The Northeast Iceland Police Department has launched an investigation of four journalists in relation to their reporting on seafood company Samherji, the centre of an international scandal that first erupted in late 2019. The journalists are being investigated for alleged violations of privacy and have the legal status of defendants in the case. The Journalists’ Association of Iceland has condemned the investigation.
The four journalists are Aðalsteinn Kjartansson of Stundin, Arnar Þór Ingólfsson of Kjarninn, Þórður Snær Júlíusson, Kjarninn’s editor, and Þóra Arnórsdóttir, editor of investigative journalism programme Kveikur at Icelandic National Broadcaster RÚV. The police investigation is centred on reporting from May 2021 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 targeting of the media after the “guerilla division” investigation came to light. Samherji issued a statement and later printed a letter of apology in Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið newspapers in response to the case.
Public interest versus privacy
Sigríður Dögg Auðunsdóttir, chairperson of The Journalists’ Association of Iceland, described the police investigation as “incomprehensible” and “indefensible” in a written statement published on the Association’s website. She expressed consternation that the journalists were being investigated for simply reporting on data they had obtained. “Whenever data is of such a nature that it could be considered a violation of privacy, a journalist must evaluate them with regard to public interest and assess which weighs more heavily: privacy or public interest,” Sigríður wrote. “When public interest prevails, there is never a question whether such data should be used as a basis for news, no matter how the data is obtained.”
The journalists’ reporting was based on leaked messages, reportedly from a stolen phone, but how the journalists obtained the data is unknown. Þórður Snær Júlíusson, one of the defendants, says police told him he was not suspected of stealing the phone, rather the police investigation was based on suspected violations of privacy as outlined in articles 228 and 229 of the Penal Code. “It entails that we have written news stories based on the data, there’s really nothing else that falls under [these articles].”