Fréttablaðið, Iceland’s First Freely Distributed Newspaper, Shuttered

Fréttablaðið

The publication of Fréttablaðið, the first newspaper to be distributed for free in Iceland, has ceased. All broadcasts on the television station Hringbraut will also come to a close. Approximately 100 people have been laid off in what the editor of Fréttablaðið has called “a shock for democracy in Iceland.”

Decision caught many by surprise

In a press release this morning, the company Torg (which operates Fréttablaðið, Hringbraut, and DV) announced that a decision had been made to shutter Fréttablaðið, which has been published continuously since 2001. Furthermore, all broadcasts from the television station Hringbraut will cease.

As noted by Vísir, a staff meeting was called at Torg’s office in Hafnartorg, Reykjavík, this morning, where employees were informed of the pending changes. According to Vísir’s sources, there had been “great uncertainty about the future of Fréttablaðið among the employees for some time.” The news, nonetheless, caught many by surprise – not least those who were off duty or were engaged in projects out of town.

An announcement from Torg cites “various reasons” why the operations had failed:

“There are many reasons why Fréttablaðið’s business is unsustainable. Partly it is down to bad luck and partly it is an unavoidable development, as the publication of print media has rapidly subsided, not least in this country. Digital media is gradually taking over. Also, the operating environment of private media in Iceland is uninviting. There is nothing to do but face these facts. All employees of Torg were paid their salaries today.”

The announcement further cites the pandemic as a reason for Fréttablaðið’s operational troubles, as well as a dramatic decline in ad revenues: “During the epidemic, government support for private media was introduced, which was appreciated, although it did not suffice to sustain larger media companies. Subsequently, the government has provided financial support to the activities of the media, but that contribution has dwindled.”

Torg’s announcement states that the operation of the websites DV.is and Hringbraut.is would continue alongside the publication of Iceland Magazine.

Editor speaks out

After the news broke, Sigmundur Ernir Rúnarsson, editor of Fréttablaðið, stated that this was “a sad day” for his colleagues at Torg, who had collaborated on the publication of the newspaper, the operation of its website, alongside the production of television programmes and podcasts. According to Vísir, twelve employees of DV.is will keep their jobs.

Sigmundur Ernir told Vísir that employees had worked hard to “revive Fréttablaðið under very difficult conditions, after the pandemic, after the war in Ukraine, which has had a great impact on the operation, and, in fact, the operation of all private media. There is a cross-political agreement to foster one media outlet – that of the state media. The others can do what they want. Everyone who runs a private media company today knows that they are very heavily targeted by the public sector. [It remains to be seen whether there is any] interest in running a democratic, vigorous media in the country.”

As noted by Vísir, Fréttablaðið was first published on Monday, April 23, 2001. Its first editor was Einar Karl Haraldsson. The publication of the paper marked a turning point in Icelandic media history, as the paper was distributed free of charge to homes and advertising revenue served as the basis for its operations. As a result, the paper soon became the most widely read in the country.

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.”

Three Major Media Outlets Receive 63% of Government Support

Nineteen privately-owned media outlets will receive financial support from the government this year RÚV reports. The allocation committee received 23 applications requesting a combined ISK 880 million [$6.92 million; €5.84 million] in support. A total of ISK 389 million [$3.06 million; €2.58 million] was distributed to 19 outlets, although 63% this funding went to just three major companies. Two applications were rejected on the basis of having been received after the submission deadline.

Media support applications were reviewed by a three-person allocation committee overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science. The committee was staffed by Supreme Court attorney Árni Vilhjálmsson, accountant Stefán Svavarsson, and head of the journalism program at the University of Iceland, Valgerður Anna Jóhannsdóttir, and advised in its efforts by the Icelandic Media Commission.

The highest allocations of roughly ISK 81 million each [$637,443; €537,680] went to three major parent companies. These are Árvakur hf, which publishes the daily paper Morgunblaðið, its online outlet mbl.is, and the radio station K100; Sýn ehf, which operates the Stöð 2 TV channel, the Bylgjan radio station, and the online paper Vísir; and Torg ehf, which publishes the daily paper Fréttablaðið, its online outlet frettabladid.is, and the Hringbraut TV station.

