November 19, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Freedom of information in decline for past two years in Iceland

What with an interior ministry official seeking jail terms for two journalists in a criminal libel prosecution and major budget cuts for public TV and radio stations that the ruling coalition has accused of bias, the past two years have seen a marked decline in freedom of information in Iceland, one that began with the financial crisis in 2008.

Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir, a political adviser to Iceland’s interior minister, is seeking two-year jail sentences for newspaper reporters Jón Bjarki Magnússon and Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson, who wrongly identified her as the source of a leak in story published on 20 June, although they issued a correction within hours. As well as quickly putting out a corrected version naming Gísli Freyr Valdórsson, another interior ministry adviser, as the source of the leak, they issued an apology in the form of a press release circulated to the media. Valdórsson, now on probation, has since been given an eight-month prison sentence for leaking information about a Nigerian asylum-seeker to several news outlets.
Gísli Freyr Valdórsson has since been given an eight-month prison sentence for leaking information about a Nigerian asylum-seeker to several news outlets.

Reporters Without Borders regrets that Vilhjálmsdóttir is seeking the maximum possible libel penalty for the two journalists under criminal code articles 234 and 235 – two years in prison, damages of 3 million krónurs (19,000 euros) and legal fees of 900,000 krónurs (5800 euros) – because it would set a disastrous precedent for freedom of information in Iceland. The organization also underlines that the ministry of the interior is also in charge of human rights: Vilhjálmsdóttir should be aware of her responsibilities in the domain of press freedom.

In a letter, Reporters Without Borders calls on Vilhjálmsdóttir to soften the complaint she has brought against the two journalists, so that it is more proportionate to the actual harm to her reputation.

Iceland’s defamation laws have received a great deal of recent criticism from international bodies. The European Court of Human Rights has stressed the extremely negative impact of these laws on journalists and freedom of information, and the disproportionate nature of their penalties, while a recent International Press Institute report called them obsolete. Reporters Without Borders urges Iceland’s government to amend these laws.

Meanwhile, public broadcasting under attack

Political interests have been having a negative impact on freedom of information in Iceland ever since the 2008 financial crash. Almost all of the leading media editors have had to stand down this year. The only exception is Morgunblaðið editor David Oddsson, who happens to be a former prime minister and former central bank governor.

The editor-in-chief of the broadcasting company RUV was fired along with the rest of its management in the wake of the director-general’s dismissal. 365 Media, the company that owns the biggest TV network, has reduced the number of its newsrooms and fired two of its chief editors, replacing them with the former spokeswoman for its owner’s husband, a leading figure in business circles. Several journalists left the company after the substitution.

A public broadcaster funded by a licence fee system until 2007, RUV became a state-owned compagny in 2008, its only share being held by the ministry of culture. A year later, the government assumed direct control of the source of its funding, and thereby direct control of its budget. And in the wake of this loss of structural independence, comments have been made about a lack of editorial independence. Between 2013 and 2014, the ruling right-wing coalition repeatedly criticized the treatment of the news coverage provide by RUV’s TV and radio channels, and used it as an excuse to reduce dramatically its budget. Indeed, the ruling coalition often questions the impartiality of the news coverage provide by RUV’s TV and radio channels, especially their coverage of European news. But a survey conducted by the consumer reporting agency Creditinfo found that positive and negative news reports about the European Union get equal space in RUV’s coverage.

Vigdís Hauksdóttir, a parliamentarian who is a member of the ruling coalition and chairs the budgetary committee, made typically critical comments about RUV in an August 2013 interview for Radio Bylgjan that was reported by Grapevine. “I think an unnatural amount of money goes to RUV,” she said. “Especially when they don’t do a better job at reporting the news. They are fond of a particular platform, and lean to the Left. Everyone who wants to see that can see it. I assure you this is true, and can confirm it whenever and wherever that (RUV) is very pro-EU.

Such comments clearly put pressure on RUV’s journalists. A 20 percent cut in RUV’s budget was announced in December 2013, with the resulting loss of many journalists from RUV newsrooms. The European Broadcasting Union issued a statement condemning the cut, while former RUV director-general Páll Magnússon said: “Viewers will see a difference. Our listeners will hear it. (...) Our ability to provide news to the Icelandic public will be diminished, and newscasts will be shorter and fewer.

The pressure is continuing. Foreign minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson criticized the way RUV portrayed him in one of its reports. In March of this year, he imposed his own conditions on RUV, refusing to give it interviews unless it sends him a copy of video before it is broadcast. In the end, he was not interviewed at all. At the same time he, too, accused it of being too pro-EU in its coverage.

As regards privately-owned media, Hauksdóttir issued a call on Facebook in February 2014 for a boycott of the newspaper Kvennablaðið after it criticized her, and she urged the cosmetics company EGF to “stop buying advertising” in Kvennablaðið. The Union of Icelandic Journalists condemned her calls as “attempts to obstruct freedom of expression.