Iceland News Review: New Names, a Controversial Law, and More

In this episode of Iceland News Review, we dig into a rocky start for the government, some intriguing findings following a controversial law, the return of an iconic bird and more.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

No Increase in Pregnancy Terminations Following Law Change

Iceland's Althing

Changes to Iceland’s abortion law that took effect in 2019 did not impact the number of pregnancies terminated in the country, according to a newly published report from the Directorate of Health. The law was heavily debated when it was introduced to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, and criticised by the Bishop of Iceland, among others. The changes appear to have shortened the time between the decision to terminate a pregnancy and the procedure itself. RÚV reported first.

According to the latest figures from the Directorate of Health, the frequency of pregnancy termination in 2022 was similar to what it was before the law was changed in 2019. The number of terminations was slightly lower in 2020 and 2021, which may be explained by gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Termination of pregnancy permitted until 22nd week

Under the new law, it is legal to request a termination of pregnancy up to the end of the 22nd week of pregnancy, instead of the 16th week, as the law previously allowed. However, the law still indicates that the procedure should be carried out as soon as possible, preferably before the 12th week of pregnancy.

The previous law in Iceland also permitted termination of pregnancy after the 16th week, but only due to unequivocal medical reasons. Such terminations required written authorisation from a Directorate of Health committee. This is no longer the case under the new law.

The old law was changed in part due its violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as it allowed the termination of pregnancy after the 16th week if there was “a high likelihood of malformation, genetic defects or damage to the fetus.” The law was first put under review in 2016, culminating with the introduction of the now-approved bill in 2019, by then-Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir.

Supported by medical professionals

Professional medical associations expressed support for the new law when it was introduced. These included the Association of Icelandic Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Association of Icelandic Nurses, the National University Hospital of Iceland, the Directorate of Health, and the Icelandic Social Workers’ Association. The Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir wrote an op-ed in Morgunblaðið newspaper opposing the changes, and People’s Party MP Inga Sæland also vocally opposed them at the time. Bjarni Benediktsson, chairman of the Independence Party and now Prime Minister, was the only government minister to vote against the bill.

Despite the legislation being relaxed in 2019, there is no evidence that the number of pregnancy terminations after the 16th week has increased in Iceland. On the other hand, a larger proportion of terminations are carried out earlier in the pregnancy, with nearly 90% carried out before the ninth week.

Prosecution Seeks 8 Year Sentence in Bankastræti Case

Judge's gavel

Morgunblaðið reports that the prosecution in the Bankastræti Club case is seeking a minimum sentence of 8 years in prison for Alexander Máni Björnsson due to a knife attack on three victims at Bankastræti Club. The prosecution argues that there is sufficient evidence to claim that there was an attempted murder in this case, though none of the victims suffered fatal injuries.

The prosecution has cited the suspect’s use of excessive force, violation of probation, and lack of remorse for the long sentence, pointing out that some of the victims are still dealing with the consequences of the attack.

The case, which is one of the largest criminal cases in Icelandic history, features a total of 25 defendants. 10 are charged with serious bodily harm, and 14 are charged with complicity in the attack. Legal precedent for such charges shows a maximum of 20 months in prison for serious bodily harm.

Defendant Withdrew Confession

Earlier today, the defendant Alexander withdrew his confession in one of the stabbing cases at the nightclub.

His withdrawn confession pertains to the attack on one of the victims, where an artery was severed due to a stab wound in the thigh. Medical experts assessed that the attack had been life-threatening.

He now admits to fewer charges than before. The withdrawal happened just before the prosecution and defence were scheduled to begin their case presentation, and caused considerable confusion.

The presiding judge expressed serious concerns about this decision by the defendant and his attorney, stating that it showed disrespect for the court and disrespect for other legal professionals involved in the proceedings.  Additionally, the defence attorneys of the other individuals involved in the attack had built their defence on his admissions.

The judge has summoned the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney for a meeting to discuss the matter.

