Police Investigations of the Ministry of the Interior, and what they reveal (so far)
As you read this, the State Prosecutor is reviewing the latest findings of a months-long police investigation of the Ministry of the Interior, over a memo on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos that found itself in the hands of select members of the media last November. This memo impugned Tony’s reputation, with accusations— which later proved false and misleading—at a time when he was facing impending deportation, and the Ministry was facing a protest.
So far, those investigations have seemingly confirmed what has long been suspected: the memo originated in the Ministry, that Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir was amongst those who had access to this memo, that it was created with the “sole purpose of tarnishing Tony’s reputation,” as Reykjavík District Court would rule last May—and that this misinformation was very likely sent directly from a high-ranking Ministry employee to chosen journalists to quell public protest over Tony’s deportation. All of this is in contradiction to what the minister has repeatedly contended (that is, before she decided to stop talking to the press about the subject).
The accusations, if proven true in a court of law, are serious enough. The minister’s refusal to step down while these investigations continue, bearing in mind as well that she is the head of the police force, is also unprecedented when compared to ministerial scandals of equal or even lesser seriousness in other Scandinavian countries, as we will see. The event also raises questions about how journalists can and should handle sources that deliberately deceive them.
What Kicked It Off
Regular Grapevine readers are probably familiar with the Tony Omos case. Last fall, he was about to become yet another asylum seeker in Iceland deported on the basis of the Dublin Regulation—an international law regarding refugee rights and treatment that allows authorities to deport asylum seekers back to their previous point of departure—separated from Evelyn Glory Joseph, the mother of his then-unborn child. The case had parallels with what is arguably Iceland’s most famous asylum seeker case: Paul Ramses, a Kenyan asylum seeker who was also deported from Iceland on the basis of the Dublin Regulation, and separated from the mother of his child, in 2008. Public protest over that case contributed to Ramses being brought back to Iceland. He was granted Icelandic citizenship in 2010.
Last November, the Ministry of the Interior was facing what was shaping up to be a very similar situation with Tony Omos. The asylum seeker rights group No Borders invited the general public to a protest demonstration in front of the Ministry of the Interior, to be held on November 20, 2013. That same day, the newspaper Fréttablaðið and news website mbl.is both reported that they had received a document from the Ministry (“Grunaður um aðild að mansali,” Fréttablaðið, and “Margt óljós í máli hælisleitanda,” mbl.is) on Tony Omos, the former article reporting the accusations of Tony having been involved in human trafficking, and that Evelyn was not the mother of his child, but pressured to say so. Both accusations were quickly proven false.
Silence Is Golden
What followed was comprised of two elements: ministerial silence and media silence. Hanna Birna denied that the memo in question originated in the Ministry, going so far as to imply in parliament that perhaps it had come from the Red Cross, and then refused to answer questions on the matter at all (even though there was nothing legally preventing her from doing so, despite her repeated assertions to the contrary). At the same time, any coverage of the matter from Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið—as well as their internet counterparts, visir.is and mbl.is—stopped altogether after it came to light that the Ministry was washing its hands of any connection to the memo. Coverage of the case from state broadcasting service RÚV was uneven. However, newspaper DV reported regularly on the matter. In fact, for weeks Grapevine virtually relied on DV for any information on the Tony Omos case for our readers, beyond official sources. The reason for the silence?
“Probably because the issue was humiliating for [Vísir and mbl.is], having published the Ministry’s disinformation without questioning,” DV journalist and student of law and philosophy Jóhann Páll Jóhannson told the Grapevine.
DV’s reporting brought with it its own challenges, some directly from the Ministry itself, Jóhann told us.
“The Ministry’s reaction to our reportage over the last few months has been surreal,” he said. “When we began covering the case, our editor got numerous phone calls from the minister herself and her political advisors. As has been revealed elsewhere, the minister claimed that we were ‘borderline,’ whatever she meant by that. That is not very decent. We were just trying to do our job.”
As Hanna Birna continued to stone-wall, lawyers for Tony Omos and Evelyn Glory Joseph, Stefán Karl Kristjánsson and Katrín Oddsdóttir, filed charges against the Ministry of the Interior last January which included breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office. In February, State Prosecutor Sigríður J. Friðjónsdóttir gave police the green light to investigate the Ministry. This involved not only questioning certain Ministry employees, but also investigating the computer and phone activities of the parties in question.
In two recent rulings on these investigations—one from the Reykjavík District Court and one from the Supreme Court— a clearer picture of what was happening within the Ministry on and before November 20 came to light, revealing some fairly damning information.
