From Iceland — The Power Of Accountability: An Interview With Whistleblower Bára Halldórsdóttir

The Power Of Accountability: An Interview With Whistleblower Bára Halldórsdóttir

The Power Of Accountability: An Interview With Whistleblower Bára Halldórsdóttir

Published February 1, 2019

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Bára Halldórsdóttir, a queer disabled woman who has long advocated for the rights of the chronically ill, found herself in the spotlight last November when it was revealed she had recorded the six parliamentarians implicated in the so-called Klausturgate scandal, subsequently sending the recordings to the media. Since then, four of the MPs have tried, without success, to silence her through the court system. No matter what vitriol these MPs and their supporters may send her way—and to be fair, she says the overwhelming response directed her way has been support—she remains unflappable. In fact, the entire affair happened by pure chance.

“I don’t remember having a moment where I decided I needed to get my phone out and start recording,” Bára told Grapevine. “It just kind of happened. I knew they were politicians, being quite rude, and quite loud. In that moment of disbelief I thought, ‘I have to let my wife hear this when she gets home.’ So I started recording. But then it started getting uglier and uglier, so I stayed.”

Leaving it to the professionals

Bára knew that at least some of the things she recorded were possibly newsworthy, but felt it would be wise to send copies of the recordings to media outlets she trusted, for them to decide, rather than upload the entire thing to Soundcloud and put the MPs on blast.

“At some point in the conversation, I realised they were talking about things that were official stuff,” she recounts. “I couldn’t always hear clearly what they were saying, nor knew who everyone in the conversation was. That’s when I started thinking that I needed to get this to somebody. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really know, how to work with the stuff in the recording, and didn’t have the energy to go through all of it, either. I kind of just knew [my media contacts] would know what was news and what wasn’t; what you’re allowed to publish and what not. It took me about three or four days to decide.”

“What I really would love to see is one Icelandic politician say, ‘I really ruined things, so now I’m going to step down, and take some real responsibility for once in my life.’”

Bára speculated that Centre Party MP Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson’s drunken bragging about a possible quid pro quo deal for an ambassadorship would be the only newsworthy thing to come out of these recordings, but the MPs’ abusive language about female colleagues also made headlines. Even so, Bára says that many of the articles written about the recordings “came out of the blue” to her.

All “apologies”

The irony of some of the parliamentarians involved issuing apologies but then taking her to court isn’t lost on Bára.

“I think it definitely casts a shadow on their apologies,” she says. “You don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, and by the way, I’m going to go after the disabled woman who recorded me.’ It feels very insincere that they’d go through that process. It’s a strange thing. Maybe they’re making a point so that other people won’t be so willing to record them or maybe they just really do think that they have been wronged. Maybe they’re trying to say, ‘if you do something like this, we’ll come for you,’ but I don’t know.”

She also dismisses some of the wilder conspiracy theories that some of these MPs have put forward, such as the idea that she coordinated the entire thing as a kind of sting operation.

“People have pointed out that it’s kind of impossible that I could have planned this,” she says. “It just doesn’t work that way that I’d think, ‘A ha! At that point in time, they will be saying horrible things and I shall be recording them!’ I do not have such powers—even though I do read Tarot cards for Rauða skáldahúsið—I’m not that powerful that I can induce people to speak at my will. I’d be very rich if I were that good.”

Is this who we are?

One of the more common responses to some of the things revealed in the recordings is that none of this should be surprising; that the politicians involved probably say even worse things in private. Bára believes this raises questions that Icelanders need to ask themselves.

“Is that a nice thing? Are we really happy about that happening?,” Bára tells us. “That’s basically what this is about. That this is the way they talk behind closed doors, and do we like that? We have to have a few cases of these people doing things wrong, so that we can recalibrate.”

What we can learn

Ultimately, Bára hopes that the case doesn’t just become some flash-in-the-pan scandal; she hopes that it will lead to real material change in Iceland’s socio-political landscape.

“What I really would love to see is one Icelandic politician say, ‘I really ruined things, so now I’m going to step down and take some real responsibility for once in my life,’” she tells Grapevine. “I would also like to see this discussion continue, because what I saw from this is a lot of female strength and a lot of ally strength, too. There are a lot of people who finally got a voice, and who were very strong in their responses. I like that. I also hope that, in some way, this makes clearer the rules about whistleblowers and informers in Iceland. My interpretation of this whole case is that there were public people talking publicly in a public place, which makes it OK to record and send it out. My inner compass says this, if it’s something that has value for the national conversation, which I think this has,it has both legal and ethical ramifications that are very important.”

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