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Süddeutsche Zeitung is wrong

Journalism Can Stink, Too

The Icelandic fisheries are both sustainable and profitable, unlike their counterparts in most other countries. They are also subject to much envy. Photo: SFS.

A German newspaper publishing misleading reports about Iceland refuses to correct its errors...

[On 12 May 2021, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published a highly misleading article about alleged corruption and lack of press freedom in Iceland. I sent them on 18 May a correction which the newspaper has not published. I have now waited for a month, and it has not even replied to my communication. This does not seem to signify much regard for the truth in a medium which prides itself on being a truth-seeker. Here is my article in English, and tomorrow I shall publish it here in German:]

Iceland is a tiny, remote country of which others know little. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she has been an ideal target of fantasists, fabulists and mythmakers. For example, Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx in December 1846 about the Icelanders who were as greasy as their Viking forefathers, he said: they drank fish-oil, lived in earthen huts and broke down if the atmosphere did not reek of rotten fish. Being, like most Icelanders, a good friend of Germany I was dismayed to read in the respected newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on 12 May a highly misleading article about Iceland (under a title Engels would have liked), ‘Stinks from the Head,’ in particular about a controversy surrounding the large Icelandic fishing firm Samherji.

It says in the article that Samherji—with which incidentally I have no connection, financially or otherwise—‘was just embroiled in a scandal with the çentral Bank of Iceland’. What is left out is the crucial fact that the company was actually in 2018, after a lengthy investigation, acquitted of all wrongdoing by the Icelandic Supreme Court. The currency supervisory department of the Central Bank had imposed a fine on the company for allegedly violating regulations about currency controls. The Supreme Court annulled the fine. The scandal, as I and many other Icelanders see it, was in fact the excessive zeal of the currency supervisory department which seems to have acted in concert with journalists working at the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, NBS. For example, on the basis of flimsy documentation apparently provided by those journalists, the department had the police raid the headquarters of the company. They found nothing substantial. Indeed, an Icelandic historian has published a book about what he saw as the relentless persecution of Samherji by zealots at the Central Bank. I may add that I served on the Supervisory Board of the Central Bank from 2001 to 2009, before all this took place, and I would have had serious reservations about the behaviour of the Central Bank staff members in the case.

There is a more recent case, unrelated to the first one, about alleged bribery by Samherji of politicians in Namibia, in exchange for fishing licenses. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung it is suggested that those two cases show a threat by corporate interests to the freedom of the press in Iceland. I would most certainly reject this suggestion. It should be pointed out that the journalist at the NBS who has done most of the reporting about Samherji, Helgi Seljan, a former activist in the Social Democratic Party, is widely seen as a dedicated crusader against the company. He has published many hostile comments about Samherji on social media, which was the reason that the Ethics Committee at the NBS had no choice but to reprimand him: It is clear in the written Code of Ethics under which the NBS is supposed to operate that its journalists should not be seen to be partial in cases on which they are reporting.

It is true that Samherji has defended itself vigorously, both in court and by producing hard-hitting videos about what it regards as hostile reporting of its affairs by the NBS. ‘Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.’ This animal is quite mean: when attacked, it will fight back. It is also true, as mentioned in the article in Süddeutsche Zeitung, that a part-time adviser to Samherji may have shown excessive zeal by sending Helgi Seljan inappropriate messages (unbeknownst to Samherji). This man has apologised for his behaviour. But there is a lot of difference between this not very significant fact on the one hand and being on the other hand confronted with the assembled might of government agencies, with the power to raid the company’s headquarters, indict it, and badger it on national news night after night. The NBS is no valiant David. It is the Goliath of Icelandic media, receiving involuntary contributions from every Icelandic household and enjoying almost 40 per cent of the total income in the broadcasting sector. Moreover, it has, unlike other media, a legal obligation to be impartial.

Another misleading statement in the article is that Central Bank Governor Asgeir Jonsson ‘had just said in a sensational interview with a view to Samherji that Iceland was “largely governed by interest groups”.’ This is quoted out of context. Jonsson has later made clear that he was not referring specifically to Samherji. Of course Iceland is largely governed by interest groups. So are all modern democracies. But two facts finally have to be stressed. First, individual freedom in Iceland is much less threatened by Samherji’s attempts to defend itself than by public employees at the NBS, the Central Bank and other government agencies who wield power, seemingly without any responsibility. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ Who watches the watchers? Press freedom is also Samherji’s freedom to try and further its cause by making videos or taking out newspaper advertisements. In the second place, it has to be stressed that Samherji has not been convicted of any violations of the law. The company strenuously denies the allegations against it about misconduct in Namibia. These allegations were made by a former employee who was fired in 2016. The allegations are still under investigation. Yet again, it has to be stressed that under the rule of law people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Iceland is by no means a perfect country. But she, like the other Nordic countries, has a strong tradition of the rule of law.

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