Obstructing Media Coverage of Deportation Was “Misunderstanding”

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson says that the most likely explanation for Keflavík Airport staff obstructing journalists during a deportation last November was that they “misunderstood” the request made by the Police Commissioner’s Support Department. Isavia employees turned floodlight against a crowd of reporters, preventing them from filming or photographing the deportation of 15 people last November. The deportation sparked criticism and protests in Iceland and was later ruled illegal.

The Minister’s statement was part of an answer to Pirate Party MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson’s question: “By whom and on what grounds and basis, including legal sources, was a decision made to direct floodlights at media personnel that obstructed their work on the night of November 3, 2022 at Keflavík Airport?” The National Police Commissioner and Isavia issued a joint statement following the incident which said that the two parties regretted that police recommendations were not clear enough. The statement also underlined that police control the implementation of such events.

In his response to Andrés Ingi, the Minister of Justice stated that a review of the incidents implementation, there was no indication that police had specifically directed Isavia employees to obstruct the work of the media in any way. “[T]he most likely explanation for the incident is that there was a misunderstanding regarding the request of the support department to be able to operate without disturbance in the restricted area of the airport, in such a way that the request also included instructions that the movement of the media should be restricted.”

The Minister of Justice stated that work procedure has been review to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

Apologize or Face Cyberattack: Icelandic Paper Faces Threats from Hackers and Ire of Russian Embassy

The Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið received a threat from Russian hackers on Thursday morning: apologize before midnight, Moscow-time (9:00 PM in Iceland) or face a cyberattack in retaliation. The hackers want the paper’s editors to issue a formal apology for publishing a photograph of someone using a Russian flag as a doormat with the caption: “Ukrainians have found a new use for the Russian flag.” Fréttablaðið and Stundin are reporting on this story.

‘A manifest of uncovered disrespect towards the Russian Federation’

The image in question appeared as part of an interview with Valur Gunnarsson, an Icelandic journalist who is currently in Ukraine. Upon its publication on Wednesday, the photograph almost immediately caught the attention of the Embassy in Iceland, which sent Fréttablaðið’s Editor-in-Chief Sigmundur Ernir Rúnarsson a letter demanding an apology for “breaching the existing law and common moral values, as well as journalist ethics.”

“We would like to remind you that the Icelandic government hasn’t repealed yet Art. 95 of the General Penal Code of Iceland, according to which anyone who publicly insults foreign state symbols shall be fined or even imprisoned,” the letter states, calling the image “a manifest of uncovered disrespect towards the Russian Federation and its state symbols.”

The Russian Embassy urged the editors to respond immediately, and “not waste time defending this under the cover of free speech.”

Two Icelandic authors were convicted under same law for insulting Hitler

The legal provision cited by the Russian Embassy—which can technically carry with it a prison sentence of up to six years—is rarely enacted, although it does have a fairly colourful history. The most famous instances of Icelanders being sentenced under this legal provision occurred in 1934, during the leadup to World War II.

First, author Þórbergur Þórðarson stood trial and was fined for calling Adolf Hitler a “sadist” in an article he wrote for the socialist paper Alþýðublaðið called “The Nazis’ Sadistic Appetite.” Later that same year, poet Steinn Steinarr was sentenced under the same article when he and four other people cut down a swastika flag at the German consulate in Siglufjörður.

More recently, rapper and artist Erpur Eyvindarson and two friends were sentenced under the same provision after throwing a Molotov cocktail at the U.S. Embassy in 2002. It was determined that the trio had not intended to harm anyone with the homemade combustable, but rather deface the exterior of the embassy. As such, they were found guilty of insulting a foreign state and its citizens instead of a more serious crime.

In 2017, Left-Green MPs submitted a resolution to appeal the provision, saying, among other things, that it posed an infringement on free expression. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs opposed the repeal, however, arguing that the provision was justified under the terms of international agreements and treaties of friendship.

