Published November 7, 2011
In Iceland journalists can be prosecuted for citing a public court case. Yes, in Iceland, that co-uld be ‘defamatory’…
The Reykjavík District Court has once again ruled against DV journalist Jón Bjarki Magnússon in a defamation suit. His crime: Quoting a newspaper article and a court ruling from 1989 in story about a violent neighbourhood dispute. His sentence: a gross 700,000 ISK in damages plus 750,000 ISK in legal fees. We met up with him to discuss the cases and the rather dismal state of journalism in Iceland: the modern media safe haven.
Many American readers will probably be surprised by this case, as defamation typically requires that a statement about someone be untrue. Did you have any idea that you could be charged with defamation for something like this?
No, no. I didn’t have a clue. I never thought it was possible. To quote a court ruling and an article from the paper that anyone can find on the Internet… But the court ruled that because it was an old case that it wasn’t relevant today.
Right, the ruling states: “It is bad taste to cite a court ruling from the year 1989 […] It does not have anything to do with the public today, and does not add anything to the discussion about the plaintiff; it simply blackens her name…” But obviously when you included the information in your story, you felt that it was adding something. What was your thinking?
This particular case, which was all over the media last summer, involved fighting neighbours with most of the media portraying one couple as violent and the other, afraid—but you never know what’s true and what’s not in these kinds of disputes. Then I got emails about the couple having been sentenced twice before for attacking people, and in a third case, the father and son had attacked a security guard at a shop, and they were just sentenced for that a few months ago. I found this very relevant because it showed that there was a history of brutal violence there. Basically, a couple and now their children have been able to terrori-ze people for thirty years without paying anything close to what I have to pay now for writing about it.
TAKING OUT JOURNALISTS ONE BY ONE
It’s one thing to be sued for something ridiculous, but did you expect to get this verdict?
It’s sad, but I don’t really have any faith in the court system when it comes to journalists being prosecuted, especially journalists from my paper. Almost every month a journalist at DV is sentenced. So while I found it ridiculous, I thought, well, of course, this was predictable. There is something rotten in the court sys-tem. Judges seem to be in favor of journalists writing stories based on press releases; digging into things is for the police.
It’s becoming more and more ridiculous. It seems that freedom of expression is becoming more and more limited. For instance, there’s a blogger at DV who wrote an interesting story about Progressive Party Chair Sigmundur Davíð’s father. He quoted an article in Morgunblaðið from fifteen years ago, which implica-ted him in a financial scandal, and this guy is suing him for quoting that article.
I’d add that Vilhjálmur Hans Vilhjálmsson, the lawyer who prosecuted me in these two cases, has been attacking DV in every way possible. My theory is that he finds material, calls the “victims” and says, ‘I’ll take this for you pro bono.’ I have experience with that lawyer because he called me and wanted to be my lawyer when I quit DV for some time a couple of years ago. So he is my former lawyer and a year later he sues me in two other cases.
So he’s like an ambulance chaser… Do you think he called the neighbours in this case?
Yeah I think he called them, and I think he called the Danish guy. The Danish guy who won the case against me in July was in Denmark. He doesn’t know anything about DV; he doesn’t read the Icelandic media, so how would he know?
[Interview was interrupted by a passer-by who stopped to tell Jón Bjarki how horribly he was being treated and wished him luck.]
Do journalists think about these kinds of legal consequences when they are working on a story?
A journalist at Morgunblaðið told me he had been working on a story based on official documents, and he stopped because he was afraid. I think a lot of journa-lists are thinking, ‘What? We cannot quote official documents.’ But there is a new media law that was passed in April. I was being tried under the old print media law from 1956, and I think there are some greater protections for journalists now.
THE MEDIA FAILED THE PEOPLE
Following the crash in 2008, the media was criticised for not being critical enough. Why is there this lack of critical reporting in the Icelandic media? Is it getting better? Worse?
It’s getting worse. Morgunblaðið has become a propaganda machine for certain powers. Fréttablaðið is the same; you get it for free and advertisers pay for it. DV has been and is good in many ways, but it’s difficult to keep a paper going when you are facing the reality of a small country with few buyers and the paper is being attacked from different directions.
And you experienced this… your editor pulled a story about former Landsbanki manager Sigurjón Þ. Árnason due to ‘external pressures.’ How often do you think that happens?
People have always talked about how the media can be influenced like this, but I had never known of a concrete example. And then I had it. I had always thought that DV was the most independent, and then this was even happening there. It’s difficult to know how often it happens because there are many ways to stop things from going to print, though it doesn’t come to light so clearly as in this case.
Maybe my editor trusted me, I don’t know, but he told me that powerful individuals had threatened to kill the paper if we published the story that I wrote about a former manager at Landsbanki who was still working there, and nobody knew what the fuck he was doing. I had been working as a journalist for five, six months and I thought, ‘this is ridiculous.’ So I asked to meet with him, and I had a recording device on me and recorded everything he told me. I had it in my room for three weeks, just sitting there, until I exploded. I told him I couldn’t work at this paper; I had to tell this story.
I posted the story on the Internet. At the time everything was collapsing and I thought it was a crucial time; people needed this information. I called it, “Við erum að bregðast ykkur núna,” (“We are failing you now”), playing on an editorial written by one of the editors: “Við brugðumst ykkur” (“We failed you”), in which he promised to do better. So in my article I asked him to come forth and reveal who had stopped the article.
He defended himself, saying that Jón Bjarki is a young journalist—I was 24—etc. etc. And then when it looked like it was dying because it was just my word against his, Kastljósið called me, and I told them that I had one thing… this recording of the editor explaining to me why the story was pulled. So they asked me to come to an interview and they played it.
My editor actually re-hired me a year later and we’re good friends. I think he respected my decision to do it, though it was unfortunate how it happened. And maybe this whole thing has deterred people from trying to influence him because there is the possibility that it will come out.
THE ICELANDIC IRONY
It seems ironic that Iceland is working on progressive legislation like the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative with the goal of making Iceland some kind of media safe haven when the reality for journalists in Iceland is quite the contrary…
Exactly. It’s part of the Icelandic irony. Since the collapse we have been trying to create this image that everything is going well. There was this conference co-sponsored by the IMF, and now we are going to be an example of how the IMF can help countries. And then some very interesting people introduced IMMI [International Modern Media Institute] to the parliament and it’s used to paint an image of this beautiful media haven when the reality is that individual journalists are being taken down.
Okay. You’ve now been sentenced twice in one year. Was this the last straw? Are you considering a new career in something safe—like PR?
No, not now. I don’t know really. You can think of it as a just fight, but it’s so ridiculous that I don’t want to take part. It’s like a farce.
It takes a toll on people. First, getting the letter informing you that you are going to be sued, knowing that you will have to deal with this for two to three years and now if I decide to appeal, it’s another year. It’s also a lot of money. Worse case scenario, if I can’t pay, I would possibly have to declare bankruptcy, and of course that would be bad, but I wouldn’t lose anything because I don’t own anything. But then I’m probably blacklisted at the bank. So it’s possibly influencing my possibilities of getting a loan, having a credit card.
It affects the little things in life… first you feel angry, like you are being attacked, but then after that you just start to laugh. You can’t spend days, weeks, and months being angry; you just have to laugh. That’s where I’m at now. I’m happy with the responses I’ve been getting from people and that’s more important than whatever the judge says.