In Focus: Hate Speech in Iceland

hate speech iceland

When an offensive effigy of Icelandic journalist, athlete, and influencer Edda Falak surfaced at a recent parade in the Westman Islands, it reignited a conversation about misogyny and racism in Iceland. Taking place against the background of a public discourse that seems to be deteriorating, the incident was only one of a series of high-profile […]

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Westman Islands Celebration Marred by Offensive Effigy

vestmannaeyjar á þrettándanum

Icelandic journalist, podcaster, and athlete Edda Falak has spoken out against recent racist and misogynistic depictions of her at a holiday celebration in the Westman islands.

The parade in question was organized by the Westman islands municipal council alongside local sports club ÍBV for Þrettándinn, or 12th Night of Christmas. Postponed in recent years by COVID-19 restrictions, the parade traditionally includes playful troll figures, the holiday bearing many associations with folklore and magic.

One troll, however, bore Edda’s misspelled name: Edda Flak.

In the above Twitter post, Edda Falak stated: “This is a very dangerous message. Everyone involved in organizing this event needs to be held accountable and answer for what they plan on doing to fix this disgusting culture of violence that thrives there. This is not humour, this is violence and racism.”

Edda Falak was born to a Lebanese father and Icelandic mother. She has been a key figure in Iceland’s MeToo movement, hosting a podcast where she talks with victims of sexual assault.

Edda made headlines when her story of sexual assault involved a nationally recognized musician. At first unnamed, it later came out that the musician in question was allegedly Ingó, when he sent her a cease and desist order, claiming her statements referred to him. Ingó, a pop singer, is particularly beloved in the Westman islands, where his appearance at the annual music festival there after the allegations caused controversy.

Haraldur Pálsson, manager of sports association ÍBV, made a public statement in which he stated that he was not aware of the effigy in question beforehand. Videos of backstage preparations for the parade, however, clearly show the presence of the offensive effigy in plain sight. When asked if he planned to contact Edda to offer an apology, he stated that he had thought about it, but had not found her number.

The Westman islands’ Twelfth Night Parade traditionally lampoons community figures, but the line between good-natured communal ribbing and bullying and worse is not always clear. Also “satirized” this year was former ÍBV football player Heimir Hallgrímsson, who also coached a Qatari football team for some 2.5 years. In this year’s parade, his likeness appeared in an Arab costume.

Íris Róbertsdóttir, mayor of the Westman islands, has also weighed in on the case. In an interview with Vísir, the mayor said: “I think it is inappropriate to drag the holiday into this in this way, and I have conveyed these comments to the chairman of the ÍBV. I think that the association should not be dragged into such things […] Things that were okay ten years ago are not okay today and we all just have to go along with our changing society. This was just very inappropriate.”

As of yesterday, January 8, Edda Falak has stated on social media that no one has offered her an apology for the incident.

Hateful Graffiti on Church’s Pride Flag Now Matter for the Police

Hateful, anti-LGBTQIA+ messages have twice been spray-painted on the Pride flag adorning the steps leading up to Grafarvogskirkja, a Lutheran church in the district of Grafarvogur on the eastern outskirts of Reykjavík. There have been two separate incidents of anti-LGBTQIA+ messages being sprayed on the flag. RÚV reports that the incidents have now been referred to the police.

The first message, reading “ANTICHRIST,” was sprayed on the church’s stairway last Saturday. “This was the path up to the church this morning,” wrote Pastor Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir in a Facebook post that day. “It shows how important the rainbow’s message is. This rainbow clearly needs to stand in front of the church and remind us of fellowship, that all people are equally precious, and that love is love.” Pastor Guðrún ended her post with a rainbow of emoji hearts, as well as the Pride and Trans flags.

A photo uploaded in the comments of the original post showed people painting over the hateful graffiti later that morning. Per the caption: “A Swedish family who came to see the church offered to paint over [the message] immediately.”

Family volunteers to paint over hateful graffiti. Image via Grafarvogskirkja Grafarvogi, Facebook

Only days later, on Monday, a different message was tagged on Grafarvogskirkja’s rainbow flag. This time, it read “LEVITICUS 20:13,” referencing a verse from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible which says that men who have sexual relations with other men should be put to death.

