Journalists in Iceland are afraid – constantly afraid. We are cowed to follow the market and give people what they want. It’s a journalistic dystopia, but unlike George Orwell’s 1984, it wasn’t brought about through violence or brute force. More like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we have been trained into banal conformity by our employers, who reward obedience and banish free thinkers.
According to Reporters Without Borders, freedom of information in Iceland has declined over the past two years. The reason? The crony capitalistic Independence Party and its disturbingly authoritarian little sister, The Progressive Party, are back in power, armed with “new” leaders stemming from the same old political DNA.
This new government and their parliamentary minions have made it a priority to undermine anyone who dares to express even the slightest hint of disapproval. The situation perfectly mirrors the reaction to warnings from Denmark prior to the collapse of our banking system.
In Iceland, you are not either with us or against us – you are either with us or too jealous to accept our greatness.
Tighter and tighter
When they’re not busy bleeding state broadcaster RUV dry with constant budget cuts, MPs call for advertisers to pull ads from private media such as Kvennablaðið (The Female Post) and Reykjavík Weekly, both small and independent outlets.
The government argues that the media is permeated by a leftist bias. But their narrative is ridiculous; most, if not all, of Icelandic media is privately operated. Even RUV survives through advertising sales, unlike its Nordic counterparts. So the notion that right-wingers have a harder time getting airtime than the left, is simply ludicrous.
The media in Iceland is ultimately censored through the soothing hymn of capitalism. The decision to publish an article is taken on its “clickability”. So what if state assets are being sold behind closed doors to the family members of finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson? Johnny Depp is trending!
Profits over integrity
The dire state of Icelandic journalism is the result of collusion between politicians and the private sector, who would rather see the media serve their interests than the public’s. For example, 365 is a near monopoly that controls newspapers, radio, TV, web media and telecoms.
It is well known that before 2013, journalists at all 365 outlets were urged to prioritise profitability when considering which stories to pursue – hardly an honourable journalistic ethos.
For example, journalist Maria Lilja Þrastardóttir, recently revealed that she was not allowed to publish a piece on junk mail while working at Fréttablaðið, a free newspaper that is distributed to almost every home in Iceland. Perhaps not a strange turn of events, given that Fréttablaðið is also classified as junk.
After buying up banks, media and retailers all over the country, businessman Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson sold 365 to his wife following the economic collapse in which he lost most of his other assets. His influence in the corporation is still evident, however, as 365 media relentlessly attacks those who discuss Jóhannesson and his involvement in bringing down Iceland’s economy.
Exception to the rule
Iceland’s only investigative newspaper, DV, is also in trouble. An odd mix of low and high brow content, DV is a tabloid and broadsheet rolled into one and had an incredible ability to go against the grain while keeping true to its proletariat roots.
In 2014, individuals closely tied to the government acquired DV and cleansed it of dissident journalists.
The new owner, Bjorn Ingi Hrafnsson, is a former city councillor for the Progressives who was forced to step down after mixing his shady business dealings with his shady political dealings.
Hrafnsson’s hypocrisy is evident, pretending to be a watchdog for big business on the one hand while also accepting their “loans”. Amazingly, all this information is public, as are his bankruptcies.
He also owns media outlets Pressan and Eyjan and, due to his ties with Johannesson, has a weekly show on politics on 365 media outlets. Publicly, Hrafnsson claims to have no links to the government whatsoever.
To run DV, Hrafnsson employed a hired gun of corrupted politicians and gambling footballers, Eggert Skulason. Your money is where his mouth is.
Within hours of taking charge, Skulason announced to DV journalists that quality reporting – like that which led to the recent resignation of the Minister of the Interior – would not be tolerated.
He then proudly announced to the public that he had struggled to understand why the scandal was such a big deal and why DV covered it with such furore.
Despite the dire outlook, all is not lost for Icelandic journalism. Kjarninn is a local independent media startup that doesn’t shy away from the challenge. Without it, there would have been almost no coverage of finance minister Bjarnason’s family buying state assets.
Stundin, another startup driven by the forces cast out of the new DV, has seen unprecedented and record-breaking crowdfunding success, suggesting that readers might have had enough with the status quo.
Kjarninn and Stundin are significant because they challenge the Icelandic orthodoxy that readers should pay no role in financing news.
Ultimately that is the big story here – bankers and elites love “free-to-reader media” as they are cheap to own, can be used to stifle competition and are totally reliant on ads.
A morbid irony of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is that non-conformists were sent to live in Iceland, leaving me to wonder what horrid crimes I must have committed to live on the island where journalism came to die. M