The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, RÚV, reports that Jóhann Hauksson, a reporter at the Baugur-owned daily Fréttabladid, has questioned the independence of its editors.
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Earlier this month Jóhann wrote a short commentary on the proposals put forward by the departing Prime Minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson (Progressive Party), for investigating revelations about clandestine phone taps conducted by the Icelandic government during the Cold War. Jóhann observed that three ministers were to be appointed to the investigating committee, including the Minister of Justice, Björn Bjarnason (Independence Party). Jóhann wrote that Björn’s father, Bjarni Benediktsson, who also served as Minister of Justice, had been “the [minister] who had the most say about the phone taps at the time. Now [his son] Björn is to supervise the experts who are authorised to examine the [relevant] records.”
According to RÚV, Björn Bjarnason complained about Jóhann’s story in a letter to the editors of Fréttabladid.
According to RÚV, Jóhann was told by his superiors at Fréttabladid last week that his duties would be changed because he “mixed his own views too much with the reporting”. RÚV reports that Jóhann has demanded further explanation for this claim but not received any although “Björn’s letter had been mentioned” during his meetings with his superiors.
RÚV quotes the news editor of Fréttabladid, Sigurjón M. Egilsson, saying that it is not “prudent” to let reporters write about matters which “can bring forth their opinions” at the same time they are supposed to be objective. Sigurjón also said it was common practice to reassign reporters to “ensure they did not get stuck in[writing about] certain topics”. Sigurjón said that there were “clear rules” about news reporting, and that the opinions of reporters should not be expressed in their reporting or elsewhere.
One of the two editors of Fréttabladid, Thorsteinn Pálsson, is the former chairman of the Independence Party and a former Minister of Justice.
Earlier this year, on the same day Thorsteinn was hired, the deputy-editor of Fréttabladid, Gudmundur Magnússon, was let go. Gudmundur had then recently criticised remarks made by Gunnar Smári Egilsson, a former editor of Fréttabladid, concerning the independence of editors.
The publisher of Fréttabladid is 365 Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dagsbrún. Dagsbrún is listed on the Icelandic Stock Exchange. Baugur is the largest shareholder of Dagsbrún with 29 per cent, followed by Runnur ehf, owned by FL-Group director Magnús Ármann and others, with 12 per cent, and Landsbanki with 11 per cent. The CEO of Dagsbrún is Gunnar Smári Egilsson. Gunnar is also the brother of Fréttabladid news editor Sigurjón M. Egilsson.
Last summer, the Economic Crimes division of the National Police filed multiple charges against several senior former and current managers at Baugur, including CEO, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, for various alleged infractions of the criminal and commercial code. After several charges were dropped, and the defendants acquitted on others, Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason appointed a special prosecutor to the case in December of last year. The special prosecutor has since re-filed several of the dismissed charges.