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.

Report: Iceland’s Media System “Increasingly Less Viable”

Iceland’s ranking has fallen in the World Press Freedom Index, which just published its annual ranking for 2021. Iceland fell by one spot, from 15th to 16th place, and has fallen slowly but steadily since it was ranked 10th in 2017. An Index statement says the climate for journalists has been worsening in Iceland and cites funding as the main issue facing the country’s media.

“Despite the declared aim for Iceland to become the Eldorado of investigative journalism and online media with the adoption of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in June 2010, the climate for journalists has been worsening for years because relations between politicians and media have soured,” a statement from the Index reads. “The 2008 economic crisis had a big impact on the media, undermining their economic viability and ability to resist pressure from lobbies, while at the same time reviving public trust in the media and their role as a pillar of democracy. After the crisis, two leading national dailies were acquired by two major fishing and industrial companies, posing a problem of conflicts of interest.”

Read More: Broken News

While the statement commends Icelandic legislation, which protects journalists and freedom of expression, it stated that “a lack of funding continues to be the main problem for the media.” Iceland’s government is discussing a new law on funding independent media companies.

The full statement on Iceland’s media can be read here.