The IPI global network urges Icelandic authorities to drop a criminal investigation into four journalists who reported on a corruption scandal involving Iceland’s biggest fishing company.
On February 15, 2022, Iceland’s Northeast Police declared four journalists as official suspects in a police investigation into alleged breaches of personal privacy. The four journalists are Aðalsteinn Kjartansson of the news outlet Stundin; Arnar Þór Ingólfsson of news outlet Kjarninn; Þórður Snær Júlíusson, Kjarninn’s editor; and Þóra Arnórsdóttir, editor of the investigative journalism programme Kveikur at the Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV. The police claim the journalists used data from a stolen phone for their story on Samherji, Iceland’s largest fishing company, a claim the journalists deny.
The Samherji company is at the center of the Fishrot Files, which in 2019 revealed the company’s involvement in alleged bribery and tax evasion in Namibia. One of the four journalists now under investigation, Aðalsteinn Kjartansson, played an important role in uncovering the scandal. In May 2021, three of the journalists under investigation, working for the outlets Kjarninn and Stundin, uncovered a so-called “guerrilla division” at the company, a secret team apparently dedicated to smearing and intimidating journalists and civil society reporting on the Fishrot Files.
Icelandic police have claimed that the journalists received their information about Samherji’s “guerilla division”, including detailed communication among people working for the division, from a phone stolen from Samherji ship captain Páll Steingrímsson (in 2019, Steingrímsson had posted various articles on the website Vísir.is defending Samherji’s case as a response to the Fishrot Files). Police claim that the phone also contained pornographic material and are opened an investigation into alleged violation of privacy and distribution of pornography. The journalists have denied receiving any pornographic material, and their reporting does not contain references to pornographic material. They have said their information about the case came from a different source, which they have not revealed, reportedly to protect the source.
Journalists in the case are concerned that the investigation may be an effort to reveal their source. While Icelandic contains protections for journalistic sources, those could be overridden if the police are successful in treating this case under a new revenge porn law that was introduced in the country last year, the journalists in the case say.
“IPI urges Icelandic authorities to drop this alarming and ill-advised investigation”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “The right of journalists to protect their sources report on matters of public interest without fear of prosecution is a fundamental pillar of democratic societies. We are concerned that this case could have a chilling effect on journalism and investigative reporting in Iceland.”
On February 28, the Northeast Icelandic District court ruled the police investigation of the journalists unlawful, after Stundin reporter Aðalsteinn Kjartansson appealed against his interrogation order. Directly after the decision, the police announced that they would take the matter to the Appellate Court. “They’re not giving up”, Kjartansson told IPI. “The Icelandic police said it is not after the information of the sources of the Fishrot Files, but I find this difficult to believe. This case is a pretext for attacking journalists.”
Arnar Þór Ingólfsson, who works for the news outlet Kjarninn, said the police should have “very good reasoning and very strong strong appeals” when filing a case against journalists. “It feels like there’s a lack of understanding from the police as to what bad effect such a court case can have on the free press in Iceland, and journalism as a whole”, he told IPI.
Þór Ingólfsson also criticized the way that police had spoken about journalists in public. “The police prosecutor recently said that journalists are too sensitive and that we should be in a flower arrangement. In the same interview, the police officer also indicated that ‘everyone that has their Facebook page officially listed as a media outlet can do whatever they want’. They are trying to discredit us.”
Although Ingólfsson does not worry about the legal consequences of the case – “we haven’t done anything wrong”, he said – the media attention on the case takes time and energy. “It is distracting seeing your face in the media, associated with the possible breaking of some law, and seeing politicians and powerful people implying that we did something wrong.”
“The only thing I have is my credibility”, Kjartansson said. “The police come forward publicly stating that I’m suspected of a serious crime that’s punishable by a jail sentence. That has the potential to damage my credibility and my capacity to continue investigative journalism. This is harmful, since investigative journalism has proven to be a necessary thing in Iceland.”