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.

Journalism Award Given for Reportage on Samherji Scandal

Four journalists have been awarded the Union of Icelandic Journalists’ 2019 Bladamannaverðlaun for Best Investigative Reporting for their coverage of the Samherji Scandal, Kjarninn reports. One of last year’s biggest news stories in Iceland, the scandal ignited investigations both domestically and abroad when allegations were made that one of the country’s largest seafood companies, Samherji, had bribed government officials in Namibia in order to gain lucrative fishing rights and avoid taxation.

In Focus: Samherji Scandal

Aðal­­­steinn Kjart­ans­­son, Helgi Selj­an, and Stefán Drengs­­son, reporters for RÚV’s investigative news program Kveikur, and Ingi Freyr Vil­hjálms­­son, a journalist for Stundin, all received the award for their collaborative coverage of the scandal with Al Jazeera and Wikileaks. “Few stories generated more interest in the Icelandic media…” read the jury’s justification for the award. “The coverage has had a significant impact, both here in Iceland and abroad.”

See Also: Broken News

Arnar Páll Hauksson, a reporter for RÚV’s radio program Spegillinn, received the Journalist of the Year award for his coverage of wage issues. “With his deep knowledge and expertise built on years of experience, Arnar Páll has delivered high-quality coverage on wage issues in countless articles and in-depth reports at a time of great upheaval on the labour market. He has covered ideas and suggestions that have been made in wage negotiations in great detail and was frequently the first to report new developments.”

The award for Best Coverage of the Year went to Stundinn’s Alma Mjöll Ólafs­dótt­ir, Jóhann Páll Jóhanns­­son, Mar­grét Mart­eins­dótt­ir, and Stein­­dór Grétar Jóns­­son for their reporting on climate change issues, which was commended by the jury for providing comprehensive reportage on the foreseeable consequences of man-made global warming, its manifestations both in Iceland and abroad, and efforts made by both the government and individuals to counteract damage already done to the environment.

Interview of the Year was given to Erla Björg Gunn­­ar­s­dótt­ir, Nadine Guð­rún Yag­hi, and Jóhann K. Jóhanns­­son for an interview with a young woman who grew up in Seltjarnarnes with a mentally ill mother who struggled with drug addiction. As a child, the interviewee endured neglect and abuse at the hands of her mother, but Child Protection Services in her town neglected to intervene. “The interview received well-deserved attention and was followed by numerous reports on the status of vulnerable children, the operations of child welfare committees, and other related issues,” read the jury’s award justification.

Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Press

Iceland’s Supreme Court has ruled entirely in favour of news outlet Stundin and media company Reykjavík Media in a media injunction case that has been ongoing since October 2017. Kjarninn reports that on Friday, the Supreme Court rejected all claims made by Glitnir HoldCo Ltd, the corporation that oversees the remaining assets of Glitnir bank. The first of these claims was that the journalists involved in the case should be legally compelled to share evidence that might have bearing on it, even if they might, in the course of their testimony, inadvertently reveal information about confidential sources. The company’s secondary claim was that the information reported on by Stundin and Reykjavík Media—information that was obtained from leaked bank documents—should be protected by bank confidentiality.

Friday’s ruling did not address the validity of the original injunction, which was struck down by the Court of Appeals, or Landsréttur, in October 2018. At the time, Landsréttur ruled that Stundin did not have to give up the Glitnir files. It also found that further reporting from the files couldn’t be forbidden. In its ruling, Landsréttur stated that Stundin’s coverage had focused on the business dealings of then prime minister and current Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, as well as people connected to him, and that this information was undeniably important to the public, especially leading up to elections. It was Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s contention that the files could be used to report on individuals’ financial affairs which were not matters of public import, a claim that Landsréttur rejected. In that Glitnir HoldCo Ltd appealed Landsréttur’s decision to the Supreme Court, however, the injunction has remained in place since.

Protection of sources is of the highest importance

When the Supreme Court agreed to take the case in November 2018, it did so with the understanding that it would not be reviewing the validity of the initial media injunction, but rather the validity of Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s assertion that Stundin and Reykjavík Media should not be allowed to use the information found in the leaked files in their reportage and should turn the Glitnir files back over to the holding company. Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s claims were based on their belief that the data in the files should be protected by bank confidentiality.

The Supreme Court rejected all of the company’s claims. The main of these was that both the District Court and Landsréttur were wrong not to compel three known witnesses, all journalists for the media outlets, to answer questions related to the existence, content, and custody of the leaked bank documents. The company maintained that the courts’ decision not to do this stripped it of its legitimate right to evidence—namely, how the documents were leaked to the media in the first place. The company claimed that being denied this evidence was grounds for automatic dismissal of the first District Court case.

The Supreme Court rejected this claim, stating that compelling the journalists to testify put their source(s) at risk, since there was a significant likeliness that during such testimony, journalists would inadvertently share the names of, or information about, their source(s). With its ruling, then, the Supreme Court determined that the importance of protecting sources takes precedence in such cases.

