” she stated.

Another 20,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine are expected to be administered in Iceland next week. Over 46% of Iceland’s population has received one or both doses of vaccine while just under 25% has been fully vaccinated. Health authorities have stated that they are on track to vaccinate 75% of the population (280,000 people) with at least one dose by the end of June.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Relaxed Border Measures Take Effect

Keflavík Airport

Travellers arriving in Iceland from defined high-risk areas are no longer required to complete their quarantine at government-operated facilities. The Minister of Justice’s ban on unnecessary travel to areas with a high risk of COVID-19 infection has also expired. Quarantine facilities operated by the government will remain open for those who do not have access to adequate facilities in which to complete their required quarantine or isolation.

Iceland’s government tightened border regulations on April 1 requiring all travellers arriving from areas with high COVID-19 infection rates to quarantine at government-run hotels. The regulation was originally implemented for one month but was extended for an additional month. In late April, Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir passed regulation banning all unnecessary travel from defined high-risk areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The regulation took effect on April 27 but expired today.

Read More: Can I travel to Iceland in 2021 Post COVID-19?

Travellers to Iceland who present proof of vaccination or previous COVID-19 infection are required to undergo a single test upon arrival and quarantine until they receive a negative result. Tests are normally processed within a few hours. Travellers who do not present valid proof of vaccination or previous COVID-19 infection are required to undergo a test upon arrival to Iceland, quarantine for five days, and undergo a follow-up test. Travellers are not charged for COVID-19 testing or stays at official quarantine facilities. These regulations will remain in effect until at least June 15.

Up to 5,000 Travellers Per Day

Activities are ramping up at Keflavík International Airport, the port of arrival for almost all travellers entering Iceland. “We see for example today, which is one of the largest days since COVID started, over 2,000 travellers are arriving in the country,” Arngrímur Guðmundsson told RÚV reporters yesterday. “There’s simply an increase in flights. We anticipate that later in the month there could be up to 5,000 travellers arriving in the country per day if everything goes as planned.” There are eight flights scheduled to land at Keflavík Airport today from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.

To accommodate the increase in travellers, airport officials added additional reception desks last week where travellers have barcodes scanned and are doled out plastic tubes for test swabs. COVID-19 testing is carried out in modified shipping containers that have been set up outside the airport building.

Iceland currently has 41 active cases of COVID-19. Over 46% of the population have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine while 24.8% are fully vaccinated.