‘After hacking your paper’s website, we will publish photos of kompromat’

On Thursday morning, the Fréttablaðið website was subjected to what seemed to be a preliminary or warning attack. “We noticed this morning that the traffic on the website suddenly snowballed and it was clear that it was part of an attack on the website,” said Sigmundur Ernir. The ISP already had security measures in place to protect the website and additional steps were then taken to try and prevent further incursions on its functionality. At time of writing, the Fréttablaðið website was still active and accessible, although keeping it functional was difficult, according to sources at the paper.

Shortly after the initial attack, the Fréttablaðið editors received a more explicit email from the hackers responsible, saying: “What right do you have to insult or dishonour the symbols of another nation!!! If you do not apologize on Thursday, August 11 before 24:00 Moscow-time! [sic] We will hack your website and provider. Then after hacking your paper’s website, we will publish photos of kompromat on your publication and you will for sure face a criminal sentence for corruption, banditry [English word used in original message], etc.”

Ivan Glinkin, Communications Director for the Russian Embassy, says the embassy has no idea who is responsible for the attacks on the Fréttablaðið website. Asked if the embassy believes such attacks are in any way an appropriate response to the publication of the offending photo, Glinkin said the embassy condemns all illegal actions, no matter what they are.

‘The flag is almost beside the point’

Editor-in-chief Sigmundur Ernir stated that his paper would not be issuing an apology for publishing a journalistic image taken in a conflict zone but is taking the threat seriously and has referred the matter to the police.

Fréttablaðið has also contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has expressed support for the paper’s position. The Union of Icelandic Journalists (BÍ) also published a statement of support on Thursday, saying “the importance of an independent and free media is particularly vital in times of war and BÍ condemns all attempts to influence the media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine.”

“There’s nothing sacred in a war where children, mothers, and the elderly are killed and whole communities destroyed,” Sigmundur Ernir remarked in an interview with Vísir the same day.

“So the flag is almost beside the point, as flags are trampled in many places around the world in protest. I think Russians should think first and foremost about treating the nations around them with decency rather than whining about a photo in Fréttablaðið.”

Samherji Journalist Wins Appeal Against Northeast Iceland Police

The Northeast Iceland District Court has ruled on Stundin journalist Aðalsteinn Kjartansson’s appeal to determine the legality of a police investigation into his and other journalists’ alleged distribution of sexual material from the stolen phone of a Samherji ship captain. The judge concluded that Northeast Iceland Police chief Páley Borgþórsdóttir was wrong to give official defendant status to Aðalsteinn on those grounds, Vísir reports.

As previously reported, four journalists are under investigation by Northeast Iceland Police. While it initially appeared the investigation was into the journalists’ reporting on leaked communications between several Samherji employees calling themselves the company’s “guerrilla division.” However, they were instead accused of violating Articles 228 and 229 of the Penal Code — legislation implemented to protect victims of digital sexual violence. They were given the legal status of defendants in the case.

A law isn’t broken by a journalist receiving data

As per news site Stundin, the Northeast Iceland District Court determined the journalists were not considered to have breached the law simply for receiving and viewing sensitive personal data since it is part of a journalist’s job to receive data and tips and determine if it is in the public interest to pursue them.

The ruling notes that, in general, the mere act of receiving and opening data sent without the recipient’s consent is not a criminal offence.

A case built on sand?

The district court’s verdict also states that it cannot be concluded from police documents that ship captain Páll Steingrímsson contacted the police because of the personal videos on his phone, which the police claimed to be the reason for Aðalsteinn being named as a defendant.

Gunnar Ingi Jóhannsson, Aðalsteinn’s lawyer, told Stundin the ruling confirms his argument that “the police’s case against the journalists is built on sand.”

Iceland Drops in World Press Freedom Rankings

Iceland is ranked 14th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Kjarninn reports that this ranking is notably lower than the country’s Nordic neighbours and that Iceland has fallen four places in the rankings in the last two years.

Norway takes first place in this year’s rankings, followed by Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The top ten rankings are rounded out by Switzerland (6), New Zealand (7), Jamaica (8), Belgium (9), and Costa Rica (10).

