In two recent decisions, the Reykjavik district court has, in effect, ruled that truth is not a valid defence to libel. Instead, it ruled that newspapers have a duty not to publish statements about private individuals that would tend to damage their reputations, even if they are true and involve matters that many would reasonably believe to be in the public interest.
In one case, the court ruled that a journalist could be subjected to penalties for repeating, in an article regarding an international child custody case, the woman’s statement that she removed her children from Denmark because their father abused them emotionally and physically. In a more recent case, it fined a journalist who wrote a story about a dispute between neighbours 1.450.000 ISK for quoting public court documents from an earlier case against one of the parties.
In both cases, the journalist was: (1) quoting an apparently reliable source (2) about a matter that the newspaper reasonably believed was in the public interest (3) without opining as to the statements’ veracity.
What is it, exactly, that the courts expect journalists to do? Avoid stories that reflect poorly upon private individuals? Must the newspaper remove a story about a football match in which a goalie error costs his team the game, because the goalie’s reputation as a competent player will be placed in doubt? Must it stop publishing stories about criminal trials that identify the accused, since the accusation will depend on a statement from a private person? Will it be precluded from publishing the names of legislators who voted on bills that ultimately ended up harming the public, since that might cause them to lose credibility?
A rule compelling a journalist to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions—and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount—will inevitably lead to self-censorship.
The rule ought to be that, so long as the journalist relied on at least one authoritative source and had no good reason to doubt the veracity of that source or the accuracy of the information he or she provided, even if that information ultimately proved to be incorrect or false, the publisher has appropriately discharged its duty.
In the custody case, the mother’s quote was included to explain her actions, not to justify them. Without the quote, the story would appear to be an unjustified breach of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. With the quote, the issue is different: would Iceland be justified in refusing to turn over the children until there was some fact-finding. The story is not complete without her statement.
With regard to the second case, one of the unending sources of juicy gossip is neighbourhood feuding. The court is right that these disputes should generally remain private, but once they go beyond mere words to violence, they become matters of public concern. We have laws—enacted by public bodies, expressing the public will—outlawing such breaches of the public order. The public documents quoted by the journalist permit the reader to determine for him or herself which side is more likely to be telling the truth. The quote does not damage the parties’ reputations because it is true. They do not deserve to have reputations based on an incomplete knowledge of the past. The mere fact that the documents are more than twenty years old only goes to the weight that the readers should assign to them.
A true statement cannot damage someone’s reputation. If you think someone is a wonderful father but are told the true statement that he abuses his children, his reputation will be ruined. However, he never deserved a ‘good reputation’ to begin with. If he enjoys a good reputation because everyone is ignorant of the inconvenient truth, then the reputation is a lie. That the courts consider it their job to protect that lie is preposterous.
Iceland’s press failed miserably in the years leading up to the country’s financial collapse. It failed to investigate reliable reports of gross abuse by politicians, bankers, and businessmen, mostly because the media hardly did any original, hard news reporting.
According to the Investigative Report, four out of five Icelandic news stories about the banks and financial matters originated from the banks’ PR departments.
Now, however, serious investigative reporting is impossible because of the draconian nature of our country’s defamation laws. As a people, we feel a certain shame in airing our dirty laundry in public, but too much harm has already resulted from our ostrich-like avoidance of unpleasant facts.
If the Icelandic Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression is to mean anything, it must guarantee the right to publish true statements. If we are to have an open debate on public issues, we must permit the publication of properly-attributed quotations from apparently reliable sources. Any remedy for libellous statements in that situation must be solely against the speaker, not against the publisher.