From Iceland — A Witness to the Execution

A Witness to the Execution

Published September 8, 2006

A Witness to the Execution

Television reporter and aviation-enthusiast, Ómar Ragnarsson recently published an open letter in Morgunblaðið where he invited local V.I.P.s on a guided tour of the area affected by the Kárahnjúkar dam project. The people Ragnarsson specified in the letter were, along with President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, the editors of the three daily newspapers, directors of the three broadcasting companies and the three Progressive Party ministers: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Industry and Commerce, and the Minister for the Environment. The invitation has since been extended to all of the Icelandic government’s ministers.
Although Ragnarsson is an extremely busy and active man, the Grapevine managed to coerce him into sitting down for a short interview discussing work.
/// Certain parties of interest have criticised you for being partial?
– Yes, it seems strange to me. No one jumps if Al Gore makes a documentary and everybody knows his views, but if one dares to do the same in Iceland everything goes upside down, with rampant accusations of partiality and abusing one’s position, among other things. I have been accused of impartiality without ever making my views clear; it’ll soon be seven years since it was first demanded that I be fired from my job as an RÚV reporter for allegedly abusing that position.
/// Who made the demands and what came of the whole spectacle?
– A 700-person coalition of ‘friends of the industry’ that convened at Hótel Valaskjálf in Egilsstaðir. I was accused of featuring footage of the land that was to go under too prominently in my reports. The landscape I portrayed was said to be ‘too beautiful’ – a ludicrous accusation. It’s like demanding that a report of plans to reduce Mt. Esja to a pile of gravel can’t show the mountain itself, or only show it when it’s enveloped in fog or bad weather. I was also accused of only interviewing those against the proceedings, and to have monopolised reports of the project.
Luckily, the State Radio Council took these accusations seriously enough to investigate. They went over every report of mine with a stopwatch and magnifying glass, and of course discovered that everything was in order and that I had in fact interviewed more people that were for the project than against it. That investigation was the best thing that could have happened to me; it cleared my name and allowed me to continue my reporting.
/// Did you receive any threats?
– Yes. As has been documented by the media, my wife got threatened and told that she had to prevent me from doing this coverage. They told her she had two choices: she could either stop me or someone else would take care of the problem. Soon after, the Hótel Valaskjálf meeting took place.
/// Time to be frank. Do you oppose the Kárahnjúkar dam project?
– I have never claimed either view. I have covered several dams in my career and have of course had opinions on most of them, but never have I let them affect my reports or even thought to make them known. Some, I’ve doubted, but others I have endorsed wholeheartedly. I do not let my personal opinions affect my work.
/// Tell us about your open invitation letter.
– It seemed like the obvious thing to do, following my previous efforts in covering the debate. I started with news reports and documentaries and then published a book called Kárahnjúkar: For and Against. This summer, it dawned on me that there still was a side to the debacle that had thus far been ignored, and that was showing people the affected area with their own eyes. As a reporter, I felt that Landsvirkjun’s efforts to display the area were one-sided – of course, those interested could pursue the week-long hike across the area, but the Landsvirkjun bus was an easier route and I wanted to respond to that. I wanted to do my best to report both sides and I did so by flying over the area, the dams and construction sites too. They are truly vast and admirable on many levels and my tour fully acknowledges that. Landsvirkjun has held seminars and shows about the project in Végarður and they don’t show a single photograph of the area that will go under. Not one. Lots of pictures of drills and tunnels and dams from all sides, but not one of the valley that will go under. I do not consider that kind of reporting to be up to modern standards and I think that Landsvirkjun has a greater obligation to such standards, being state run. We are the ones paying for it and thus have a claim for complete objectivity.
/// Morgunblaðið reported on your tour with Prime Minister Haarde and Minister of Education, Science and Culture Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir and quoted them as saying that even though they greatly enjoyed it and found the area to be beautiful, it would not affect the decisions already made.