FME Believes Íslandsbanki Broke the Law During March Sale

íslandsbanki sale iceland reykjavík

Íslandsbanki has started a conciliation process with the Central Bank’s Financial Supervisory Authority due to the bank’s possible violations of the law, RÚV reports. The bank’s employees were among the buyers in a closed bidding arrangement last March when the government sold a 22.5% stake in the bank.

Preliminary findings “taken seriously”

The Central Bank’s Financial Supervisory Authority (FME) believes that Íslandsbanki may have violated the provisions of laws and regulations, regarding the bank and its operations, during the sale of the government’s 22.5% stake in the bank last March, RÚV reports. This is the result of a preliminary assessment that Íslandsbanki has received.

The preliminary assessment states that the Financial Supervisory Authority has the authority to impose administrative fines for the violations. The agency is also authorised to conclude cases through a settlement in the event that the offender admits to the offences and submits to sanctions.

Íslandsbanki’s announcement to the Icelandic Stock Exchange states that a conciliation process has begun and that the bank’s management takes FME’s initial assessment seriously:

“A conciliation process has begun, and in the coming weeks, the bank will present its explanations and views on FME’s initial assessment. The bank’s management takes FME’s initial assessment seriously. As previously reported, the bank has already made changes to internal rules and processes and will continue such work during the reconciliation process.”

“Unable to comment at this time”

Edda Hermannsdóttir, Director of Communication for Íslandsbanki, told RÚV that Birna Einarsdóttir, Íslandsbanki’s Director, could not comment on the conciliation while it was ongoing.

As insinuated by RÚV, among the rules violated by Íslandsbanki was allowing employees to buy shares in what was a closed sales process; the bank announced in May that it would be changing its rules regarding its employees’ securities transactions:

“There has been a lot of discussion about the sales process and the arrangement employed. Among other things, the participation of the bank’s employees in the sale has been criticised. We take this criticism seriously and are currently working on changes to the bank’s rules regarding employees’ securities transactions,” Birna Einarsdóttir was quoted as saying in an article on Mbl.is last May.

RÚV states that the nature of the bank’s other possible violations has not been revealed.

MP calls Íslandsbanki’s press release pitiful

Sigmar Guðmundsson, MP for the Liberal Reform Party, called Íslandsbanki’s press release “pitiful” in a post on Facebook yesterday. “The bank’s offences are committed during the sale of public property, and the bank could have shown more initiative in providing information to this same public.” The director of the bank prefers to remain silent during this so-called conciliation process, Sigmar noted, a prerogative not available to other criminal offenders.

A Fisherman by Any Other Name: Terminology in New Law Sparks Debate

overfishing iceland

A new law regarding ships’ crews that went into effect at the beginning of the month is sparking considerable debate throughout Iceland, but not because of the content of the law. Rather, critics have taken issue with the choice of wording in it, namely the use of the word fiskari, most easily translatable as ‘fisher,’ in lieu of the term fiskimaður, which literally means ‘fisher+man.’ Mbl.is, RÚV, and Vísir have all reported.

Critics, including some in the industry and current or former politicians, have called the word choice an example of the sterilization of Icelandic, or even an example of the language’s slide into nýlenska, or Orwellian Newspeak. Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, takes a different view, however, noting that the word fiskari is actually a centuries-old Icelandic word and one that was in use long before modern debates about gender neutrality in language.

Law aims to ‘promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships’

According to the text of the “Law concerning ships’ crews,” 2022 nr. 82, its aim is to “ensure the safety of crews, passengers, and ships, and increase protections against the pollution of the seas. These goals will be achieved by making certain mandates about the education and training, age, sailing time, health, vision, and hearing of those who work onboard and in so doing ensure the professional competence of crews based on the size of the ship, its role, and its area of operation.”

This overview goes on to say that the law “is intended to promote equal access of the sexes to education, training, and jobs aboard Icelandic ships.” It then includes an extensive  definition of terms, in which it defines a fiskari as “he or she who works or is hired to work on a fishing vessel…harbour pilots, law enforcement officers, other parties in staff positions working with the public, employees on land who perform work onboard fishing vessels, or fishing inspectors are not considered to be fishers.”