What The Police Found (So Far)
According to the District Court ruling, published last May, the Tony Omos memo was put together for the “sole purpose of impugning the reputation” of Omos, as public protest against his impending deportation was growing. Furthermore, the memo was initially written by a lawyer working in the Ministry of the Interior, at the behest of the Ministry’s office manager, Ragnhildur Hjaltadóttir. This memo was then distributed between Ragnhildur, Hanna Birna and her two assistants, Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir and Gísli Freyr Valdórsson, on November 19. While the police could not confirm at the time that the memo was sent directly from the Ministry’s email system to the media, it also could not rule out the possibility. In fact, the Supreme Court ruling all but states this was the case.
According to the Supreme Court ruling, the mobile phone use of five Ministry employees and the laptop use of two of them were more thoroughly examined. The court ruling alleges that, according to investigations, the computer and mobile phone use of one Ministry employee—referred to simply as “B”—raised many suspicions. DV initially, and erroneously, reported that Þórey was the suspect in question; in truth, RÚV and DV confirmed on June 20 that Gísli Freyr is “B” (“DV biður Þóreyju afsökunar,” RÚV and “Gísli Freyr einnig með réttarstöðu grunaðs manns,” DV). Both remain, though, amongst the Ministry employees the police consider suspects in the case. DV corrected the story, with an apology, and Þórey has said that she is consulting an attorney over the matter.
According to investigations, “B” reportedly searched for the memo in question on their computer on the evening of November 19, at 18:46 and 22:20. Police found that when the computer was turned off that evening, the notice “Do you want to save changes you made to [A],” referring to the memo, popped up on the screen.
At 18:40 and 22:43 that same evening, B phoned an employee of the news outlet Vísir, and called again an additional three times that same evening. B then allegedly called newspaper Morgunblaðið the following morning. Hours later, mbl.is published their story, referring to an Interior Ministry document, and Fréttablaðið made the accusations against Tony Omos front-page news on November 20.
All of this directly contradicts the repeated contentions of Hanna Birna, Ragnhildur, Gísli Freyr and Þórey that the memo was not created in the Ministry, let alone deliberately compiled to smear Tony Omos’s reputation and then handed directly to select members of the press.
Throughout all this, Hanna Birna has refused to step down while investigations continue.
“For me this case has from the beginning been like a parable on how public administration and political culture should not be,” Jóhann said. “Now we have a historic situation in Iceland where both of Hanna Birna’s political advisors are suspects in a criminal case. It is interesting that her colleagues in the Independence Party do not seem to care so much. As many have pointed out, in other countries she would probably have been forced to resign long ago.”
Hanna Birna’s refusal to step down is indeed a strange one, especially in comparison to similar or even lesser cases in other Scandinavian countries. In March 2006, Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds resigned over her Ministry’s involvement in the closure of a website which was planning to publish controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. In 2012, Danish Minister of Culture Uffer Elbæk resigned when it was revealed he had spent 180,000 kroner on five official dinners and meetings at Akademiet for Utæmmet Kreativitet (AFUK), an art school where his husband is employed. That same year, the former head of Norway’s intelligence service Janne Kristiansen resigned after she clumsily revealed that Norwegian intelligence agents are in Pakistan, and Norway’s Minister of Family and Equality Issues Audun Lysbakken resigned over alleged misconduct on behalf of his employees.
Hanna Birna steadfastly sticking to her post in the midst of police investigations of her Ministry and her assistants is therefore pretty unusual. Last month, Svanur Kristjánsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland, went so far as to tell DV that it would be “completely unthinkable” in neighbouring countries for a government minister to continue to hold onto their post while her assistants are suspected of illegal wrongdoing.
However, the Ministry’s treatment of Tony Omos may have already been in breach of international law, even before the leaked memo. Tony’s asylum application had been in process for 22 months at the time the decision to deport him was made, despite the fact that Article 19 of Dublin Regulation II requires that either deportation occur “at the latest within six months” of an application submission or that the application process for asylum be completed within “a maximum of one year.” Iceland has ratified this agreement into law. Furthermore, according to Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Iceland ratified this agreement in February 2013.
But the Supreme Court ruling touched on more than just the activities of the Ministry. Police requested that mbl. is reveal the source of the leak, to which the court ruled that mbl.is was not legally obliged to reveal who gave them the memo in question, nor to even reveal who wrote the mbl.is story as it appeared on the morning of November 20. Fréttablaðið was not mentioned in the court’s final decision.