Grafarvogskirkja Grafarvogi, FB

“Our beautiful flag has been scribbled on again,” Pastor Guðrún wrote on Facebook. She added that the same chapter in Leviticus also lists off other people who should be put to death, including (but certainly not limited to): anyone who curses their mother and/or father, people who commit adultery, and men who have sex with women who are on their periods.

“We at Grafarvogskirkja choose rather to follow the message of Jesus Christ, who told us to love one another. We believe that each and every person is one of God’s beloved creations and is allowed to live the life that has been predestined for her/them/him.”

The post continued: “The message of Jesus Christ is in full accordance with human rights declarations, and we at Grafarvogskirkja stand for human rights and fight against hatred and prejudice.”

Fifty-Six Percent of Polish Immigrants Have Experienced Hate Speech

Reykjavik from above

The majority of Polish immigrants in Iceland have experienced hate speech in their time living in the country, Kjarninn reports. This was among the findings of a report shared during a conference held by the City of Reykjavík’s Human Rights and Democracy Office on Friday.

Topics addressed at the conference included how best to deal with hate speech, how to ensure that immigrants are included in Icelandic society, and how to support multiculturalism in Iceland.

Poles comprise the largest group of immigrants living in Iceland. According to Statistics Iceland, 20,520 Polish people were living in Iceland as of the beginning of 2021, accounting for 35.9% of all immigrants in the country.

See Also: Calls on Authorities to Tackle Hate Speech

Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir, doctor of anthropology and assistant professor in police science, was among the speakers at Friday’s conference. She explained that not much data has yet been gathered on hate crimes in Iceland, but in the course of her research, she has conducted interviews with victims as well as an extensive survey amongst Polish immigrants in Iceland last year.

Almost 1,000 Polish immigrants responded to Eyrún’s online survey. Roughly 2% had experienced physical violence as a result of their origins, while 56% of respondents had experienced hate speech. A large proportion of those who had experienced hate speech had done so on multiple occasions.

See Also: Prejudice Just Below the Surface in Iceland, Says Prime Minister

Eyrún said that freedom of speech was often cited as a justification for hate speech. She also noted that destruction of property was common and that perpetrators often knew their victims, and were connected via shared neighbourhoods or workplaces.

María Rún Bjarnadóttir, Director Internet Safety at National Commissioner of Police, shared data that indicated that Iceland lags behind neighbouring Nordic countries in this area. To wit, people in Iceland have experienced more hateful remarks, harassment, and/or threats than in people in Norway in the past twelve months. People in Iceland have also had more difficulty responding to hate speech and have done much less to respond to hateful comments or harassment online.

Four young women aged 16 – 19 who go by Antirasistarnir, The Antiracists, and hold a forum for people of color on Instagram also spoke at Friday’s conference. Anna Sonde, Kristín Reynisdóttir, Valgerður Kehinde Reynisdóttir, and Johanna Haile recently received an entrepreneurial award for their efforts to educate people about racism and discrimination in Iceland. Along with describing the experiences of people of colour growing up in Iceland and the lack of diversity education in the country, the women highlighted the importance of acknowledging that racism is a problem in the first place. Solutions must be found not only for existing problems, said the Antiracists, but also methods of preventing these problems in the first place.

Prejudice Just Below the Surface in Iceland, Says Prime Minister

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is putting together a task force that will propose ways to tackle hate speech in Icelandic society, RÚV reports. Katrín stated she was appalled by recent reports of bullying faced by LGBT+ youth in the country. The Prime Minister says that while Icelandic legislation concerning equality has advanced in recent years, societal views can take time to catch up.

A group of LGBT+ youth in the Reykjavík capital area has reported facing harassment on a daily basis, in part due to the influence of TikTok trends that popularise barking at queer people. The persecution has led many of the teens to avoid leaving the house, while their parents fear the effects the harassment might have on their children. One of the group’s friends, who also faced such harassment, committed suicide last year.

Asked whether she was surprised that such prejudice against queer youth was coming from other young people, Katrín responded: “I think it just shows us that prejudice is just below the surface, that’s just how it is.”

