Hera to Represent Iceland in Eurovision

A screenshot from RÚV. Hera Björk during the Söngvakeppnin final, March 2, 2024

Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV), The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, has decided that singer Hera Björk will represent Iceland with her song Scared of Heights at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö in Sweden this May. According to an announcement from RÚV, Hera was the undisputed winner of Söngvakeppnin, Iceland’s preliminary competition.

Only two days ago, RÚV launched an independent inquiry into the voting process of Söngvakeppnin. Several voters reported glitches in RÚV’s voting app. Some who attempted to vote for Hera’s main competitor, Palestinian Bashar Murad, shared screenshots of error messages or indications that their vote had gone to Hera instead. The songwriter for Bashar’s song, Wild West, submitted a written request for an independent inquiry into the error.

Few votes in question

RÚV says that both songs were affected by the voting app glitch and that Hera’s victory was dominant as she received some 3,500 more votes than Bashar. According to the voting app’s developers, only 748 votes were in question. “The votes possibly affected due to this glitch were even fewer than originally thought and it’s clear that this had no impact on the final results,” RÚV’s announcement read. “Hera Björk is the undisputed winner of Söngvakeppnin 2024.”

Saddened by the discourse

Iceland’s participation in Eurovision has been criticised in light of Israel’s ongoing participation in the competition during its military action in Gaza. Bashar’s participation was seen by many as a statement to oppose the war, but he was also subjected to racist comments during the process. Hera’s songwriter, Ásdís María Viðarsdóttir, known professionally as Ásdís, said that she wanted Bashar to represent Iceland and that her conscience didn’t allow her to participate further.

Hera said that she was saddened by the discourse. “Both in terms of how people talked about me and my supposed viewpoints, but even more so about how Bashar was treated,” she said.

Program Director Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson said that RÚV was aware of the discourse surrounding the competition. “We encourage everyone to support Hera and her team,” he said. “She will be a fantastic representative for us.”

Police Deny Skin Colour a Factor in Christmas Arrest

Police

28 year old Brian Gona was arrested on his way home from work Christmas Eve, detained in a cell and interrogated for not being able to show his ID card. The incident has prompted the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police to state that they do not arrest anyone for the sole reason of being Black, Heimildin reports.

Mother describes interrogation

Þórunn Helgadóttir, Brian’s stepmother, described the incident in a Facebook post Tuesday. She said Brian, the son of her Kenyan husband, was heading from work to catch a bus at Hlemmur bus station around 18:00 on Christmas Eve when the police stopped him. She said they accused him of lying to them when he told them his name and personal identification number. Instead of driving him to his home in Breiðholt to look at his ID card, Þórunn said the police drove Brian to the Hlemmur police station, confiscated his phone, yelled at him, and denied him water and bathroom access.

Þórunn added that the officers repeatedly asked Brian for permission to search his home for illegal drugs, which he didn’t grant. She said the only plausible reason for their actions is Brian’s skin colour. Þórunn said that when the police finally brought Brian home and looked at his passport, the officers quickly left when they learned he’d been in the country since 2014 and called Þórunn “mum”.

Police say details don’t fit

Superintendent Ásmundur Rúnar Gylfason told Heimildin that Þórunn’s description of events doesn’t match the experience of the police that night. He said that he couldn’t comment on individual cases, but did confirm that a person had been detained Christmas Eve for refusing to reveal their identity. The person had also not been able to confirm who they were with identification. “This individual was detained by police on the basis of a tip that a person had been asleep at the wheel of a stopped car on the East side,” Ásmundur said.

This case, which doesn’t match Þórunn’s description, was the only case of someone being arrested Christmas Eve for theses causes, Ásmundur said. He added that recordings of all communications exist. “And the police is not worried about what they reveal,” Ásmundur said. “The police doesn’t arrest anyone on the sole basis of them being Black.”

Manslaughter Case Raises Concerns Among Immigrant Community

Experts in multiculturalism and members of Iceland’s largest immigrant community fear the implications of a case involving the stabbing and death of a Polish man. The four suspects are all Icelandic teenagers and are currently in custody.

Around midnight on April 20, law enforcement was tipped off to a confrontation between the four suspects and the victim in the parking lot of Fjarðarkaup grocery store in Hafnarfjörður, a town in the Reykjavík capital area. Police arrived shortly after to find the victim, who was transported to the emergency room with several stab wounds. He was pronounced dead shortly after. The victim was a Polish man 27 years of age. The four suspects are Icelandic youth, three male and one female. The oldest suspect is 18 and the other three are under 18 years of age. Police have not identified any connection between the suspects and the victim.

