By: Kai Strittmatter
Four journalists have reported shocking stories about one of Iceland’s biggest corruption scandals. Now they are being targeted themselves.
And all because of the mackerel. When the news portal Kjarninn spoke of “500 days of war” against Iceland’s journalists in March last year, no one could have guessed what battles were yet to come.
Fish is not just fish in Iceland. Fish is the source of wealth and power. And those who mess with those at the source will feel the power. “If you had shown me a novel with all the things we uncovered,” says journalist Aðalsteinn Kjartansson, “I would have laughed at you and said: never in my life!”
The call reached him last Monday. Kjartansson, a reporter at Reykjavik’s Stundin news portal, made his way through heavy snowfall to pick up his son from kindergarten when his cell phone rang. It was the police from the town of Akureyri in North Iceland. A female officer informed him to be ready for questioning. It’s about the theft of data – and he’s a suspect. “I was perplexed,” Kjartansson recalls.
Kjartansson is an investigative journalist. He had been questioned before: as a witness. But as a suspect in a criminal case? Never. In doing so, he says, he simply did his job: researched and reported. “Shockingly, they are now taking this course,” he says.
Kjartansson is one of four journalists to be questioned: reporters from the portals Stundin and Kjarninn, an editor from the public broadcaster RUV, all officially suspects of a crime carrying up to a year in prison. They are journalists and media who have made a name for themselves in investigating one of the biggest corruption scandals in Icelandic history.
The fact that their research is now to be criminalized has shocked those affected. The anti-corruption organization Transparency International warns that the actions of the police are sending “a dangerous message” to the citizens of Iceland: It is further undermining freedom of the press on the island.
On the one hand, the powerful corporation, on the other hand, the impoverished media houses.
At the centre of the scandal: the alleged crooked dealings of the Samherji fishing group in Namibia, revealed at the end of 2019 by a whistleblower in cooperation with some investigative journalists in Iceland. Samherji is the most powerful fishing company in Iceland, one of the largest in Europe. Samherji is based in Akureyri, where the police are now swarming out to interrogate the unpopular journalists.
Fishrot: putrid fish. They called the affair, which involved Samherji’s business in Namibia and the methods the company had used to secure fishing rights in the mackerel grounds there. It is also the largest corruption scandal in Namibian history. Their ministers are in prison; the authorities are still investigating in Iceland. The allegations are bribery, money laundering and tax evasion. In Iceland, Samherji CEO Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson is listed as a suspect.
The company not only always denied all allegations – but it also immediately launched a counterattack. The first person to feel this was the then RUV reporter Helgi Seljan, who was even spied on by a private detective for many months. Iceland slipped to 16th place in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index after the Samherji scandal.
The case took an astonishing turn last spring when the Stundin and Kjarninn portals revealed the existence of a secret squad of Samherji employees, some of whom were high-ranking, who called themselves the “Guerrilla Division”.
The released chat transcripts revealed how the Samherji guerrillas – including the private investigator and the company’s chief attorney – systematically took action against critics of the company: how they planned and orchestrated the spying on and public defamation of journalists, writers, politicians and NGOs. Among other things, they tried to manipulate the board elections of the Icelandic Journalists’ Association.
An excerpt from the “Guerrilla” chats. A Samherji PR consultant says: “Hopefully TMB” – meaning the Samherji CEO – “sharpens the knives and starts to butcher Jóhannes” – the whistleblower. Then Samherji lawyer Arna McClure: “Amen!” The PR man: “You are so bloodthirsty.” Lawyer Arna McClure: “Hey, I know. I want to stab, turn around, and rub salt in the wound.”
The journalists are now being charged with publishing the shocking chat logs.
The horror in Iceland was great after the publication of the shadow operations: a wealthy corporation planning campaigns against the media and civil society in the dark. Even Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who was otherwise conspicuously silent on the Samherji issue, called it “completely unacceptable for a democratic society”. At the end of May, the company apologized for the first time: It had “gone too far”.
And yet it is the publication of these very documents for which the four journalists are now being summoned. “No one has ever refuted any of our facts or requested a correction,” says Stundin journalist Aðalsteinn Kjartansson. However, the police in Samherhji’s hometown of Akureyri now want to force the journalists to reveal their source. The Icelandic Association of Journalists is not alone in seeing this as an attack on freedom of the press and protection of sources. The Icelandic Criminal Code even expressly allows the publication of such data if it is “in the public interest”.
Transparency International now accuses the police in Akureyri of “criminalizing journalism” and speaks of “a bizarre reversal of priorities when, in a corruption case of global proportions, one seeks to punish the journalists who report on this corruption.” Fishrot whistleblower and former Samherji manager Jóhannes Stefansson – himself a target of Samherji smear campaigns – says he was not surprised by last year’s revelations: “I think Samherji knows no bounds in what he does.” The actions of the police are now another warning signal for Iceland’s society: “We are walking on a dangerous path.”
Hardly anyone believes that there will be charges. Neither does reporter Aðalsteinn Kjartansson, who will be questioned on Monday. But that’s not the point, says Kjartansson. Iceland is experiencing a bitter struggle between public interest and the particular interests of rich corporations: “On the one hand, you have a company with almost infinite resources for its campaign of attrition,” he says. “And on the other hand, badly paid journalists and underfunded media houses.”
The goal is simply to intimidate journalists and publishers, believes Kjartansson. “And I’m afraid the deterrent effect does exist.”