From Iceland — Truth Costs

Truth Costs

Published August 15, 2012

Truth Costs
A legal maelstrom that made its way all the way to the European Court of Human Rights erupted after journalists Björk Eiðsdóttir and Erla Hlynsdóttir were charged with defamation, for writing articles about the strip clubs Goldfinger and Strawberries in 2007 and 2009, respectively. They in turn sued the Icelandic State and, in a rare turn of events, won their cases. The Grapevine met up with the two to talk about what it’s like to be a journalist in Iceland.
What led the two of you to dig into this story?
Björk Eiðsdóttir: Strip clubs were a hot debate at the time. Everyone knew there was something fishy going on inside these clubs, but nobody was willing to step up and tell the entire story. At the time I was working for the magazine Vikan. We were really interested in trying to get some girls to tell the true story. So we contacted a few who worked for Goldfinger at the time. The owner [the late Ásgeir Þór Davíðsson] agreed, and the girls we met told a totally different story from what we knew was true. They said that everything was great. Of course, the owner sat there with them.
The owner was present for the interview?
BE: Yes. So, the story was totally ruined, but we published it anyway. Then the week after that story was published, a girl contacted me who said that everything in this story was bullshit. She told me her entire story. She had worked for a few clubs, Goldfinger among them. She said that there was prostitution going on, and that the owner was pimping the girls out. I called the owner and asked him if he wanted to comment, and he was very quick to say that she was lying. But then he said, ‘Björk, I really hope that nothing bad happens to you if you publish this story.’ And I published that as well.
Erla Hlynsdóttir: My story is very different from hers, but it was also about something that was going on within these clubs. The owner of Strawberries, Viðar Þór Friðriksson, contacted me, and said that he had been attacked at his strip club by a man who is known to have worked as a handrukkari [a general term for a “muscle man,” an enforcer who collects debts, usually with threats of violence or actual violence], and that this handrukkari had been working for Ásgeir Þór. So I met Viðar, and he had obviously been attacked; he had a black eye, and he presented a medical report that showed that he had been to the emergency room. He wanted me to just publish all that, and I told him I couldn’t, that I needed to speak to the other party, and to the owner of Goldfinger. I had a lot of trouble getting in touch with this handrukkari, but when I finally reached him, it was his words that I ended up getting a conviction for. He said he hadn’t attacked the owner of Strawberries, and that he would never do such a thing because the owner had been spreading rumours that he had members of the Lithuanian mafia in his club. The owner of Strawberries—not the one I was talking to—sued me. They looked at her case [gesturing to Björk] and saw that you could sue journalists for quoting someone correctly, and decided to do the same.
BE: Yeah, the owner of Goldfinger started by suing the girl that I interviewed. But in the lower courts, I was a witness for that case, and I was asked, ‘Are you the author of the article?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I had a feeling that I had said something wrong, so I corrected myself, saying that I was not the author of her words, that I was the author of the article, quoting her words. But the lawyers met in chambers, and when they came back, they said that she was off the hook. They were now just going for me and the editor. They had found the loophole in the law.
So, for future reference, what you’re supposed to say is, “No, I’m not the author of the article”?
BE: Right, I should have said, ‘No, she is the author.’
EH: And that’s what I did. We had the same lawyer as Björk, so I knew what I was supposed to say beforehand. I was also asked, ‘Are yowu the author?’ and I said, ‘No, I am not the author. I wrote this.’ This goes back to the old law—it just says, you can choose who you sue in a news story, that you can choose to sue the journalist. It says “the author,” and it becomes a matter of interpretation over who is the author of the words.
BE: We won the case in the lower courts, but then it went to the Supreme Court. And it was kind of obvious from day one that they were going to convict us.
So how did your editors react? Did they maybe want to back off from covering strip clubs, or did they want to go after them harder?
BE: Definitely not harder. I’m a lot more careful. I have lawyers read over my articles if I’m not sure, you know, ‘Can they get me for this?’
EH: But there have been articles in the news that journalists haven’t put their names on because of cases like ours.
Do you think the way the system is today puts journalists on the defensive when it comes to doing any kind of investigative piece?
BE: I think so. Even when they make new laws, there are loopholes. Journalists are definitely on the defensive. You have to be careful. I don’t know any journalists who’d be able to pay this kind of money from their salaries. Everyone knows journalists aren’t very well paid.
EH: Because I didn’t have any assets, I was put on a credit “blacklist” at the banks. You can’t get loans, credit cards—you can’t do anything. The Journalist Union of Iceland stepped in and put a small down payment on this, just so I wouldn’t be on this blacklist.
Yeah, I was about to ask—where was the journalists’ union in all this?
EH: They helped us go to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights].
BE: In my case it was the publishing company and the journalists’ union that paid for my case to go there. So the damages we’re getting paid have now already been spent. My case took three years to get a ruling.
EH: Yeah, we’re both single moms, and everyone thinks it’s so great that we got all these millions, but… we didn’t [laughs].
BE: But what led to this going all the way to Europe was that everyone was suing journalists at the time. People realised they could get money from this. So something had to be done. It just couldn’t go on. Everyone was afraid to write.
EH: Of course, you know, I can’t just write something you said about her without anything to back it up. But the ECHR ruled that in cases where you have something of great societal importance—this was a huge topic at the time, these strip clubs—that there are journalistic protections.
BE: These people that we were interviewing had spoken to the media before, talking about this very subject. Ásgeir Þór had been in the media many times, saying, “No, no, there’s no prostitution in my clubs.” He had been a part of the discussion many times.
Do you think that this ruling will have an impact on Icelandic journalism?
EH: I think so. I feel like we can do something more now.
BE: And of course there was the response we got from all of our colleagues, you know; they were just relieved. Just to know that there is a higher court—that it doesn’t stop here. And I think the government response has also been positive.
Do you think Iceland is a good country for journalists, in comparison to other European countries?
EH: No, I don’t think it’s a good country for journalists.
BE: Apart from this case, there’s also a lack of resources. You don’t have a lot of time or money to do real investigative journalism.
EH: Investigative journalism is going downhill in Iceland. There isn’t enough money. There isn’t enough staff. It affects the quality of the journalism and it affects the information that the public is able to receive.
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