Iceland has long boasted a progressive reputation. Outside the country, it’s seen as a beacon of freedom, tolerance and civic engagement. There is plenty of truth to this view.
Julian Assange helped craft Iceland’s media laws in 2010, and housed his organization’s payment system in Reykjavik. When the FBI arrived to investigate Wikileaks, Iceland’s interior minister ordered police not to cooperate.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Icelanders took to the streets in what became known as the pots and pans revolution. The government launched an investigation into the collapse of the country’s banks. It appointed a special prosecutor. More than twenty people including bankers were jailed for their actions. Granted prison in Iceland is cushy but the country did far more to prosecute financial crisis wrongdoing than the United States.
When Icelandic journalist Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson and a team from Swedish Public Broadcasting exposed Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s secret offshore company in the Panama Papers, Icelanders rallied once again. The people drove Gunnlaugsson from office.
However, recent events have tarnished Iceland’s image.
Last month, the Guardian, the Icelandic newspaper Stundin and Kristjánsson’s Reykjavik Media published an exposé based on leaked documents. Their story showed Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, while a member of parliament in 2008, cashed out his assets in Glitnir bank right before the government took it over and imposed losses on those left behind. Benediktsson comes from a well-connected wealthy family in Iceland. He claims that he had no inside knowledge about the bank closure.
After the first story was published, the Reykjavik District Commission, at the request of the bankruptcy estate of Glitnir, put a gag order on Stundin and Reykjavik media prohibiting them from more news coverage based on the leak. Future stories were likely curtailed. In protest, Stundin published a front page that was blacked out. Icelandic journalism organizations protested. The gag remained nonetheless.
A court date for a judge to review the order is scheduled for January 6.
Still, the damage had been done. Benediktsson was up for election at the end of October. While it may not have changed the outcome, Icelandic voters were deprived of a full airing of information that could have informed their trip to the polls. Press freedom suffered a blow in an unlikely place. Benediktsson’s party won the largest share of seats.
In another surprise from the election, Gunnlaugsson came back from the dead. His new Centre Party received nearly 11 percent of the vote.