Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
Iceland is a parliamentary democracy with a long history of upholding political rights and civil liberties. However, links between elected representatives and business interests remain a concern, as does the concentration of private media ownership.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Snap elections were called after the government collapsed in September. The collapse was precipitated by revelations that Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s father had signed a letter calling for the legal rehabilitation of a man convicted of raping a child, and allegations that Benediktsson and members of his Independence Party (IP) had attempted to cover up the letter.
- The IP won a plurality of seats in October’s snap polls. A coalition government comprised of the IP, the Left-Green Movement (LGM), and the Progressive Party (PP) was seated in November, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir of LGM became prime minister.
- In October 2017, just prior to the elections, media broke the story that Benediktsson had sold his shares in Glitnir Bank just hours before the financial crash of 2008. Soon afterward, in response to a request from Glitnir’s bankruptcy estate, the Reykjavík District Commissioner issued an injunction that prevented some media outlets from using documents from Glitnir’s estate to inform their coverage.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 37 / 40 (–1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president serves as a largely ceremonial chief of state, is directly elected to a four-year term, and is not subject to term limits. President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson was elected in 2016, taking 39.1 percent of the vote in a field of nine candidates. The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed an assessment mission ahead of the polls, and concluded that stakeholders had a high degree of confidence in Icelandic electoral processes. However, the OSCE reaffirmed past concerns about the possibility for early voting to begin before the candidate confirmation procedures closed. The OSCE declined to monitor the poll itself, and stakeholders accepted its results when it was held weeks later.
The prime minister is head of government. The leader of the ruling party or coalition usually becomes prime minister; thus the legitimacy of the prime minister rests primarily on the conduct of the parliamentary polls.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The legislature is elected for four-year terms. The October 2017 election was the third parliamentary election in four years, having been called after the ruling coalition was dissolved that August; the dissolution came after the Bright Future party left the government in light of revelations that Prime Minister Benediktsson had failed to disclose the fact that his father had provided a letter of recommendation supporting the legal rehabilitation of a man who had been convicted of raping his daughter over a period of more than a decade.
An OSCE monitoring mission found the elections well administered and in line with international standards for democratic elections. The IP took a plurality of seats, with 16, the second-place LGM took 11, and the PP finished third, taking 8 seats. A new coalition government comprised of those three parties was seated in November, following several weeks of multiparty coalition talks. Katrín Jakobsdóttir of LGM became prime minister.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The constitution, the election law of 2000, and related legislation establish a clear and detailed framework for conducting elections. Electoral laws are implemented impartially by a variety of national- and regional-level authorities. However, the division of responsibilities between the relevant bodies is not always well defined.
An extensive constitutional reform process, launched by popular initiative in 2009, led to the drafting of a new constitution that, among other things, would harmonize the number of votes per seat in all constituencies. The draft was approved by referendum in 2012, but the initiative has since stalled in the legislature.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16 (–1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Political parties form and operate freely, and rise and fall according to political developments and the will of the public. In 2017, two new parties gained representation in the legislature: the Center Party and the People’s Party.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Opposition parties have the ability to gain power through free elections. However, the IP has only rarely lost its status as the largest party in the parliament, and is usually part of the ruling coalition.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4 (–1)
No military, foreign, or religious entities exert undemocratic influence over voters’ choices. However, some politicians and parties are closely linked with various business sectors, resulting in avenues for well-coordinated business interests to exert influence over politics.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because close links between politicians and various business sectors allow well-coordinated business interests to exert influence over politics.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
All Icelandic citizens of adult age may vote in local and national elections. Foreigners can vote in municipal elections if they have been residents for at least five years, or three years if they are citizens of Nordic countries. The interests of women and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are well represented in politics.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
The freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Corrupt behavior by public officials is often exposed by the media, and Iceland has robust anticorruption laws. However, officials implicated in corrupt or unsavory behavior often continue to serve in government. For example, while former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after being implicated in the Panama Papers—a trove of leaked legal documents that revealed potentially corrupt business activities by powerful individuals around the world—he was eventually replaced by Benediktsson, who was also named in the Panama Papers. According to reporting on the Panama Papers, Benediktsson used legal maneuvers to establish extra layers of secrecy surrounding his holdings in an offshore shell company; while not apparently illegal, the revelations prompted criticism. Additionally, in October 2017, media reported that Benediktsson in 2008, when he was a member of parliament, had sold his shares in Iceland’s Glitnir Bank just hours before the financial crash of 2008—but just a few days after attending a meeting at which the bank’s grave financial position was discussed.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
Iceland’s Information Act, passed in 2013 to strengthen existing legislation on transparency and freedom of information, has been criticized by press freedom advocates as having weak provisions.
