Freedom of the Press
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Iceland’s media landscape is stable, and state and nonstate actors generally respect legal protections for journalists and outlets. However, defamation remains a criminal offense punishable by fines or a prison sentence of up to one year. The influence of political and commercial interests as well as the concentrated ownership of private media also remain concerns, and the small size of the sector exacerbates these issues.
- In June, legislators voted to remove blasphemy—which had been a crime punishable by a fine or up to three months in prison—from the penal code.
- In November, the chairperson of the public broadcaster’s board resigned after the parliamentary finance committee accused the broadcaster of deliberately concealing its unstable financial situation.
Legal Environment: 4 / 30
Freedom of expression is protected under Article 73 of the constitution and related legislation. A media law passed in 2011 contains provisions for the editorial independence of outlets from owners and for the protection of sources. The law generally prohibits journalists from revealing the identity of sources who have requested anonymity, with some exceptions. Legal protections for freedom of the press are generally respected in practice.
However, there are some restrictions, including measures against verbal assaults based on race, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation. In June 2015, legislators voted to remove blasphemy—which had been a crime punishable by a fine or up to three months in prison—from the penal code. The vote was the result of an initiative by the Pirate Party, which had proposed repeal following the January terrorist attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, renowned for its satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
Journalists have often criticized the country’s defamation legislation as an avenue to silence the press. The 2011 media law afforded some improvements by establishing that journalists can no longer be held responsible for potentially libelous quotes from their sources. Defamation and insult nevertheless remain criminal offenses subject to fines or up to one year of imprisonment. Journalistic invasion of privacy is also a crime.
The country’s International Modern Media Institute (IMMI) spearheads the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative—a parliamentary resolution, inspired by both the financial crisis and the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks, that aims to improve the media environment in Iceland by strengthening protections for sources, whistleblowers, and freedoms of expression and information at large. Iceland’s Information Act, passed in 2013 to strengthen existing legislation on transparency and freedom of information, has been criticized for falling short in facilitating public access to information.
Political Environment: 5 / 40 (↑1)
Private outlets are sometimes subject to editorial pressure from their owners, and politically motivated dismissals of journalists have been reported in the past. The newspaper DV, historically one of the country’s main outlets for investigative and critical reporting, was the center of a politicized struggle for control in 2014. In November 2014, local outlets reported that the media company Vefpressan had bought the majority of shares in DV. Vefpressan’s majority shareholder is Björn Ingi Hrafnsson, a former Reykjavik city councilor with ties to the Progressive Party. The following month, the DV editor in chief was dismissed along with several journalists—the second major change in editorial leadership during the year. In June 2015, journalists Hlín Einarsdóttir and Malín Brand were arrested for allegedly blackmailing Prime Minister Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson. Police maintained that Einarsdóttir and Brand had threatened to reveal connections between Gunnlaugsson and Hrafnsson’s purchase of DV. The case was sent to the state prosecutor in November and was ongoing at year’s end.
The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), a state-owned company, has been the target of hostile rhetoric in recent years, particularly from government figures who have accused it of favoring the opposition. Media workers and watchdogs have voiced concerns about undue government pressure on editorial content at RÚV. Journalists, both at RÚV and private outlets, have also complained of an overall media environment that encourages self-censorship.
All media outlets are subject to the oversight of a five-member media board; two of the members are appointed by the Supreme Court, one by representatives of universities, one by the Union of Icelandic Journalists, and one by the government.
There were no reports of physical attacks on journalists in 2015.
Economic Environment: 6 / 30
The country’s print sector is diverse and includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers, although the financial crash of 2008 has led to cutbacks in both broadcast and print media. RÚV runs Iceland’s largest television station and two major radio stations, funded by license fees and advertising revenue. The state-owned television station accounts for the majority of viewership, while the two state-owned radio stations together enjoy approximately half of the radio sector’s audience share. There are also several private radio and television stations. Private media ownership is concentrated among a group of companies and individuals with commercial or political ties to the ruling coalition.
The state controls the funding and budget of RÚV, and significant budget cuts in recent years have led to the dismissal of dozens of journalists and strained the ability of the broadcaster to produce programming. In November 2015, the chairperson of RÚV’s board resigned after the parliamentary finance committee accused RÚV of deliberately concealing its unstable financial situation. The committee’s chairperson has repeatedly accused RÚV of having left-wing and pro–European Union (EU) biases, but there was no conclusive evidence that the committee had political motives in its treatment of RÚV.
In 2015, approximately 98 percent of Iceland’s population accessed the internet, access to which is not restricted by the government. Blogs are a major source of news and information, and the use of social-media platforms is widespread.