Community in shock

The Polish community is Iceland’s largest immigrant community, making up around 40% of all immigrants in the country. “I think everyone, not just the Polish community, is in shock, because this is very difficult,” Martyna Ylfa Suzko, a Polish-Icelandic interpreter, told RÚV. Martyna has lived in Iceland for 18 years and considers herself as much Icelandic as Polish. She believes the incident could cause conflict between Polish and Icelandic people in Iceland by encouraging people to think in terms of “us” versus “them.”

Inadequate language interpreting services

In an interview with Heimildin, the mother of the victim stated it had been difficult to receive information about the case. “All communication goes through an interpreter and it’s a new interpreter every time.” Martyna says she is familiar with such issues in the Iceland. “This is not OK at all and as I always say, receiving good and certified quality interpreting services is simply a human right, especially in a situation like this. There isn’t enough professionalism yet. […] That’s something that can recreate the trauma for this person. Interpreting is not just putting something into Google translate and translating word for word.”

Xenophobia on social media

The manslaughter case sparked much discussion on social media, with many Icelanders assuming that the suspects were foreigners before their nationality was made public. Many Icelanders posted xenophobic comments on social media in response to the case, for example encouraging immigrants in Iceland to “go back home.” Jasmina Vajzovic Crnac, the director of International Issues at the City of Reykjavík’s Welfare Department, says this rhetoric has often been seen in comment sections on Icelandic media before and called it a dangerous development.

Icelandic Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” Reinforces Racist Stereotypes, Critics Say

Íslenska óperan / Facebook

The Icelandic Opera’s ongoing production of Madama Butterfly is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of Asian people, local critics say. The opera, composed by Puccini in 1904, centres on the relationship between a white, US naval officer and a 15-year-old Japanese girl. The state-funded production has been accused of using yellowface and Chinese characters in its set design. Vísir reported first.

Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, was the first to publicly draw attention to the issue in a Facebook post. “When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanization,” she wrote. Pictures of performers in the production show heavy face makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and moustaches as well as black wigs. Many people of Asian origin assert that the characters used in the set design are Chinese rather than Japanese.

The production’s conductor, Levente Török, initially commented on Laura’s post, denying that the production contained racist elements. He later deleted his comment, but a screenshot remains available.

A state-funded production

Daniel Roh, a Korean-American stand-up comedian and teacher living in Iceland has published an open letter to the Icelandic Opera with suggestions on how the company could respond to the criticism with changes to the production and other constructive actions. He points out that the Icelandic Opera is funded in part by public money and that “Performing yellowface in such a big production funded by the state is dangerous. Racism is real and present in everyday Iceland.” Such public displays of racism “can lead to real harm and alienation,” Daniel added.

Daniel is organising a protest of the production at Harpa Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon at 6:30 PM. “There are three performances left, more than enough time to take off some wigs,” he wrote in his letter.

Stage director responds to criticism

The production’s stage director and set designer Michiel Dijkema responded to Laura’s post with a lengthy comment. According to Dijkema, those responsible for the production “have not attempted to change skin color or shape of the eyes to make the singers look Japanese, but we have used elements from theatre makeup of Japanese theatre forms such as “Noh” and “Kabuki” that according to Dijkema “makes the singers actually much whiter.” Dijkema asserted that he had asked “several friends and colleagues of Asian heritage if they would consider such an approach racist, which they didn’t.” As for the characters on the set, Dijkema insisted they were “Japanese Kanji characters” that are “mainly identical to Chinese characters.” Others in the comments, including Japanese individuals, have argued these assertions.

In his comment, Dijkema invited Laura to have a private conversation about the production. In response to Dijkema’s comment, Guðrún Helga Halldórsdóttir wrote: “[The Icelandic Opera] has received grants from the Icelandic government and therefore I ask of you to respect that this should be debated publicly and not to look at this as one on one debate between you and Laura Liu. The Opera is showing for the public, and we, a part of the public are upset and demand a change.”

In Focus: Cultural Appropriation at the Icelandic Opera

madame butterfly reykjavík

On March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madama Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904.  The opera is set in Japan in the early 20th century and centres on the relationship between the US naval officer Pinkerton, portrayed by the Icelandic tenor Egill Árni Pálsson; and […]

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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.

