Passed by the parliament and quietly signed by the President just before the country shut down for its four-day Easter holiday, Iceland’s new media law, Law no. 38/2011, hardly made a splash in the public discourse. However, while legislation like the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative put Iceland on the map as a haven for the freedom of expression, this newly passed media law has created a hubbub in the media world, with some likening it to an Orwellian Big Brother.
The law’s purpose, as stated in its Article 1, is “to promote freedom of expression, the right to information, media literacy, diversity and pluralism in the media and to protect the media consumer. The goal is also to establish common legislation applicable to media of all formats.” There were previously separate laws applying to print media and broadcast media, and the print media law was last updated in 1956.
Calling Iceland “a bit behind the times,” Minister of Education, Science and Culture Katrín Jakobsdóttir, whose ministry was responsible for drafting the legislation, says that Iceland was one of the few European countries that had yet to adopt such holistic media legislation. Furthermore, she notes, “If you look at the Special Investigative Committee report, the media was heavily criticised for its lack of professionalism. It was really a time for an updated legal environment.”
Best intentions aside, however, a number of media affiliates are unhappy with the details. Among those who signed a petition urging the President not to sign the law into effect are the largest media company in Iceland, 365 miðlar, (which owns Fréttablaðið, the most widely distributed newspaper in Iceland, along with TV station Stöð 2 and most of the nation’s radio stations), along with a number of smaller media companies, including Útvarp Saga, Sjónvarpsstöðin ÍNN, Stöð 2, Bylgjan, Vefpressan (which operates the websites Eyjan.is, Pressan.is, bleikt.is and menn.is), Vefmiðlun ehf., AMX.is, Sjónvarpsstöðin Omega, Sjónvarpsstöðin Stöð 1 and Kaninn FM.
As per the law, all media in Iceland must now register with a state-run media committee that has the power to slap fines and prison sentences on the noncompliant. This applies to “any medium that regularly conveys editorial content to the public […] among other things, newspapers and magazines, along with their accompanying publications, websites, audio and visual media and other comparable media.”
Although this definition of media seemingly applies to bloggers or just about any Icelander who shares Facebook status updates with the public (as Haukur Már Helgason discussed on his blog, haukur.perspiredbyiceland.com), Katrín says the law does not have jurisdiction over personal blogs or Facebook pages. “It applies to professionally edited media,” she says.
However, the distinction is especially important given that the media must not only register basic information, such as the name of media, identification number, legal address, email, website, name of the media owner, and name of person responsible for running the media, but also an editorial strategy. Failure to do so can result in a 200.000 ISK fine, for each outstanding day.
If a newspaper’s editorial strategy is to be ‘an objective newspaper’, the media committee can step in with fines if it decides that the strategy is not being followed. Thus, if Morgunblaðið desires to publish markedly anti-EU content, the paper must register an editorial strategy stating that it is anti-EU to avoid the media committee meddling in their choice of overwhelmingly anti-EU interviewee subjects, for instance.
Pressan contributor Ólafur Arnarson finds this rather irksome: “The combination of the strict requirements put on the media, which includes reporting to the State Media Committee, and the unprecedented powers the Committee holds to invade media companies and their power to use fines or even stricter measures—basically constitutes a Big Brother environment in line with an Orwellian nightmare.”
Ólafur continues: “It seems to me that it is preposterous to write a detailed media law and leave out the National Broadcasting Service.” He is referring to the fact that the National Broadcasting Service, RÚV, is both financed by the State and competes freely in the advertising market, a violation of EEA law regarding State support of public service broadcasting. This is also something that the EFTA Surveillance Authority has formally asked Iceland to amend.
Echoing Ólafur’s complaints, Director of the Union of Icelandic Journalists Hjálmar Jónsson agrees. “There is a smell of Big Brother,” he says, adding that he also believes there are a number of important issues that the media law does not address. Before the bill was signed into law, he wrote an official letter to the Ministry on behalf of the Union in which he detailed these inefficiencies. For instance, he wrote: “It must be written in law that it is not permissible to fire a journalist without providing adequate justification that he [or she] made a mistake on the job.”
Nonetheless, Friðrik Þór Guðmundsson, a journalist and teacher in the journalism department at the University of Iceland, points out: “While there are state intervention elements that do not appeal to media companies and/or the Union of Icelandic Journalists, the public is probably not so much against having a bureaucratic watchdog breathing over the shoulders of the media.”
Also of greater concern to the media than the public, the law puts strict rules on demarcating advertising content from other content. To account for the diverse methods of modern advertising, the law creates a new Icelandic word: “viðskiptaboð,” which is the combination of “viðskipti” and “skilaboð” (respectively, “commerce” and “message”). This means that advertising now includes, according to the law’s definition, “text, images and/or sound meant to draw attention, directly or indirectly, to goods, services or legal entity or person engaged in commercial activities, in exchange for remuneration or other form of promotion. Commercial messages include, among other things, advertisements, sponsorship and product placement.”
In addition to public lack of interest, Friðrik notes: “Even journalists did not put up a big fight. The Union of Icelandic Journalists sent in two dictums, but meetings and discussions have mostly been absent amongst journalists. This is peculiar, but in line with the very limited class-consciousness of Icelandic journalists. The fighting spirit of 2004 was certainly absent this time around.”
In 2004, Parliament passed a media law that was unpopular due to limits it put on media ownership, and the President refused to sign it into effect. This issue of ownership limits is markedly absent from the new media law, which is also far broader in scope. And as Friðrik Þór points out, there are a number of positive articles, such as editorial independence from owners and the protection of sources, which are to the public’s benefit.
TIME WILL TELL
Minister Katrín says it’s natural for people to worry when there is surveillance involved, but adds that she doesn’t think there is anything to worry about in this case. “We have no reason to believe that the committee will use powers in excess.”
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to say what kind of impact the law will have at this point. As Ólafur says, the State Media Committee can either be passive or aggressive. “Everyone seems to carry the delusion that they will always stay in power. They don’t contemplate what will happen if all this power I have amassed ends up in other people’s hands,” he adds.
Thus, until the future Media Committees take the law on paper into practice, it is difficult to tell whether Iceland has in fact acquired a Big Brother in law.