It is worth noting that while the word fiskari is being interpreted by critics as inherently gender-neutral because it does not make use of the suffix –maður, meaning ‘man’ (-menn in the plural), fiskari is still a masculine-gendered word in Icelandic. [Note: Icelandic has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.] It is also worth noting that in the Icelandic, the above-quoted definition also includes the use of three additional masculine-gendered terms for different roles/jobs: hafnsögumenn (harbour pilots); starfsmenn (employees); eftirlitsmenn (inspectors).

‘The most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland’

Critics, some of whom work within the industry, were quick to voice their dissatisfaction with the word choice.

Fiskari is a malaprop in my opinion,” said Valmundur Valmundsson, the chair of the Icelandic Seamen’s Association. “Sjómannadagurinn [Fishermen’s Day] is never going to be called Fiskaradagurinn [Fishers’ Day].” Eiríkur Óli Dagbjartsson, fishing manager of the Grindavík-based fishing company Þorbjörn hf. felt similarly, telling Morgunblaðið that he thought the shift to the word fiskari was “preposterous.”

Current and former politicians have also taken to social media to voice their dissatisfaction. Former Prime Minister and chair of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson wrote a Facebook post in which he said the use of the word fiskari was part of the “PC-powers’ ongoing attempt to turn Icelandic into Newspeak, in the manner of Orwell” and fretted that “the most ‘woke’ government in the history of Iceland will hardly stop with this.”

“It used to be common knowledge that women were also -menn [the plural form of maður, men],” Sigmundur Davíð continued. “That knowledge seems to be getting lost now, as can be observed from the strange explanations of those who think the change [i.e. removing the suffix -maður] is an important step in equality issues.” Sigmundur Davíð then concluded his post by listing off a number of job titles that incorporate the suffix -maður [-man] and which he said were at risk of falling victim next, i.e. that talsmaður [spokesman] might be converted to talari [speaker/spokesperson].

‘It is important to respect their origin and traditional usage’

In a post on Facebook, former Social Democratic Alliance MP, now a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Bifröst University, Ólina Kjerúlf Þorvarðardóttir said she could hardly formulate a response.

“The words that we use are something other, something more, than just sterile units of meaning, cut and dried,” she wrote. “If that were the case, we couldn’t talk about a living language, about creative manners of expression. Our words are laden with feeling, the way we see life, our circumstances, our history and culture.

“The word ‘sjómaður’ has deep-seated emotional implications for many Icelanders, who are familiar with our nation’s struggle for survival over the centuries. Some job titles are compound words using the word ‘maður’ [-man]—flugmaður [pilot], hermaður [soldier], etc—and others aren’t—kennari [teacher], læknir [doctor], prestur [pastor]. It’s well and good that words aren’t all formed in the same way. It is more important, I think, to respect their origin and traditional usage, instead of bending and buckling…the language [according to] some puritanical policy about how words should be created.”

Ólina continued: “Sterlization in linguistics is, at best, indifference and incomprehension, and at worst, hostility: to creation, history, and emotion.”

The word fiskari dates back to the 16th century

What the overriding criticism belies, however, is the word fiskari enjoys a long history and centuries-old usage in Iceland. “This word dates back to the 16th century at least,” says Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland. “It was in the first book that was printed in Iceland, Oddur Gottskálksson’s translation of the New Testament.”

“According to the sources I’ve looked at, it seems that from the 16th century to the 19th century, this was the primary word used for [people who fish], much more common than the word fiskimaður.” Eiríkur points out that in the census from 1845, which recorded Icelanders’ occupations, around 150 people called themselves a fiskari, while only seven called themselves a fiskimaður.

Fiskari is used up until the 20th century,” says Eiríkur. After that, the word fell out of common use and the word fiskimaður became more prevalent. The most common useage, however, is the word sjómaður [seaman].”

