Imprisoning journalists shows lack of respect for press' wathcdog role, says adviser
In response to the charges that the Interior Minister’s assistant, Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir, has pressed against journalists Jón Bjarki Magnússon and Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson, the International Press Institute (IPI) has urged the Icelandic government to prioritize reform of defamation law.
The institute’s statement, issued on Monday, emphasizes that the European Court of Human Rights, the U.N. Human Rights committee, legal experts and free expression advocates all strongly oppose the use of imprisonment as punishment in defamation cases.
Scott Griffen, Press freedom adviser at the IPI, said that requests from public officials, that journalists be imprisoned for mistakes, is not a sign of respect for the role of the press. “We are, quite frankly, taken aback by the disproportionate measures being sought in this case,” he said on Monday. “The idea that a public official may seek imprisonment — or, indeed, any punitive remedy — for what appears to have been an honest mistake made as part of a serious investigation does not indicate respect for the media’s critical watchdog role.”
Griffen mentioned that Iceland “had previously positioned itself as a strong defender of freedom of expression and information,” but must carry out “the necessary reforms to bring its libel laws in line with international standards.” That should include the repeal of all criminal provisions, the capping of civil damages and “critically, a clause protecting journalists from liability as long as they have acted in good faith and observed standard ethical practices.”
The case is an offspring from DV’s coverage of the leak of Ministry documents containing sensitive information related to an asylum seeker last year. When court documents suggested “employee B” might be responsible for the leak, the journalists mistakenly identified Þórey as that employee. Later that same day, when the phrase turned out to refer to the Minister’s other assistant, DV issued a correction and an apology, and informed other media about the mistake. Þórey nonetheless pressed charges under Articles 234 (insult) and 235 (defamation) of the Icelandic Penal Code, seeking “maximum punishment” which is one year in prison for each offence, as well as damages.
Griffen said that the case “perfectly illustrates that as long as criminal libel laws remain on the books, the risk of their abuse — and of a potential chilling effect on the wider media community — remains.”
For over two decades, Icelandic journalists have repeatedly presented cases against the State, at the European Court of Human Rights, after being found guilty of defamation. Until now, the court has consistently ruled in favor of the journalists and urged Iceland to change the relevant legislation. The last example, noted in the IPI’s announcement, was an unanimous ruling in favor of journalist Erla Hlynsdóttir, ordered to pay damages for allegedly defamatory comments made by an interviewee in 2007.