Read More: Calls on Icelandic Authorities to Tackle Hate Speech

The Prime Minister’s Office oversees equality affairs, such as legislation on equal status and equal rights regardless of gender and sexual orientation. The task force Katrín is putting together will include representatives from the labour market, justice system, schools, and interest groups, in order to tackle hate speech in all areas of society.

Katrín says that while legislation such as the Gender Autonomy Act passed in 2019, has helped improve the status of LGBT+ people in Iceland, more needs to be done. “That’s one of the projects of this group on hate speech. It’s not just to look at the legislation but how we can uproot this uncivilised behaviour.”

Calls on Icelandic Authorities to Tackle Hate Speech

keyboard computer typing

If hate speech has no consequences for the individuals who spout it in Iceland, that could serve as a certain recognition that it is acceptable, according to Doctor of Anthropology and Assistant Professor of Police Science Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir. Eyrún told RÚV it is up to Icelandic authorities to take concrete measures against hate speech.

Icelandic media outlet Kjarninn withdrew an interview with deputy MP Lenya Rún Taha Karim from online circulation yesterday after the article received a flood of personal attacks against Lenya, including racism and hate speech, on social media. In the interview, Lenya Rún describes the disrespect and racism she has had to endure in Iceland as a person of foreign origin in the public sphere.

“The fact that people appear under their own name [on social media] and express themselves in this way, that can perhaps be traced to the fact that there have in fact been few consequences for people in Iceland who have [used hate speech],” Eyrún explains. “Perhaps a precedent has even been set for hate speech, and if it is left undisturbed, then it creates a certain recognition that it is maybe just OK.”

Authorities silent

“Nothing has been heard from the authorities, they haven’t condemned this type of hatred that is put forth against certain members of society, and that’s a shame,” Eyrún observes. “In many countries, authorities have laid down plans, invested money, created hate crime units within the police and other such things, as a strong emphasis is placed on tackling [hate speech].” Eyrún previously headed such a unit within the Capital Area Police Department, but it has since been dismantled.

The authorities themselves have been embroiled in a controversy regarding a racist remark made by Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson at a conference last month. Sigurður Ingi has been accused of violating the Parliamentary Code of Ethics by making the comment. Besides publishing an apology on his Facebook page, the minister has refused to discuss the incident.

“Hate speech is of the nature that the more well-known and powerful the people that use it are, the worse its effect is in society,” Eyrún says. It can cause others to take up such language, “because they think that if the nation’s officials can allow themselves to talk this way then it’s OK.”

“If You Are Black Or Brown: Please Leave This Town!” Racist Sticker Demands

A racist sticker was affixed to the mirror of an Icelandic family’s car in Snæfellsnes this week, RÚV reports.

Magnús Secka, who is an Icelander of colour, and his mother Sara Magnúsdóttir were travelling around the Snaefellsnes peninsula last weekend and returned to their car to find a sticker adhered to one of the rearview mirrors of their car reading, in English, “If you are black or brown: please leave this town!”

The experience was all the more upsetting because of Magnús’ family’s deep ties to the area. “We own land in Snæfellsnes,” he said. He and his mother met at the Vegamót café and then spent the day sightseeing in the area. When they returned to the café to pick up Magnús’ car, they found the sticker, which also included the url for a racist American website. “I didn’t let it get to me,” said Magnús, “but Mom was angry.” Magnús said this was the first time he’d experienced racism firsthand in Iceland.

Sara shared a photo of the sticker in a Facebook post, which drew considerable outcry and has been shared 1,000 times since. Mother and son have not as of writing made an official report to police about the event and Magnús doesn’t expect that they will. “We hope that this was just an isolated incident.”

European Court of Human Rights Backs Icelandic Court in Hate Speech Case

European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint from Carl Jóhann Lilliendahl, who was convicted for homophobic hate speech by the Supreme Court of Iceland. Carl Jóhann made homophobic comments in response to an online article in April 2015 and was eventually fined ISK 100,000 (around €800 at the time). The ECHR unanimously declared Carl Jóhann’s application inadmissible.