The Media’s Role
In the 1996 case of Goodwin v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that “[p]rotection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom…Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected.” The ECHR concluded that absent “an overriding requirement in the public interest,” an order to disclose sources would violate the guarantee of free expression in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
This right, however, is not without noted exceptions. The Canadian Association of Journalists, for example, sets a guideline which is in line with ECHR when it comes to “an overriding requirement in the public interest.” To wit:
“When journalists use confidential sources, their contract and their obligation is, as always, first and foremost to the public, not to the source. Revealing a source would be justified, for example, if a government source or agency leaked erroneous information – but only if they knew it to be wrong, not if they too were fooled or misled. Governments, police or other groups often leak information with the deliberate attempt to ‘spin’ the news. If they have lied to you to get their version of the story out, they deserve to be exposed. That is why it is all the more important to check your sources and their motives.
RECOMMENDATION: If a source knowingly lies or hides an important part of the truth about a major issue or fact in the story, your obligation is to the truth, not the source. He or she has broken his contract with you and you can break your promise of confidentiality to the source.” [Emphasis theirs.]
In other words, while the protection of a journalist’s source is a crucial and fundamental aspect of freedom of the press, a journalist has every right to reveal that source if the reporter was deliberately used by the source to spread misinformation. The right, that is, not the obligation.
As the situation stands now, the State Prosecutor is currently reviewing police findings to determine whether to continue investigations, officially charge named suspects with engaging in illegal activity, or let the matter drop altogether. Tony Omos, who was deported from Iceland last December, remains separated from Evelyn and their child. The review of his case has been postponed until October. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior continues to maintain her office, refusing questions from the press, as police continue to investigate her office and its employees for criminal activity.
Timeline of Events in the Tony Omos Case:
October 2011: Tony Omos arrives in Iceland, seeking asylum. His case is filed, and he will end up waiting over two years for processing – over one year beyond the international legal limit.
November 19, 2013: Interior Ministry announces decision to deport Tony Omos. Shortly thereafter, No Borders announces public protest to be held the following day in front of the ministry. The Tony Omos memo is written by a lawyer working in the Ministry of the Interior, at the behest of the ministry’s office manager, Ragnhildur Hjaltadóttir. This memo is then sent from Ragnhildur to Hanna Birna and her two assistants, Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir and Gísli Freyr Valdórsson.
The evening of November 19, at 18:46 and 22:20: A ministry employee, known only as “B”, reportedly searched for the memo Tony Omos on their computer on the evening of November 19, at 18:46 and 22:20, at one point making changes to the document. At 18:40 and 22:43 that same evening, B phoned an employee of the news outlet Vísir, and called again an additional three times that same evening.
The morning of November 20: B allegedly called newspaper Morgunblaðið. Hours later, mbl.is published their story, referring to an Interior Ministry document, and Fréttablaðið reported the false accusations against Tony Omos as front-page news the same day.
November 21: After confirming for the press that the memo likely came from the ministry, Gísli Freyr recants his story. Lawyers for Tony Omos and the mother of his then-expecting child, Evelyn Glory Joseph, express outrage at the leak.
December 17: Facing criticism in parliament, Hanna Birna denies the memo originated from the ministry, implying it could have been fabricated by other sources, such as the Red Cross or the police.
December 19: Tony Omos is deported to Switzerland.
January 2014: Evelyn gives birth to their child.
January 10: Lawyers for Tony Omos and Evelyn Joseph file charges against the Ministry which include breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office.
February 7: The State Prosecutor decides to give green light for a police investigation of the ministry.
April 8: Tony Omos’ case against the Directorate of Immigration is postponed until October 2014.
May 2: Reykjavík District Court rules that the memo was put together for the sole purpose of “impugning the reputation” of Omos, as public protest against his impending deportation was growing.
June 16: The Supreme Court reveals the greater extent of the alleged activities within the Ministry on November 19 and 20 the year previous regarding the memo, implicating a ministry lawyer, ministry’s office manager, Ragnhildur Hjaltadóttir, Hanna Birna, and her two assistants, Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir and Gísli Freyr Valdórsson.
June 20: Þórey announces she plans to consult with an attorney over DV erroneously reporting she was the suspect known as “B” – both DV and RÚV later report B is Gísli Freyr. Both, amongst others, remain suspects in the case for their involvement. State Prosecutor receives police findings on the case so far. A decision on when, or if, to move forward with further investigations, arrests, or dropping the case has still not been taken at the time of this writing.
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