From Iceland — Transparency International, MPs Condemn Police Questioning Journalists

Transparency International, MPs Condemn Police Questioning Journalists

Published February 17, 2022

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Transparency International and numerous members of Parliament have condemned the decision taken by the police to call in four journalists for questioning in an operation tantamount to compelling them to reveal their sources; something which both Icelandic and international law expressly forbids. Both the Icelandic Journalists Union and the Association of Icelandic Journalists have pointed out how Icelandic law protects journalists in this instance.

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As reported, four journalists will soon be questioned by North Iceland police over their coverage of fishing giant Samherji; specifically, their revelations of a group calling itself “the Samherji guerilla division” which sought to engage in damage control over the company’s revealed involvement in bribery and tax evasion related to their operations in Namibia.

While Samherji ship captain Páll Steingrímsson has told reporters that his police filing is not aimed at the journalists in question, but rather on trying to find out who stole his phone–which apparently contained communications between the people in the so-called Samherji guerilla division–that these journalists are going to be questioned by the police to find out who is responsible for this theft is tantamount to trying to compel journalists to reveal their sources.

Threatens press freedoms

“By interrogating at least four journalists as defendants on the suspicion of violating privacy, the authorities are sending a dangerous message to the entire Icelandic community,” a statement on the matter from Transparency International reads in part. These investigations threaten press freedoms as well as Iceland’s future progress on anti-corruption and should be promptly dropped.”

Indeed, as the Grapevine has detailed, Icelandic law and numerous international organisations protect journalists from being compelled to reveal their sources. Court precedent in Iceland and abroad has repeatedly sided with journalists in these matters.

“Press freedoms are crucial for keeping corruption in check,” Transparency International states. “Iceland’s performance has already suffered on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, dropping 4 points since 2019 when the Fishrot Files scandal broke. Unless civil liberties are protected, Iceland will struggle to regain either the Icelandic or international communities’ confidence that it can effectively curb corruption.”

Chief of police “on thin ice”

The matter has also been the subject of heated discussion amongst members of Iceland’s Parliament, Kjarninn reports.

Sig­mar Guð­munds­son, an MP for the Reform Party and himself a former journalist, expressed concern on Facebook.

“We live in a country where journalists receive the legal status of defendant, and are questioned for writing news,” he wrote in part. “Here the police chief up north is skating on very thin ice, to put it mildly.”

Another Reform Party MP, Hanna Katrín Frið­riks­son, took much the same tone, saying ironically, “So it’s the media who are the bad guys here. And this public interest that’s always trying to be something important. The poor guerilla division. And of course, poor Samherji.”

Iceland ranks low in press freedom

Social Democrat MP Helga Vala Helga­dóttir pointed out that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Iceland 16th in the world in press freedom, far below other Nordic countries, in no small part due to Samherji’s concerted and unhindered campaign against journalists covering the company’s activities.

“Working in the media is not a well paid job in this country and it requires people, at least those who write news, to always be on shift,” she points out. “It becomes a way of life, and the shift never ends. This persecution being done by rich people has become nearly indefensible for those with families. We need to have our eyes open here, because without an independent media, democracy weakens and so with it the rule of law.”

Icelandic law protects journalists

Pirate Party MP Þór­hildur Sunna Ævars­dóttir pointed out to Kjarninn that Icelandic law already prohibits police from engaging in this line of questioning, as the law on the right to privacy makes exemptions for journalists to report on matters that are in the public interest.

In point of fact, Articles 228 and 299 of the General Penal Code, which outlines criminal penalties for those who disclose the private affairs of another person, specifically states that a person is exempt from prosecution if “the conduct is justified by reference to the public or private interest”. As the reporting on Samherji’s “guerilla division”, which detailed a communications between several people attempting to discredit reporting on Samherji and other forms of damage control, most likely falls under the category of public interest, this exemption arguably applies.

Journalists respond to Finance Minister

In a post on Facebook posted the day before yesterday, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson expressed bewilderment that journalists would “consider themselves too good to respond to police questions,” asking, “We all make the demand in this country that everyone is equal before the law. Might we also demand that everyone is equal before the media too?”

The Icelandic Journalists Union and the Association of Icelandic Journalists have responded in a column published on Vísir, wherein they not only point out the exemptions outlined in Articles 228 and 229 of the General Penal Code, but also Article 25 of the Law on Media, which states:

“Employees of media outlets which have permits or registration with the Media Committee are not permitted to disclose the sources of an article, written source, testimony, announcement or other material, whether it has been published or not, if the source or author has asked to remain nameless. Employees of media outlets are furthermore not permitted to hand over documentation with contains information about the source or author in these instances.”

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