By Smári McCarthy and Guðjón Idir
Þórey Vilhjálmsdóttir, political assistant to the Icelandic Minister of the Interior, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, has filed defamation charges against journalists Jón Bjarki Magnússon and Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson for their reporting (published on the 20th of June 2014) where they claimed that she was the so-called “employee B” in a police investigation into the leaking of defaming personal information from the Ministry of the Interior to the media. Information on “employee B” can be found in court documents.
During that stage of the police investigation, Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir was a suspect as is shown in the plaintiff’s charge, with her being formally notified of no longer being a suspect on the 8th of August 2014. In a District Court ruling it was shown that “employee B” was thought to have searched his/her computer for the document, modified the document and been in contact with the papers shortly before publication.
The demand of imprisonment
The police investigation concerns the leak of private and personal information about two asylum seekers, Tony Omos and Evelyn Glory Joseph, and an Icelandic woman who remains unnamed. It has been shown that the document in question came from the Ministry of the Interior, and that parts of the document had been falsified to cast an unfavorable light on Mr. Omos. This appears to have been intended to justify the deportation of Mr. Omos in the media. Mr. Omos was deported some weeks later, without the knowledge of his legal counsel, having been denied asylum.
The journalists and DV, the newspaper Mr. Magnússon and Mr. Jóhannsson work for, apologized within hours after mistakenly naming Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir as “employee B” and corrected their reporting, naming Gísli Freyr Valdórsson “employee B”, the other political assistant to the Minister. The paper also sent out a statement to all other media in Iceland that was widely published where it retracted its previous statement and apologized. The journalists had repeatedly tried to get hold of Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir during the days before running the original story to get her reaction. At that time, Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir also held the position of Public Relations Officer of the Ministry. She chose not to respond, despite being aware of what the paper was about to report, as can be seen in the charges she filed.
Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir and her counsel have demanded that the journalists be given the highest possible sentence, amounting to 1 year imprisonment (for each article of the penal code; article 234 on defamation and article 235 on slander). Laws on defamation in Iceland, in particular its criminal classification with a possibility of imprisonment, have been heavily criticized by the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights for having a chilling effect on free speech and being disproportional. The obsolete nature of Iceland’s defamation law is highlighted in a recent report by the International Press Institute.
The Icelandic government has for the last two years had a standing committee working on defamation reform, amongst other free speech reforms. However, as the government has not yet proposed any defamation reform bills, these laws are still in force and open to use and abuse.
It is incredible that a political assistant to the Minister of the Interior, the Ministry overseeing the judicial system, decides to press charges in this manner, asking for the highest possible penalty, given the obsolete and repressive nature of the law. Furthermore, the compensation she is seeking (all in all approx. € 25.000) is excessive. The compensation, Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir has said in a declaration, will go to charities, leading one to a assume that the harm caused does not require financial compensation, but that the compensation is meant as a further punishment. Ms. Vilhjálmsdóttir hopes that by pressing these charges the professionalism of the press, and in particular these journalists, will be improved. So it appears that the charges are brought about to teach the media, and in particular the journalists in question, a severe lesson. Punitive damages are not part of Icelandic culture in these matters, as in some other countries, but such damages threaten freedom of expression and speech and the freedom of the media due to their chilling effects.
The ongoing leak investigation
The leak from the Ministry has become one of the most high profile stories in Iceland in recent years, if not decades, with Mr. Jóhannsson and Mr. Magnússon receiving the Investigative Journalism award granted by their peers (the Icelandic Journalistic Society) in 2014.
The Minister of the Interior has repeatedly denied that the leak came from the Ministry, set afoot an odd internal review which established nothing, and after police investigation into the Ministry was under way, called for meetings with the Head of the Metropolitan Police, Stefán Eiríksson, on numerous occasions to discuss the investigation into her Ministry. Subsequently, Mr. Eiríksson resigned from his position. The Alþingi (Parliament) Ombudsman has taken up the case looking into the Minister’s interference in the proceedings of the investigation. Conclusions from the Ombudsman’s office are expected soon. Despite calls for her resignation over the matter, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir remains in office as Minister of the Interior. However, her portfolios for the judiciary and police matters have been temporarily moved to the Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, at her request.
Mr. Valdórsson has been charged by the State Prosecutor’s office. His case has been brought before Reykjavík’s District Court, where preliminary hearings are underway.
Mr. Omos’ last known whereabouts were in Italy, with him yet to see his and Ms. Joseph’s baby, born in early 2014.
At the moment, it appears possible that this case of privacy violations and institutional abuse will end with only journalists and asylum seekers being punished.
Photo by i k o (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)