– Yes, that was natural. Had they said they were reconsidering the project in light of the tour it would have been tantamount to admitting that they had made the biggest mistake in the history of Iceland. It was obvious that the tour couldn’t reverse the government’s decisions, but I thought it was important that they could see with their own eyes what that those decisions entailed. Viewing documentaries and reading dozens of articles on the subject only exposes you to roughly half of the story. Now they are familiar with all of it and the decision stands. It’s clear.
I have taken dozens of people on the same tour and it all amounts to personal taste, opinions and priorities. Everybody who comes, be they for or against the dam, is greatly affected by the tour. Those in favour of the dam get to experience the power and force of the constructs firsthand and those opposing cry over the land that will be drenched. It is a very heated and heavily debated matter and each individual take on the experience varies.
/// Well, the decision has been made and the area will be drenched this fall. Are your tours perhaps futile efforts?
– Steingrímur J. Sigfússon [the Leftist-Green’s leader] said in the spring of 2003 that we would have to find ways to live with the dam. Nonetheless, I think that opposing it, even now, is only natural. What will go down in September is really a form of execution, an entire ecosystem is scheduled to be drowned and killed. We can take this analogy further; say you have a man who has for some reason been given the death penalty and is slated for execution soon. People would dispute the verdict and nobody would think it out of the ordinary for those opposing the sentence to fight it until the very last day.
/// And if evidence proving the man innocent was to be uncovered…
– Exactly. This is how I see it. People may think it strange to fight something that will almost certainly go forth, but I see it as an operation where an entire valley will be removed and filled with gravel. And that’s the equivalent of an execution, even if it goes towards creating something new, an aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður in exchange for the area. Execution – creation.
/// If we stick to the analogy, will you be attending the funeral?
– I will witness it firsthand in my boat, the Ark. And I will of course also witness the creation. I plan on broadcasting the course of events on my website,, posting new pictures daily of both the destruction and creation aspects.
/// Like an art project?
– That may very well be. When they turn on the water, it will mark the creation and destruction of a new landscape daily. And with the rising smelting plant, that’s changing every day, although it’s a slower process. I have been photographing that since the beginning. It will make for some interesting contrasts, I think. The two or three years it takes to construct the plant versus the few days it takes to ruin the valley. There are two stories being told, really, of a slow build-up and a swift execution.
/// The dam project has in many ways been a greater part of the discourse this summer and seems to concern a lot more people than before.
– Yes, it must be admitted. This is rather typical of the Icelandic mentality, what I call ‘the last-minute syndrome’ is inherent in us. Andri Snær Magnason’s book was published at exactly the right moment in regards to that. My own book on the subject was published in 2004 and sparked a small interest in the project, but it was still too far removed from the actualisation of it to have the same effect as Draumalandið. The same goes for the geological reports [concerning the dam’s apparently unstable building ground] that have been in the spotlight recently; all that was very clear two years ago and was the subject of some scientific papers but didn’t manage to attract the same amount of publicity because of the timing. Now there’s a new report out and along with Andri Snær’s book, it managed to finally get the public interested.
/// A positive, if too-late, development.
– There’s also a certain media law in operation, what I think of as the ‘three times clause’: you have to say the same things three times in order to get people’s attention. For instance, I reported back in 1970 that Bláfjöll might prove to be Icelanders’ future skiing grounds and preparations were being made. No one blinked. I did a follow-up and people started taking notice, but it wasn’t until I did my third segment on it that people really realised the possibilities. I remember running the story on a Friday, the following weekend saw a huge traffic-jam form on the way there – thousands of Reykjavíkians suddenly decided to observe the site for themselves. If I had managed to find a way to report three times what Guðmundur Sigvaldason said at a seminar in the summer of 2002, there might have been a reaction similar to what we are seeing now. What he said was almost exactly the same that Grímur Björnsson is now saying and has everybody excited. I felt at the time that it was an important piece of information and was excited about ‘scooping’ it for the eight o’clock news. It wasn’t deemed interesting enough for that; as I recall it the night’s main story revolved around some stock-market scuffle, but I managed to edge it into the ten o’clock news, where it didn’t attract anyone’s attention. Now, the same results are being reported for the third time and all hell’s breaking loose.

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