Despite a strong showing of solidarity, the Westman Islands chief of police will not change her policy of asking for media silence of sexual assaults during the Merchants’ Weekend festival. The musicians who pledged to drop out if no change in policy was made say they will play at the festival anyway.
As reported, seven bands slated to play at the festival threatened to drop out unless authorities change their policies regarding sexual assault at the event. Westman Islands police chief Páley Borgþórsdóttir recently issued a request to police, emergency care workers and hospital staff to not talk to the press about any reported sexual assaults until some days after the festival’s conclusion have passed – a request that has been met with considerable criticism.
In the wake of a meeting between the musicians, Westman Islands mayor Elliði Vignisson and Páley, she told RÚV that her position remains unchanged. She continues to contend that issuing a media blackout on sexual assaults during the festival is done to protect survivors of these assaults from media scrutiny – even though their identities are never disclosed, unless they choose to come forward themselves.
For the musicians’ part, they have decided to play the festival anyway.
“We quickly went into a very honest discussion, and if the mayor of the Westman Islands comes to Reykjavík to talk with us about sexual violence for so many hours, then I think something has been accomplished,” Retro Stefson frontman Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson told reporters. “We all intend to play [at the festival], because we think we can accomplish more by attending and putting our message forward. At the end of the day, we aren’t politicians or lawyers. We’re just musicians, who can’t perform there without bringing attention to this.”
As such, the only changes made is that there will be a symbolic ceremony at the start of the festival raising awareness of sexual assault, and a general demand has been issued that police forces around the country follow the same policies regarding media access to information.
While declining to directly criticise Páley’s policy, Haraldur Johannessen, the National Police Commissioner of Iceland, told RÚV he believes it would be best for police all over the country to exercise the same policies, as opposed to one police unit having a separate policy from the rest of the country.
Celebrating the Merchants’ Holiday festival at the Westman Islands is a modern tradition in Iceland, but not one without its problems. Sexual assaults have been a recurring problem, and festival organisers have at times tried to downplay this, in at least one case by denying rape crisis workers access to set up a booth at the festival.
Kjarninn reported last year that the Journalists’ Union of Iceland harshly criticised the order.
“This attempt at silencing that is put forward is completely out of touch with the central point of view that an informed and open discussion in a democratic society must be supported,” the statement reads in part. “We encourage all police officers and other responders to report on assaults, sexual assaults or otherwise which are known to happen at this festival, openly, and with the public good in mind.”
In 2015, there were five reported sexual assaults at the festival.