Published February 2, 2018
The past few years have been complicated for the International press. As the choke on media and freedom of the press is tightened all over the world, the present looks grimmer than ever.
The U-turn taken by governments and powerful individuals when it comes to media freedom is blatantly visible, even in countries where democracies are faltering and tribal nationalism is on the rise. The daily pantomime that is Donald Trump’s attacks on the news media goes from serious to laughable, while Turkish authorities have made unspecified terrorism threats a scapegoat to reduce pluralism.
While Iceland hasn’t gone down that road yet, freedom of information seems to be in decline. Pluralism and the concentration of ownership have been a local issue until the advent of the Internet, and even now, the mainstream media outlets are owned by only two companies. Yet, while Reporters Without Borders rank Iceland 10th in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, they also specify that “the situation of journalists has worsened since 2012 because relations between politicians and media have soured.”
The root of the issue
Icelandic politics and the media have been intertwined for decades, with the Independence Party enjoying a particularly privileged relationship with media outlets. Since its inception, five out of eleven editors of local mainstream media outlet Morgunblaðið were also members of the Independence Party, including members of Parliament, mayors and often both.
Bjarni Benediktsson, the homonymous great-uncle of Iceland’s former Prime Minister, and Davið Oddsson, former mayor of Reykjavík for the party as well as Prime Minister, are the most obvious examples. On the other hand, the biggest local newspaper Fréttablaðið was always associated with left-wing parties, despite its founder affiliation with the Independence Party.
But what happens when media outlets that might not have survived in a pre-Internet era, develop instead on a network that is independent of political participation?
A mediatic coup
In 2003, Davið Oddsson’s right-wing government tried to propose a bill that planned to tackle media ownership but was rather aimed at dissolving the media corporation 365 Miðlar—owner of the newspaper Fréttablaðið— in order to shut down the paper, and leaving Morgunblaðið to play the game alone.
Since almost 80% of the public was against the Media Act, the government decided to withdraw it, only to propose a new bill in 2004. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president at the time, exercised his right to veto the bill.
The Stundin Case
Nearly15 years after the attempted media coup, however, a new contentious incident has made headlines: the Stundin case.
An independent media outlet with a big online following, Stundin veers away from quick news reporting favouring instead longer, investigative pieces. In October, the local District Commissioner of Reykjavík issued an injunction against Stundin prohibiting the staff to investigate and report on the financial dealings of former Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson and his family with Glitnir, a bank involved in the economic crash of 2008.
Glitnir justified the injunction by arguing that Article 58 of the Law on Financial Institutions protects the right to privacy and confidentiality of clients whose names appear in Stundin’s leaked documents, forgetting that Stundin “only covers things that we believe are relevant to the public,” as Stundin’s editor Jón Trausti Reynisson told The Grapevine.
An Independent Commissioner
Even if Glitnir’s argument were plausible, however, it’s interesting to see how only Bjarni, and Bjarni alone, was named in their demands—not the aforementioned clients.
It’s also worth noting that the District Commissioner of Reykjavík, Þórólfur Halldórsson, has been tied to the Independence Party since the beginning of his career when he still worked in the North of Iceland. As media outlet DV reported in 1992, Þórólfur was transferred elsewhere because of his odd habit of aggressively questioning various opponents of the party. While in the North, Þórólfur was also the chairman of the constituency council of the Independence Party.
A familiar pattern
On his part, the former Prime Minister was quick to claim he never requested the injunction himself, and even DV’s research on Þórólfur’s background proves little to nothing.
The only thing that is certain is that to this day, Stundin is still barred from reporting on Bjarni and his dealings until further notice from the District Court.
Perhaps the Independence Party isn’t collectively involved in barring the media from doing their job. However, it’s undeniable that individuals in the party seem to have a constant contention with media outlets that divulge information they don’t approve of. These are dangerous patterns, wherever they stem from: we’d do well to remember them before it’s too late.