The worst scoring countries in this year’s rankings were Vietnam (176), China (177), Eritrea (178), North Korea (179), and Turkmenistan (180).

“This small island nation ambitiously aspires to become the El Dorado of investigative journalism and online media,” reads Iceland’s single paragraph ranking explanation. But in spite of resolutions such as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which is aimed, among other things, at protecting journalistic sources, increasing transparency, and solidifying media independence, Iceland has continued to slowly slip in the rankings.

“Though the constitution guarantees ‘absolute’ freedom of expression,” concludes the report, “the situation of journalists has worsened since 2012 because relations between politicians and media have soured.”

See the full rankings here.

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.

RÚV Rejects Demand to Remove Article from Website

RÚV headquarters.

RÚV has rejected demands from the owners of Sjanghæ Restaurant in Akureyri to remove an article from its website, issue a formal written apology to the restaurant, and pay compensation of ISK 3 million ($25,656/€ 22,536). This was confirmed by the national broadcaster’s director Margrét Magnúsdóttir on Friday.

Rosita Yufan Zhang, the primary owner of the restaurant Sjanghæ (an Icelandicisation of “Shanghai”), issued her demands in response to an article published by RÚV on August 30, 2017. The article stated that the owners were suspected of human trafficking, that employees were being paid a monthly salary of ISK 30,000 ($257/€225), and that their food consisted of leftovers from the restaurant. The article also mentioned that the Eining-Iðja union was looking into the matter and had been talking to restaurant employees.

The letter that a lawyer sent to RÚV on behalf of Rosita and the private limited company Life Iceland demanded that the news organisation publish an apology on its website before noon on Friday, remove the original article, and pay the requested compensation. Should these demands not be met, the letter stated, the owners reserved the right to take further legal action.

Polish Ambassador Accuses Icelandic Media Source of “Fake News”

Polish March

Stundin newspaper received a formal letter of complaint from the Polish Ambassador to Iceland for their news story on a controversial march that took place on November 11 in Warsaw. The ambassador also complained to Iceland’s president and prime minister and asked Stundin to apologise for the news story and take it down.

Studin wrote about the march, which took place on the centennial of the re-establishment of Poland’s independence. Called the March of Independence, the event included Polish politicians as well as nationalist and far-right groups. More than 200,000 people are said to have taken part in the march.

Story called “fake news”

According to Stundin, Ambassador Gerard Pokruszyński accused the article’s author of calling all Poles who “love their fatherland” fascists or nazis. He also called the article “fake news” and said he hoped it wouldn’t have “serious consequences” in diplomatic relations between Poland and Iceland.

Journalist Jón Bjarki Magnússon, who wrote the article, says the newspaper has not received such a response to their writing in decades. He expressed concern at the ambassador’s letter, which had named him specifically.

He says Pokruszyński’s letter portrayed him as “an enemy of the Polish nation. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling to be portrayed that way. Because of course I’m not the enemy of any nation or people at all and I like Polish people, care about many of them, and go to Poland often.”

Messages “somewhere close to” threats

Jón Bjarki says he has also received “uncomfortable” messages from Polish people in Iceland in response to the news story. Though he says there have been no direct threats, the messages are “somewhere close to that.”

The journalist stated he considered the situation “very serious” but was choosing to interpret the action as “some kind of mistake” for the time being. He says Stundin will continue to cover current affairs in Poland, which fall 29 spots on the World Press Freedom Index between 2015 and 2016. “The state of affairs in the country in regards to freedom of press and then this reaction from the ambassador are not completely out of context,” Jón stated.

Government declines to respond

Pokruszyński sent a copy of his letter to the Icelandic Prime Minister and President, as well as the Parliament of Iceland and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The latter has stated it does not intent to respond to the letter.

PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir confirmed that the Prime Minister’s Office had received a copy of the letter and does not intent to respond to it. “It’s of course clear that in Iceland there is freedom of press and the government is not the right party to look to if a person considers they have been misrepresented in media coverage, therefore we will take no action on this issue as the Icelandic government has nothing to do with it.”