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“We would like to remind you that the Icelandic government hasn’t repealed yet Art. 95 of the General Penal Code of Iceland, according to which anyone who publicly insults foreign state symbols shall be fined or even imprisoned,” the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.”

Reykjavík Formally Dedicates Square in Honor of Kyiv

Kyiv Square was formally dedicated in a ceremony presided over by Reykjavík mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson on Wednesday. Vísir reports that the square is located on the corner of Garðastræti and Túngata, just blocks away from the Russian embassy. The square will also bear the name Kænugarður in Icelandic, an old Icelandic name for the Ukrainian capital.

See Also: Kænugarður, the ancient Icelandic name for Kyiv

Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson and attendees of the formal dedication of Kænugarður, or Kyiv Square. Photo via Reykjavíkurborg, FB

A sign designed by artists and spouses Óskar Hallgrímsson, who is Icelandic, and Mariika Lobynsteva, who is Ukrainian, was hung during the dedication.

“This [dedication] is, first and foremost, a symbolic gesture,” said the mayor during the ceremony. “It doesn’t stop war or alleviate suffering, but it underscores Reykjavík’s support for Kyiv and Icelanders’ support of Ukraine. And perhaps it also underscores the need for us to be prepared to stand with Ukraine and welcome Ukrainians with open arms for as long as the war continues.”

Kristófer Gajavsky, who has been part of efforts to support Ukrainian refugees in Iceland, said that the location of the square was important. “We can definitely say that this is a thorn in their side, that we’re all here, standing together against the war.” The square will be a symbol of hope for Ukrainians in Iceland, Kristófer continued. “For us, this is a day of celebration.”

Protesters, Authorities Voice Support for Ukraine

Protest

Approximately 300 people gathered outside the Russian Embassy yesterday to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Additional protests have been scheduled outside the embassy for Sunday. The Icelandic government strongly condemned Russia’s attack yesterday and iterated its support for Ukraine.

“Devastated” by news of the invasion

Following news of the invasion of Ukraine yesterday, Russian journalist Andrei Menshenin organised a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Reykjavík. Approximately 300 people were in attendance.

Speaking to Morgunblaðið before the rally, Andrei stated he knew he spoke for many Russians when he said he was “devastated” by news of the invasion.

“I’ve been in contact with my colleagues worldwide today, and they have the same story to tell,” Andrei remarked. “Everyone is devastated by this course of events and very saddened. Many Russians have posted a black profile picture on social media today to try to express how they feel and to show that they do not at all support this attack by Putin.”

Protests in Reykjavík
Photo by Golli

Additional protests on Sunday

Further protests of the invasion have been scheduled for Sunday.

As noted on a Facebook-page for the event – organised by Inga Minelgaite, professor at the University of Iceland’s School of Business: “There is no excuse for war in 2022. Standing up for peace is (the) responsibility of (each and) every (one) of us. Let’s meet for a peaceful protest to express our support to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”

Protesters are encouraged to light candles and flashlights and display the colours of the Ukrainian flag in a show of solidarity.

The Icelandic government responds

In a statement yesterday, the offices of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir called on Russia to cease its military action and declared that the invasion was “a serious violation of international law.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir iterated the government’s unwavering support for Ukraine: “Iceland will continue its support for Ukraine, by taking full part in international sanctions. Iceland will respond to humanitarian needs by providing EUR 1 million for humanitarian support in Ukraine. This is in addition to a EUR 200,000 contribution to NATO’s Trust Fund for (the) Ukraine Professional Development Programme.”

As noted in the press release, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian Ambassador to emphasise Iceland’s position. The Ministry’s consular services were also in contact with 28 individuals in Ukraine, including 16 Icelandic nationals, stating that it would continue to “work closely” with the consular services of other Nordic countries.

Russian invasion
The Harpa Music and Conference Hall displayed the colours of the Ukranian flag yesterday.

Russian Embassy Criticises Foreign Minister’s, President’s Tweets

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson.

The Russian Embassy in Reykjavík has expressed disappointment in Tweets authored by the President of Iceland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Embassy has called the Tweets, which declare support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, “one-sided” and “subjective.”

Supportive tweets

On February 15, Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir took to Twitter to encourage Russia to “deescalate” and “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine. The Tweets followed the Minister’s meeting with Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, in which the pair discussed “the serious security situation in Europe.”

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson retweeted the Minister’s message a day later, extending a greeting to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine on the newly declared Unity Day: “Iceland is united with (its) NATO Allies to call on Russia to deescalate and respect the sovereignty & territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The Russian Embassy responds

Yesterday, the Russian Embassy in Reykjavík responded to the President’s and Minister’s Tweets, saying that it had been “deeply disappointed with Reykjavík’s one-sided and subjective comprehension of the real situation in the region.”

The Embassy holds that the escalation at the Ukrainian border is to be traced to the failure of Ukrainian authorities to comply with the Minsk II agreement – which has proven difficult to implement, owing in no small part to profound differences in interpretation between Moscow and Kyiv – and the “active participation” of Western countries in the militarisation of Ukraine.

The Embassy called on Iceland to take a “more balanced and constructive approach” towards matters of European security.

Rising tensions

Tensions have been growing between Ukraine and Russia over the past few weeks. According to the US, Russia is believed to have amassed approximately 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, demanding that Ukraine be permanently denied membership to NATO and that NATO remove all soldiers and weapons from Eastern Europe. NATO has rejected these demands on the grounds of the principle of self-determination.

US President Biden stated yesterday that it was “highly likely” that Russia would invade Ukraine in the coming days; the Russian authorities have denied that they harbour any such plans.

(This article was updated at 9.40 AM)