Public officials have sought to conceal information that may be embarrassing or implicate them in wrongdoing. In August 2017, the media reported that Benedikt Sveinsson, father of Prime Minister Benediktsson, had signed a letter endorsing a friend’s petition for “restoration of honor” following a conviction and prison sentence for child sexual assault; it later emerged that Benediktsson had known about the letter, which was not made public until a parliamentary committee compelled the Justice Ministry to publicize the information. There were widespread allegations that members of the Independence Party had also known about the letter and had tried to cover it up. Citing a “breach of trust” by the prime minister, the Bright Future party left the governing coalition, precipitating the year’s snap elections in October.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 58 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEFL 15 / 16 (–1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4 (–1)
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. In 2010, the parliament unanimously passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which mandates the establishment of robust free speech and press freedom laws, particularly for the protection of investigative journalists and outlets. Iceland’s print publications are diverse and include both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. The autonomous Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) competes with private radio and television stations. Private media ownership is concentrated, with the media company 365 controlling most of the major private television and radio outlets, as well as the free newspaper Frettabladid, which enjoys the highest circulation in the print market.
In October 2017, just prior to the elections, media broke the story that Benediktsson had sold his shares in Glitnir Bank just hours before the financial crash of 2008. Soon afterward, in response to a request from Glitnir’s bankruptcy estate, the Reykjavík district commissioner issued an injunction against the paper Stundin and the company Reykjavík Media barring use of documents from Glitnir’s estate in media coverage. Press freedom advocates blasted the ruling, characterizing it as a move to put the interests of banks above journalists’ duty to inform the public.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the Reykjavík district commissioner issued an injunction that hampered some media organizations’ ability to cover suspicious financial transactions by the prime minister.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, which is generally upheld in practice. About three-quarters of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state supports the church through a special tax, which citizens can choose to direct to the University of Iceland instead.
There have been a handful of reports of religiously motivated hate speech, primarily against Muslims. Authorities actively prosecute hate speech, and in 2017 two people convicted of engaging in it paid fines of $290 and $960, respectively.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
People in Iceland may freely discuss personal views on sensitive topics without fear or surveillance or retribution.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedoms of assembly is generally upheld.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may form, operate, and fundraise freely, and frequently inform policy discussions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
The labor movement is robust, with more than 80 percent of all eligible workers belonging to unions. All unions have the right to strike, with the exception of the National Police Federation.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is generally independent. Judges are proposed by an Interior Ministry selection committee and formally appointed by the president, and are not subject to term limits.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels of several judges. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Police are generally responsive to illegal violence. War and insurgencies are generally not a concern.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The constitution states that all people shall be treated equally before the law, regardless of sex, religion, ethnic origin, race, or other status. However, in 2017, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), noted an apparent rise in racist discourse in Iceland in recent years.
While relatively few refugees are resettled in Iceland, the country increased the number of refugees it would accept in response to the 2015–16 refugee crisis; in 2017, 70 asylum seekers were granted protection in Iceland. However, the rate of refugee recognition in Iceland is very low compared to its Northern European neighbors, with just 18 percent of asylum seekers receiving protected status in 2017. In September, a public demonstration against separate, controversial decisions to deport asylum seekers to Nigeria and Afghanistan, respectively, took place in front of the parliament.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 16 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Freedom of movement is constitutionally protected and respected in practice.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
There is generally no undue government interference in business or private property ownership.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
The parliament unanimously passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010, and a 2006 law established full and equal rights for same-sex couples in matters of adoption and assisted pregnancy. A comprehensive law on transgender issues adopted in 2012 aimed to simplify legal issues pertaining to gender reassignment surgery, to ensure full and equal rights for transgender people, and to guarantee relevant health care.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 4 / 4
Citizens generally enjoy fair access to economic opportunity and protections from labor exploitation. However, there are reports of forced labor, primarily involving migrants, in the construction and service industries, and of forced sex work in nightclubs. While human trafficking was criminalized in 2009, the US State Department reported in 2017 that no one has been prosecuted or convicted of human trafficking in Iceland over the last six years. The government has additionally reduced efforts to investigate trafficking cases.