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.”

Mother Speaks Out About Racial Profiling of Son

Claudia Ashanie Wilson

Claudia Ashanie Wilson is devastated that Reykjavík police twice placed her 16-year-old son in danger because he was mistaken for a fugitive with a similar skin colour. She told RÚV that she hopes the Icelandic police force and Icelandic society will learn from the incident.

Police had two interactions with Claudia’s son last week, in connection to their search for a 20-year-old fugitive. Last Wednesday, special forces stopped and boarded a bus after receiving a tip that the fugitive was on it. It was, however, Claudia’s son who was on the bus. The incident caused outrage among Icelanders as the two boys did not resemble each other in any way except having a similar skin tone. Police stopped Claudia’s son a second time the very next day, while he was at a bakery with his mother, again after receiving a tip that the 20-year-old fugitive had been seen.

“Words a Black mother never wants to hear”

“It was a total nightmare, to be brief. My innocent child was put in very dangerous and threatening situations, just because of the colour of his skin,” Claudia stated. “I have maybe said this before but there are three words that a Black mother never wants to hear in the same sentence, and they are ‘police,’ ‘guns,’ and ‘your child.’”

Claudia, who is a human rights lawyer, said she is thankful for her family’s strong support network. “He is getting the necessary trauma counselling and he is lucky enough to have two moms and two dads and plenty of friends and family who are taking care of him.”

Hopes the incident is educational

Claudia called the incident humiliating, but despite the trauma it has caused, she would rather look forward and try to learn from the incident. “There are way too many stories about this, I would say police interaction with innocent children of foreign origin for no reason, and especially those who are visibly of foreign origin, unfortunately. That alone can lead to mistrust of the police which I think no one wants.”

In her work as a human rights lawyer, Claudia says she has repeatedly heard of racial profiling within Icelandic policing, something that must be uprooted. The police have clearly made mistakes in this case which lowers public trust towards them. “We are not going to solve any problems by ignoring the elephant in the room. We have to work on this together, this is a social issue that we are all responsible for.”

Fugitive Captured After Three Days on the Lam

A twenty-year-old man who escaped from police custody last Tuesday has been apprehended. According to a statement from the police, five other people have also been arrested.

Escape from the District Courthouse

On Tuesday, April 19, twenty-year-old Gabríel Douane Boama escaped from police custody at the District Court in downtown Reykjavík.

Gabríel was accused, alongside four others, of having ganged up on a man in his twenties outside Kjarvalsstaðir on July 18 of last year, coercing the man to transfer ISK 892,000 ($7,000 / €6,400) into his bank account with three separate transfers.

On the night of the escape, Gabríel published two posts on Instagram, one of which indicated that he was hiding out in the Vesturbær neighbourhood of Reykjavík.

Twice mistaken for the fugitive

On Wednesday, April 20, the police received a tip that Gabríel was riding on a city bus.

Special forces stopped the bus and boarded – only to discover that the person responsible for the tip had mistaken a 16-year-old boy for the fugitive. The boy, whose friends called him a cab and accompanied him home, was considerably distressed.

The incident provoked its share of criticism, raising questions about racial profiling.

Musician Logi Pedró Stefánsson questioned the methods employed by the police to call attention to a wanted individual on social media and in the news. “It’s unacceptable that armed special forces barge in and remove a 16-year-old child only because he has the same haircut as a wanted individual,” Logi wrote.

The boy’s mother also contacted the police to express her dismay that young men of colour were in danger of being harassed by the police. National Police Commissioner Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir stated that she was sorry that an innocent boy had been entangled in police operations.

Déjà vu all over again

A day later, the same 16-year-old boy was again mistaken for the fugitive at a bakery in the Mjódd neighbourhood of Reykjavík. According to reports, “a man in a Tesla” called the police with a tip.

As reported by Fréttablaðið, a video of the event showed the boy and his mother seated at a table in the bakery when police officers approached: “I knew it!” she exclaimed before telling them that they were “not allowed to talk to her child.”

Finally apprehended

Yesterday, Gabríel Douane Boama published another post on Instagram, posing alongside a friend within an undisclosed apartment. Nearly twelve hours later, the Capital Area Police announced that they had apprehended Gabríel after “significant operations.”

Five other people were also arrested, with police investigating if any of the individuals had been complicit in Gabríel’s escape.