(As an interesting corollary to Eiríkur’s points, one might consider these words’ frequency in the work of Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner and a passionate advocate for the Icelandic language who is still considered one of its preeminent stylists and practitioners. Per data compiled in the comprehensive online Icelandic dictionary Snara, fiskari appears 20 times in his writings and fiskimaður appears with the exact same frequency: 20 times. The word sjómaður, on the other hand, appears some 65 times.)

Returning to the text of the law itself, Eiríkur points to the section where various terms are defined. “A number of words that are used in the law are clarified. In legal texts, it’s important that the meaning of words are clear. It is clear [in the text] that fiskari is a word for people who work on fishing vessels. This is to say, it’s a special term. It is common for legal texts and regulations to use words that have specific and set meanings, where other words are frequently used in everyday speech.”

Speaking to concerns related to the fate of other Icelandic words that end in –maður [-man], Eiríkur continues:

“Words that end in –maður have an undeniably strong connection to men in many people’s minds. In old rural society, there was a clear difference between male and female laborers,” he explains, giving the examples of the gender-specific words vinnumaður [working man] and vinnukona [working woman] and kaupamaður [merchant-man] and kaupakona [merchant-woman].

“For people who want to demasculinize the language, these words that end in –maður are much more masculine than other words that are grammatically masculine. People ask: why just this one? Why won’t other words that end in –maður be taken? The answer to this is maybe, first and foremost, that this word, fiskari, already existed. In this instance, there was an existing word that could be utilized, a synonym. There is no similar word for sjómaður [seaman] and farmaður [merchant sailor]. We have the word sjóari [seafarer, grammatically masculine but formed in the same way that fiskari is formed; more implicitly gender-neutral], but it’s completely different [in meaning] than the word sjómaður.” [Note: the word sjóari implies that the individual in question is a very experienced sailor, comparable to ‘old salt’ in English.]

By using the word fiskari in the text of the new law, lawmakers are reviving an old, existing Icelandic word, says Eiríkur, something that can’t fairly be considered malapropism or ‘incorrect’ language. Language necessarily changes and morphs over time, he says, through common use. “Isn’t that the very definition of ‘correct’ language?” he asks. “That it’s the language people speak?”

Minister of Justice to Declare War on Organised Crime

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has announced his intention to wage war against organised crime following the knife attacks in a Reykjavík club last week, which have been taken as signs of gang warfare.

On Thursday night, November 17, a group of masked and armed men stormed a Reykjavík nightclub, stabbing three men, who were since transported to the ER.

Of the nearly 30 men involved in the attack, already some 14 have been apprehended by the police. Two are suspected to have fled the country, with the police now searching for the remaining suspects.

Read more: Petrol Bombs and Threats of Retaliation Following Knife Attack

According to Minister Jón Gunnarsson, the incident reveals a problem with organised crime in a nation generally upheld for its security.

In response to the minister’s call for a “war on crime,” efforts are now being prepared to attack the root causes of organised criminality in Iceland.

The Minister has also expressed his desire to strengthen police powers, with what Jón Gunnarsson calls “preventative warrants,” allowing for “proactive investigation.” Such measures have been controversial in Alþingi, but Jón Gunnarsson has stated that his proposals would be “harmless.”

Such warrants would allow police to monitor individuals associated with known criminals and criminal activity, without themselves being found guilty of any crime.

The proposed measures would also add tasers to the police arsenal. Currently, Icelandic police officers only carry batons and pepper spray in the field.

In a statement to Vísir, the Minister said: “The steps we take may prove to be controversial, I have no doubt about that. Both of these new authorisations, for preventative warrants and weapons for the police, may be controversial, but we have to do it.”

 

Court Denies Erla’s Request for Retrial

Guðmundur og Geirfinnur case Supreme court

In a decision handed down September 14, Erla Bolladóttir’s request for a retrial was denied. The court cited a lack of new developments in the case, and ordered Erla to pay some ISK 3 million in fees.

Convicted in 1980 in the notorious Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case, Erla has since fought for a retrial. Now, with her appeal rejected, she suggested at a press conference held Wednesday, September 21, that she may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Read more: States Opposes Compensation in Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Case

“The condition for applying to the Human Rights Court is that you have exhausted all domestic means,” Erla said at the press conference. “This judgment of the court is the final word in this country, so it is definitely something I will consider.”

