Haukur Hauksson is an Icelandic journalist fluent in Russian who has been living in Moscow for 15 years and graduated from the journalist faculty of the Moscow State University (MGU). I asked Haukur to explain the situation in the Icelandic media, and he told me about his experience in journalism in the autumn of 1993.
Yeltsin and Stalin
When Yeltsin dissolved the government in September 1993, it caused disturbances, such as street fights, in the center of the Russian capital. At the time Haukur was in Moscow delivering news reports for the TV channels RÚV and Stöd 2 as well as for the radio. As he had a journalist card it gave him the possibility to get into the Moscow White House when the main events were taking place.
– “I remember walking home once during the curfew that had been imposed in Moscow. I was nearly shot down by one of the sharpshooters who sat on house roofs in those days,” he says.
Haukur stresses that the Western media in general, and the Icelandic in particular, always tend to oversimplify when speaking about events from abroad.
“All the acting parties are simply divided into good guys and bad guys. It is easier to build up a black-and-white picture of the event instead of getting to its real meaning. The same thing happened in the autumn of 1993. Those Icelanders who kept up with the news from Russia, including journalists, divided themselves into supporters of Yeltsin and supporters of his opponents. Many of them would regard the things Yeltsin did as a Stalinist action: people kept interpreting current events in the light of some old pattern. There were several Icelandic journalists reporting about the events in Moscow, but many of them took their information from some foreign information bureaus. I always had my phone with me and was in direct connection with Ríkisútvarpid, so I was the first one to deliver them news,” says Haukur.
Settlers and terrorists
These pieces of reporting were eyewitness accounts, accepted by the Icelandic audience. But they did not fit in the black-and-white picture that some parties in the West would like. “On the 3rd and 4th of October, when the White House was on fire, – I was dismissed from the television, although I still remained working at the radio,” Haukur adds. “A man named Jón Ólafsson took my place, an experienced journalist that also happened to be in Moscow at that time and a representative of the older generation.”
Are you saying that RÚV willingly replaced you for political reasons?
“Journalists are not instructed at their meetings about the terms that are under prohibition. They may well be instructed about the correct usage of the Icelandic language, for example, that one has to say not “mér langar”, but “mig langar”, but nothing else. Many texts are even not written by the Icelandic journalists, but translated from some foreign sources. As a rule, nothing is ever changed in such pieces of reporting, mainly because the translators simply have no time to reinterpret the news text that is supposed to appear in the tomorrow’s paper. As a consequence, opinions of some British and American journalists filter into the Icelandic press. Recently there has been a lot written about conflicts between the Israelites and the Palestinians. As the first ones were called “settlers” and the second ones “terrorists” in the original American text, they became respectively “landnemar” and “hrydjuverkamenn” in the Icelandic papers. Just think how the word “landnemi” (settler) can influence the Icelandic audience, for it has some very patriotic connotations, being linked to the first settlers in Iceland! Such a choice of words programs the attitude to the both parties from the very beginning. But these words do not reflect the Icelandic, but the American point of view on the conflicts. It’s not so much a conscious censorship as carelessness”.
As the extreme of such carelessness one can name measuring distances in miles in Icelandic news texts where one would expect to see kilometers. The time pressure turns to be a gentle and effective way of control. Ríkisútvarpid does not apply tyrannical methods of controlling people’s way of thinking, but uses some other methods that are not so striking. But still they seem to work perfectly well.