Public figures necessarily have less right to privacy

On the matter of bank confidentiality, the Supreme Court found it significant that the original injunction was levied on October 16, 2017—just 12 days before parliamentary elections—which made it all the more important that media coverage related to elected officials should not be any more restricted than was absolutely necessary. It noted, however, that the outlets’ coverage was primarily related to the former prime minister’s dealings with Glitnir bank in the lead up to the failure of the Icelandic banks in 2008 and that the tenor and focus of the coverage has largely been the same from the beginning, even after the injunction went into effect.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court noted that is generally understood that individuals involved in public offices have less claim to privacy and confidentiality than private citizens. The role of the media in a democratic society must be considered in such cases, it continued, as must the relevance of the topics and dealings that were under discussion in this instance. “In light of the enormous overall impact that the banking collapse had on Icelandic society, it’s only natural that a reckoning like this would be conducted in the media and the public discussion that usually follows,” read the judgement. The business dealings of former prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson fall within the purview of open public debate, concluded the Supreme Court. Moreover, the business dealings of people close to Bjarni are also open to public discussion, as they are “so interwoven with” those of Bjarni’s that “they should not be separated.”

Finally, the court found that prior to the injunction, all media coverage of parties whose connection to Bjarni Benediktsson was not clear “immediately” was focused on parties who were publicly prominent in the run-up to, and wake of, the 2008 banking collapse and who, therefore, enjoy less privacy and confidentiality than the average private citizen. This was further evidenced by the fact that the media outlets’ coverage of these parties and their part in the 2008 banking collapse has not needed to be adjusted in any meaningful way following the injunction.

The damage is “irreversible”

 Although today’s Supreme Court ruling was in the media’s favour, however, Stundin editors Ingibjörg Dögg Kjartansdóttir and Jón Trausti Reynisson and Reykjavík Media Editor-in-Chief Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson expressed dismay at the fact that although “Freedom Has Won,” in the end, the effect of the 522-day media injunction still had what they consider to be a seriously deleterious effect on public discourse. For one, it “…without a doubt, had a deterrent effect on people in our society who hold information or data that has significant relevance to the public, people who want to come to the media in the name of justice,” they wrote in a public statement on Facebook.  They continued by saying that the possible legal costs associated with losing a case like this are not enough to deter unlawful injunctions from being made about topics that are of vital public importance. Regardless of the outcome of the case, they concluded, “[t]he fact remains that there has been a violation of the public’s right to information and when you really think about it, the right to free elections.”

Ingibjörg Dögg repeated this sentiment in an interview with RÚV, wherein she said that although she and her publication felt a sense victory with the ruling, the entire situation remained “incredibly sad.” Given the relevance of the information that was being published had to the 2017 elections, the damage that this injunction did is irreversible.

Orri Páll Demands Media Stop Coverage of Allegations

sígur rós tax case

Icelandic media outlet Stundin received a letter from Orri Páll Dýrason’s lawyer on Thursday, demanding that the publication cease any further coverage of the rape allegations made against Sigur Rós’ former drummer by American artist Meagan Boyd. Stundin published the letter from Gunnar Ingi Jóhannsson on Thursday night, in advance of a piece that would include an interview with Meagan, as well as interviews with two of her friends who corroborate her allegations. Stundin reached out to Orri Páll for comment on the article, but were contacted by his lawyer instead.

Meagan came forward with her story in early October, and the allegations have since gained wide-spread attention in Iceland and abroad. Given this, the letter came as a surprise to Stundin editor Jón Trausti Reynisson, who told Vísir that he found the request strange considering the fact that the allegations against Orri Páll have already been widely discussed in all major Icelandic media outlets, as well as in numerous foreign publications.

It is interesting to note that Orri Páll’s lawyer, Gunnar Ingi Jóhannsson, is an advocate for Iceland’s Supreme Court and considered an expert on media and freedom of speech issues. In 2012, in fact, he represented journalists Erla Hlynsdóttir and Björk Eiðsdóttir in their free speech case against the Icelandic government, which was tried in the European Court of Human Rights. Erla and Björk won their case.

The letter that Gunnar Ingi sent to Stundin, he states that his client can “demonstrate that [Meagan Boyd’s] story will not stand up. My client is working to clear himself of these accusations, but intends to do so outside of the media spotlight.”

The letter requests that Stundin not publish the allegations, “especially while they have not been proven and the relevant authorities have not considered them.” The purpose of the article, asserts Gunnar Ingi, “…can hardly be other than to further disseminate these serious claims and increase the readership of [Stundin’s] publication at the expense of the more important interests of my client.”

Gunnar Ingi closed the letter by stating the Orri Páll reserved his right to pursue legal action against Stundin if the article is published on Friday.

(As of time of writing, the Stundin article, planned for Friday publication, had not been published.)

Stundin Editor Plans Further Reporting From Glitnir Files

Jón Trausti Reynisson, editor of Stundin media outlet, has stated that Stundin will publish more reports from the Glitnir files,RÚV reports. A little under a year ago, Glitnir HoldCo ltd., which handles the remaining assets of Glitnir bank, requested an injunction against Stundin for their reporting based on leaked documents from the bank. The Reykjavík capital area district commissioner approved the request in part but both the district court and appeal court Landsréttur have found that Stundin will not have to give up the Glitnir files. Yesterday, Landsréttur also found that further reporting from the files couldn’t be forbidden. The ruling states that Stundin’s coverage had focused on the business dealings of then prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson, as well as people connected to him. There can be no doubt that the reporting was important to the public, especially leading up to elections. The court did not accept that the files could be used to report on financial matters of individuals that didn’t matter to the public.

The Stundin editor is pleased with the results. “If they don’t appeal, we’ll soon start releasing the reports we had yet to make public. We’re already talking about the next steps and will soon start working on more material,” Jón Trausti told RÚV.