The District Commissioner of Reykjavík issued an injunction yesterday against media outlets Stundin and Reykjavík Media, prohibiting them from doing any future reporting on the financial dealings of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson and his family with Glitnir bank just before the economic collapse of Iceland in October 2008.
The case has drawn sharp criticism from the Journalists’ Union of Iceland, amongst others, and Stundin’s editor told Grapevine that the injunction goes against freedom of expression in Iceland. While he is hopeful the injunction will be overturned in court, the matter itself might not even be examined by a court until elections have already passed on October 28.
The legal question
Jón Trausti Reynisson, the editor of Stundin, told Grapevine he learned of the injunction when their offices received a visit from representatives of the District Commissioner and Glitnir. These representatives had three demands: that Stundin delete all previous reporting that they had done on the Prime Minister’s time as an MP, that they hand over all documentation that contributed to this reporting, and that they cease all future reporting on the subject. Ultimately, only the third demand was approved.
The Commissioner argues that the Glitnir documents detailing the financial dealings of Bjarni and his family with Glitnir were obtained illegally. A statement issued from Glitnir argues that the documents are protected by Article 58 of The Law on Financial Institutions, which concerns the confidentiality of financial information. This, both Jón Trausti and journalist union director Hjálmar Jónsson argue, is immaterial to reporting on the information contained in those documents.
“The fact that we have the documents obliges us to cover them, within the level of the public interest,” Jón Trausti told us. “Another claim that they have made, which would be their core argument against us on being allowed to report this, is that there would be many more names in the documents; that thousands of people would be involved in this. But I think it’s self-evident, and we have demonstrated, that we only cover things that we believe are relevant to the public. We don’t cover random members of the public.”
“This is nonsense,” Hjálmar told us, referring to the legal argument. “There is nothing conclusive about the documents being stolen, firstly. Secondly, Iceland has been buying documents that have reportedly been stolen to find people cheating on their taxes. If it’s information that the people of Iceland should know about, that that’s the trademark you should look for. It’s as simple as that.”
Stundin is currently in the process of shoring up legal support for the matter. Glitnir has one week to decide to bring the case to court. Then there is some time that the courts normally require to process a case like this. As such, the courts might not even begin to examine the case until after elections have passed. But Stundin is looking for a way to expedite matters. Lawyer Sigríður Rut Júlíusdóttir, who has worked with Stundin before, told Vísir that “it is simply prohibited to ban information that is relevant to the public”.
In point of fact, two similar injunctions in Iceland were met with concerted protest from the Journalists’ Union, as Hjálmar points out in a statement he issued on the union’s website. The first case concerned e-mails published in 2005 by newspaper Fréttablaðið, which ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, with them ruling the information in the e-mails were in the public interest. The second concerned financial records from Kaupthing bank used in reporting in 2009. That injunction was condemned by the Prime Minister at the time, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
The District Commissioner’s close ties with the Independence Party, from which Bjarni hails, are a matter of public record. As DV outlines, Þórólfur Halldórsson has been both a candidate for and worked within an official capacity within the party.
Jón Trausti believes this injunction is a reflection of a discrepancy between public expectations and systemic problems.
“The most benevolent interpretation of events is that the system has yet to be upgraded to the standards of modern society,” Jón Trausti told Grapevine. “I think that society – with regard to open discussions, transparency and democratic values – has evolved further than the system. This might not be a coincidence. It might be in the general interests of elected officials or those in power to maintain a weak media, to inhibit the spread of information. A situation like this creates justifiable distrust.”
The chilling effect
Hjálmar took a similar position, and has vowed to fight the matter.
“We will do everything that needs to be done,” Hjálmar told us. “We are going to defend the freedom of expression of Icelandic journalists. People are going to try and silence things, but we as journalists are not going to let that happen. Information must be accessible to the Icelandic public. I believe that the understanding of freedom of expression is growing in Iceland, which is good, but of course we still need to be on our guard, and fight it every time someone tries to shut information down.”
Elected officials have also gotten involved. A statement on the matter from the Pirate Party, themselves long advocates of freedom of expression and transparency, was issued yesterday evening, condemning the injunction.
“People in society need information upon which to base their decisions,” the statement reads in part. “The media serves a vital function in guaranteeing that the public has the best possible information at each time. When state power is wielded to prevent the legitimate operations of media, the darkest side of our society is being nurtured with more silence. This is unacceptable. … Iceland has fallen from the 1st place in the World Press Freedom Index to the 10th in only a few years, precisely because of these kind of chilling effects. This must stop now.”
UPDATE 17:09: The Prime Minister has denied any involvement with the injunction.