Published October 5, 2017
Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, currently running for parliament with his own party Miðflokkurinn and polling fairly well, is once again employing a tactic he has been using for years now: berating and threatening to sue reporters when he doesn’t like how they report on him.
Sigmundur is aiming to sue three media outlets—Kjarninn, Stundin and public broadcasting service RÚV—for their reporting of his involvement with Wintris, the company that the Panama Papers leak revealed Sigmundur and his wife had used to keep money in an overseas tax shelter. Sigmundur has not been very specific about what, exactly, their coverage got wrong, but his choice to sue them in particular is very telling.
Sigmundur, and many others in his old party, the Progressives, have long levelled the baseless accusation at RÚV that they are biased against him. Kjarninn and Stundin are smaller, independent news services. While RÚV may have the resources to fight a lawsuit, things are decidedly more difficult for smaller-scale outlets when it comes to defending themselves in court.
This isn’t the first time he’s done this, either. Sigmundur had personally met with former head of RÚV Páll Magnússon in 2013, accusing the service of being biased against him. In 2014, Sigurður Már Jónsson, press secretary for the government when Sigmundur was Prime Minister, contacted Grapevine, taking issue with a story we had done about Sigmundur’s absences from parliament and the number of assistants he has. While there were no factual errors in our reporting, Sigmundur objected to our tone, and with the fact that one of our reporters tweeted her own news stories, which he erroneously contended violated journalistic ethics. Sigmundur also had a meeting with the editorial board of 365 Media, the company which runs newspaper Fréttablaðið and television Stöð 2, in 2015, complaining that their news coverage was “making things difficult” for him.
This continuous meddling with journalists even drew the attention of Reporters Without Borders, which in 2016 raised concerns regarding “worsening relations between politicians and the media” in Iceland.
In point of fact, there is nothing wrong with the reporting RÚV, Kjarninn and Stundin did about Wintris. It is absolutely true that Tortola, the island where Wintris was located, is a tax shelter. It is also true that no taxes were paid on the money being kept there until the matter was brought to light. Sigmundur may not even win this case in court. The gambit being played here is the “chilling effect,” that is, the use of threats, direct or implied, to make reporters more reluctant to report on him critically, out of fear of having to burn a lot of money and time in court.
Shortly after news broke of the lawsuits, Omar R. Valdimarsson, a district court attorney, announced on Facebook that he and District Court attorneys Daníel Thor Skals Pedersen and Jóhannes S. Ólafsson have formed a group called Ritfrelsi, or “freedom of writing.” This group’s purpose is to provide pro bono legal services for journalists being targeted for lawsuits such as this, and Ómar is asking for more lawyers to volunteer.
As Sigmundur is, if current polling is reflected in election results later this month, very likely taking a seat in parliament again, the need for such a service is possibly more and important than ever.