Earlier this year, Iceland made headlines around the world by vowing to enact the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), in effect agreeing to become the world’s free speech haven. This important proposal has extensive protections for journalists, including protection from libel tourism, and limitations on prior restraint.
Whether members of the Icelandic Parliament passed the resolution in the spirit of George Washington’s words that “[i]f the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter” or they saw in its passage an opportunity for positive PR—sorely needed since our harebrained bankers led the country off a cliff—is not clear, since Iceland has hardly been a model of a society that values free speech. Iceland still retains on its books extremely restrictive libel laws, adopted from our Danish overlords in 1940, that criminalise truthful statements offending the subject of the communications. The laws permit imprisonment for up to two years for presenting a “defamatory insinuation,” and for up to one year for “injuring the personal honour of another” or for insinuating “something which would be to the detriment of his/her respect.”
Iceland’s constitution guarantees the right to free expression, and these archaic laws are rarely enforced by the prosecutors, but the rich and powerful continue to use these relics to intimidate those who dare impinge their “honour.” My public criticism, of the current administration’s hiring of former high level bank officials, was answered with a swift demand for an apology and an indirect referral to defamation laws.
On top of this, nearly all the major media are owned and operated by the oligarchs and politicians who led us to the point of perdition. Iceland’s bank secrecy laws prohibit everyone—even legislators attempting to investigate the misdeeds of the 2000s—from viewing records. Iceland has no open meeting laws, no ACLU to take up the gauntlet in free speech cases, no anti-SLAPP legislation to penalize those who bring baseless suits to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with legal costs.
As has been reported elsewhere, I was recently the target of intimidation by a bank official. The newspaper DV had reported that Íslandsbanki had written off a $3.5 million loan made to a company with close ties to one of its bank officials. I cross-referenced the DV story on my blog on Eyjan.is—an Icelandic-language website—along with a comment about another “disgusting” instance of unethical favouritism by the taxpayer-bailed-out banks.
Since DV’s news story was related to another story I was working on, I directed follow-up questions to the bank regarding its official policies towards insider loans and what the criteria were for loan write-offs. This last question is of particular interest to the Icelandic public, as the banks are adamant in their refusal to write-off residential and personal loans for the unwashed masses.
The bank, unsurprisingly, evoked bank secrecy laws regarding the specific case, but referred to the bank’s “General Rules” which answered none of my questions.
What did surprise me, though, was a vehement attack against me by the officer’s attorney, Dögg Pálsdóttir. As reported in DV, Ms. Pálsdóttir called the Reykjavik Grapevine to warn its editor that I was going to provide him with a libellous story about her client, saying she was “sure that nothing she [Íris] says will be true if she writes anything at all.” [Which made my editor wonder whether it wasn’t slanderous to call someone’s workplace maintaining that any work product created by her is worthless.] She added it would be best the paper was aware of this, to avoid a situation necessitating legal action.
Fortunately, both DV and the Grapevine are independently owned and have not succumbed to the intimidation. But it makes me wonder how many questionable deals were never investigated, how many stories have never seen the light of day, and how many follow-ups have been deep-sixed because of these bullying techniques.
The IMMI is a promising start, but more must be done. The intimidation does not come just from the overt threats, but from the general societal attitude. We are told not to rock the boat, to keep our disagreements among ourselves, and to think about the effects of speaking out on our families and our careers.
As a new Constitutional Convention approaches, we must reaffirm our absolute commitment to free expression. We must continue to push for quick passage of the IMMI, as well as for the repeal of obsolete laws. We must create anti-SLAPP measures to fight back against the intimidators. And we must support without hesitation those who dare to speak out, even if we don’t always agree what they’re saying. As Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”