Comments Ruled “Serious, Severely Hurtful, and Prejudicial”

In April 2015, the local authorities of Hafnarfjörður, Southwest Iceland, approved a proposal to strengthen education in elementary and secondary schools on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender matters in co-operation with the National Queer Association (Samtökin ‘78). The decision led to substantial public discussion which Carl Jóhann became involved in. The case concerns comments he wrote in response to an online article on the issue, expressing his disgust and using derogatory words for homosexuality, namely kynvilla (sexual deviation) and kynvillingar (sexual deviants).

Samtökin ‘78 reported Carl’s comments to the police. Following an investigation, he was indicted in November 2016 under Article 233 (a) of the General Penal Code which penalises publicly mocking, defaming, denigrating or threatening a person or group of persons for certain characteristics, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. Though he was acquitted at first instance, in December 2017, the Supreme Court overturned the court’s judgment and convicted him, fining him ISK 100,000.

The Supreme Court found that the applicant’s comments were “serious, severely hurtful and prejudicial,” and weighing up the competing rights at play in the case, ruled that it was justified and necessary to curb the applicant’s freedom of expression in order to counteract prejudice, hatred and contempt and protect the rights of social groups which have historically been subjected to discrimination.

Argued Freedom of Expression Was Breached

Carl Jóhann lodged a complaint with the ECHR alleging that the Supreme Court’s conviction had breached his freedom of expression. The ECHR has now rejected the complaint, finding, like the Supreme Court of Iceland, “that the comments had promoted intolerance and hatred of homosexuals,” according to a press release from the Court. The release goes on to say that, although the comments did not amount to the “gravest” form of hate speech as it was not immediately clear that they had aimed at inciting violence, they fell under the court’s definition of “less grave” hate speech, which the court has previously held that states were allowed to restrict.

The ECHR found that the Supreme Court of Iceland “had extensively weighed the competing interests at stake, namely the applicant’s right to freedom of expression against the rights of homosexual persons to private life. The Court therefore found that the applicant’s complaint […] was manifestly ill-founded and rejected it as inadmissible.”

Police Monitor Nationalist Group in City Centre

Police

Police made one arrest when 10-15 members of nationalist group Norðurvígi gathered in the city centre today, Vísir reports. The Norðurvígi representatives carried flags and pamphlets which they tried to distribute to pedestrians.

The group marched down Skólavörðurstígur and Bankastræti before moving towards Lækjartorg. The police interfered with the gathering and one member was arrested when he refused to identify himself. He later gave the police his name and was subsequently released.

According to Guðmundur Pétur Guðmundsson, a police officer with the metropolitan police, the police didn’t break up the gathering but monitored the proceedings.

Norðurvígi is a part of a “Nordic resistance group”, operating in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The group has been called a neo-Nazi organization.

According to onlookers, the group tried to distribute their booklets to little enthusiasm from the people on the street.

The Norðurvígi website states that the group is a civilian and legal government opposition movement. The group wants to stop mass immigration and take every action to remove international Zionists from power as they “through money or power control a large group of this world.”

Article on Mosque Attacks Closed for Commenting Due to Hate Speech

keyboard computer typing

The Icelandic news outlet Vísir disabled commenting on an article about last week’s attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand after multiple comments were posted that applauded the acts of terrorism. Stundin reports that the comments were made by Icelanders using their own names. Vísir disabled commenting with the simple note: “Commenting on this article is closed due to hate speech.”

Among the comments on the article were several that commended the person responsible for the atrocities. “Well done,” wrote one commenter. “This is self defense. People haven’t forgotten how many Islam has killed in Europe.” Another commenter who celebrated the attacks was identified as a person who regularly comments on news articles related to Muslims and immigration issues.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Thórdarson sent their condolences to New Zealand following the attacks.

“Shocked and heartbroken over the senseless violence in #Christchurch,” wrote Katrín in a Tweet. “Dear @jacindaardern, I send you my deepest sympathies and all the light in the world from the people of Iceland.”

“We are deeply saddened by the horrifying terrorist attack in #Christchurch,” wrote Guðlaugur Þór. “Our thoughts are with the families of the victims and the people of New Zealand.”

At the time of writing, the death toll in the mosque attacks was 49 dead and 42 injured, with a four-year-old child in critical condition.