After the top three allocations, the next five grantees were: The Farmers Association of Iceland, which publishes the free farm- and agriculture-focused paper Bændablaðið (ISK 12.4 million [$97,560; €82,333]); online paper Kjarninn (ISK 14.4 million [$113,296; €95,613]); the N4 TV channel (ISK 19.4 million [$152,647; €128,812]); investigative outlet Stundin (ISK 25.3 million [$199,055; €167,986]); and Myllusetur ehf, which publishes the business-focused paper Viðskiptablaðið (ISK 27 million [$212,397; €179,274]).

A temporary initiative
The funding comes as a result of legislation proposed by Minister of Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir and passed by parliament earlier this year. Per the terms of the legislation, the state will grant up to ISK 400 million ($3.3 million/€2.7 million) to privately-owned media companies, which can apply for up to 25% reimbursement of eligible expenses: salary costs and payments to contractors working on collecting and disseminating news.

The legislation is a temporary initiative: it provides grants to independent Icelandic media companies this year and next year. Parliament passed similar legislation in 2020 to establish a fund to help independent media companies address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some journalists have argued that such funding is biased toward Iceland’s largest media companies at the expense of smaller, local media.

Operating at a loss
This year’s allocations to Árvakur, Sýn, and Torg mark a shift from last year—two for the worse, and one for the better. In 2020, Árvakur hf received ISK 100 million [$786,967; €663,807] and Sýn ehf received ISK 91 million [$716,028; €604,064]. Torg ehf, on the other hand, received more money this year—in 2020, it was allocated ISK 64.7 million [$509,088; €429,596].

However, in spite of the substantial funding it received, Árvakur operated at a loss of ISK 75 million [$589,854; €498,017] last year. It has, indeed, operated at a loss every year since the company was bought by new owners following the crash in 2009. Sýn has also been operating at a loss. Last year, it lost ISK 405 million [$3.18 million; €2.68 million] and according to current figures, it is still operating at a loss this year. No current data was available for Torg, but according to data obtained from the Icelandic Revenue and Customs office, in 2019, it operated at a loss of ISK 212 million [$1.67 million; €1.41 million].

‘It’s crazy that we’re taking money from the state’
Stundin was quick to point out that the big three received over half of this year’s media grant allocations—63%, to be precise. Interestingly, the allocations process and distribution has drawn criticism even from those who benefit from it. Just last week, Þórhallur Gunnarsson, the head of media and broadcasting at Vodafone and Stöð 2 (owned by Sýn ehf), remarked in an interview that he felt it was wrong for large media companies, such as Sýn and Árvakur, to receive special state support, which he thinks should be reserved for smaller media entities, rural media outlets, and publications with a focus on investigative journalism.

“It’s crazy that we’re taking money from the state and are supported by the government,” said Þórhallur. “We are a hugely powerful media outlet, with a large subscriber base. We have countless opportunities.”

Þórhallur was echoed in his views by one of the owners and editors of the online newspaper Kjarninn, Þórður Snær Júlíusson. “We should improve the whole media landscape with multifaceted measures that benefit large and small outlets alike. Grants for small and growing media companies. And in return, the nation gets a robust and diverse media. Everyone wins.”

Iceland Review is one of the independent publications receiving financial support this year.

No News in Fréttablaðið Today

Fréttablaðið was published this morning without any news articles. Print journalists went on a 12-hour strike yesterday.

Last week, the Union of Icelandic Journalists voted down a proposed agreement with the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise. The two parties met again this week but adjourned without a contract. Following the meeting, union members went ahead with their fourth proposed strike yesterday

The strike was the first to include print journalists at Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið, as well as photographers and videographers. Fréttablaðið – which is distributed every day of the week except Sundays – was published this morning without any news articles. The newspaper contained only freelance articles and advertisements.

Print journalists at Morgunblaðið also went on a 12-hour strike yesterday. The strike did not, however, seem to impact the content of today’s paper. This is not the first time that strikes at Morgunblaðið prove ineffectual. During earlier strikes among web-media journalists at Morgunblaðið, several other journalists who do not usually write news on mbl.is began reporting for the website. The Union of Icelandic Journalists subsequently sued Árvakur, Morgunblaðið’s publisher, for violating the strike. A decision is currently pending in the Icelandic Labour Court. 

Morgunblaðið laid off 15 employees in late November.