Erla also stated that she intended to pursue her fight for justice, saying that she was recently diagnosed with cancer: “Does anyone think I’m going to spend my last days lying to the world about this injustice?”

Read more: Compensation Awarded in Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Case

The Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case is one of the most controversial and notorious criminal cases in Iceland’s modern history, revolving around the disappearance of two young men, Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, in 1974. Six individuals were ultimately convicted in connection to the case, but the extreme interrogation measures taken by the police, including sleep deprivation, drugs, and water torture, have caused many to question the legitimacy of the confessions. The convicts have previously stated that they signed the confessions in order to put an end to their solitary confinements, which, in Erla’s case, was for 242 days.

The case has been described as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in Europe by foreign media.

In 2018, a retrial of the case led to five acquittals, though this notably did not apply to Erla who was also charged with perjury in the case.

At the time of writing, around 1,100 have signed a petition in support of Erla’s retrial.

 

Landmark Bill Includes Psychotherapy Under Icelandic Health Insurance

Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, chairman of Viðreisn party

Iceland’s Parliament passed a bill yesterday ensuring psychotherapy will be covered by public health insurance on the same grounds as other health services. Reform Party Chairperson Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir was the primary proponent of the bill, which was introduced by 23 MPs from all sitting parties and unanimously approved. It will take effect in 2021.

In Iceland, one session of psychotherapy can cost around ISK 17,500 ($126/€113). According to Statistics Iceland, around one third of the country’s residents say they cannot afford mental health services. The bill stated that including these services within the public health insurance system would eliminate “unnecessary suffering” while also providing savings for the country in the long term.

The Icelandic Psychological Association celebrated the bill’s passing. “The association has fought for improved access to psychotherapy for decades,” read a statement from the group’s chairman Tryggi Ingason. “The Icelandic Psychological Association believes an important step is being taken to increase the public’s access, regardless of means, to applicable mental health services. With this we are investing in improved public mental health which will benefit the national economy in the long run.”

Icelandic Mental Health Alliance director Grímur Atlason called the new legislation “really important. In recent years it’s been acknowledged that a large part of the nation struggles with some kind of mental health challenge at some point in their life. According to health clinics, it’s about 30% of everyone who visits the clinics.” Grímur told RÚV the move would increase the likelihood that people seek out therapy when they need it.

Icelander Róbert Spano Elected President of European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights elected Icelander Róbert Ragnar Spano as its new President yesterday. He will take office on May 18, 2020, succeeding Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos, from Greece. At 47, Róbert is the youngest president in the 61-year history of the European Court of Human Rights.

Róbert was born in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1972, and studied law at the University of Iceland before completing a Magister Juris degree in European and Comparative Law at the University of Oxford. Róbert served as a legal advisor and deputy to the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Iceland and taught at the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Law, where he served as Dean from 2010-2013.

Róbert has been a judge of the European Court of Human Rights since November 2013 and Vice President of the Court since May 5, 2019. He speaks five languages: Icelandic, English, Italian, French, and Danish.

New Laws on E-Cigarettes Go Into Effect Today

New laws governing the import, use, and safety of e-cigarettes, as well as provisions meant to discourage young people from using these products go into effect today, RÚV reports. These are the first laws in Iceland to specifically address e-cigarettes and their use and conform to existing laws on e-cigarettes that have been put in place by the European Council.

Under the terms of the new law, the Minister of Health will be responsible for setting regulations with further provisions regarding the quality, safety, and ingredient descriptions for e-cigarette products. These provisions will take effect on June 1. Those who import e-cigarettes and their refills and accessories have also been given a deadline for conforming to the new regulations on package labeling. E-cigarette products that do not conform to the new provisions will be legally saleable until September 1, 2019.

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir says that the new laws on e-cigarettes are very similar to those that are in place for traditional ones. Cigarette packaging must, for instance, clearly indicate that nicotine is highly addictive.