By Jacqui Parchois

I. Introduction

Flag of Iceland

Flag of Iceland photo courtesy of

Iceland, a country known for its hot springs and geothermal energy, is also known for its great free press and free speech rights. The country, as Reporters Without Borders ranks, is 21 out of 180 countries in the world with the World Press Freedom Index. From 2002 to 2008 Iceland ranked first according to the Freedom Index but in 2009 fell to 9 and in 2015, Iceland fell again to 21. This is not to say that free press has declined in Iceland; only that other countries are improving their own freedoms. Freedom House through their own “Freedom of the Press” survey which examines global press freedom, gives Iceland in 2014, a cumulative 12 press freedom score out of a possible 100, along with a 3 in legal environment out of 30, a 4 in political environment out of a score of 40, and with a 5 in economic environment out of a possible 30. Between these two organizations, Iceland solidly lands within the top countries for the freedoms of the press and speech.


II. Historical Background

As of April 2014, Iceland reported 326,000 residents on a very picturesque island located in the middle of the ocean. “To reach Iceland from Europe you must cross a wide sea, long out of sight of land-the distance is more than 500 miles from southeastern Iceland to the nearest large European island, Scotland.” (Stefansson xiv) off the coast of the United Kingdom and “from northwestern Iceland children at play see Greenland… are only 180 miles.” (Stefansson xiv). However, the climate of the beautiful island as Richard Tomasson explains in his book Iceland The First New Society  “Iceland represents the most extremely inhospitable environment in which a European people has been able to survive and maintain its culture.” (57)

The history of Icelandic settling is well documented and has been preserved throughout time. Ari the Learned was the first to write about it in his book Islendingabok which creates the account of the different immigrants that came to the island. “Iceland was settled by Norwegians to begin with. […] That was 870 years after the birth of Christ…” (Guthmundsson 3) The chief source of national origin for Iceland is the Landnamabok or the Book of Settlements, in which the main part of the book was written in the 12th century. The main immigrants to Iceland were of Norse, Scandinavian, and Danish descent. Through the Middle Ages, Iceland was a dependent of Norway and a part of Denmark-Norway and after the split of Norway-Denmark, Iceland went to Danish rule. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that Iceland began to have more nationalist feelings which resulted in the 1870’s Denmark granting Iceland a constitution and gave the country a seat in the Danish cabinet. By the 1940’s Iceland was a sovereign state with Denmark only handing Iceland’s foreign affairs, Iceland during World War II attempted to remain neutral but was unsuccessful after Denmark was occupied by the Germans, forcing Iceland to take over its own foreign relations. The United States then offered to protect the island of Iceland in exchange for U.S. occupancy on the island, and after the war, Iceland voted to abolish its monarchy and union with Denmark and establish the current government they have now. Iceland was a founding member of NATO in 1949. In 1951 Iceland entered into a defense agreement with the United States, the pact stipulated that Iceland would have no standing army of its own. In 1985 Iceland declared the country a nuclear-free zone. (Freedom House) In the early 2000’s the government made the decision to deregulate the banks in Iceland which exponentially grew the countries economy. The growth however, was not sustainable and during the global economic collapse in 2008, Iceland was one of the countries hit hardest.  From the following crisis that followed the collapse, the people of Iceland took to protests and from October 2008-January 2009 the protests engulfed most of the country. The revolution was called the “Sauce-pan Revolution” as people took to the streets with sauce pans to make noise about those in power in the Icelandic government and those in power in the Central Bank of Iceland. This lead to the fall of the Icelandic government and new elections in parliament as well as the leadership of those within the Central Bank. “[this] spelled an end to the hegemony of neoliberalism in Iceland.” (Flesher & Cox 189)

According to the Government Offices of Iceland homepage, Iceland could be considered one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy as the Parliament, the Althingi, was established in 930 C.E. “Iceland was recognized as an independent republic with a constitutional government on June 17, 1944 … There is universal suffrage.” (Rothery 200) The legislative power in Iceland rests in both Parliament and the president, whereas the judicial system operates outside and independent of the other branches.

In the Constitution for Iceland, it outlines the historical and traditional view most Icelanders have felt since its settling, that men and women have equal rights. Under Article 65 “Everyone shall be equal before the law and enjoy human rights irrespective of sex, religion, opinion, national origin, race, colour, property, birth or other status. Men and women shall enjoy equal rights in all respects.” (Government 1) In regards to free press and free speech rights, the Constitution says under Article 73, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and belief. Everyone shall be free to express his thoughts, but shall also be liable to answer for them in court. The law may never provide for censorship or other similar limitations to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression may only be restricted by law in the interests of public order or the security of the State, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights or reputation of others, if such restrictions are deemed necessary and in agreement with democratic traditions.” (Government 1)

In accordance with the Constitution, government of Iceland is very sympathetic towards free press and free speech rights. On June 17, 2010 the Icelandic government voted on a proposed bill the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which ultimately hopes to create Iceland into “a safe-haven for investigative reporting by establishing protections for journalists and their anonymous sources and shielding reporters from foreign libel judgments.” (Freedom House 1) The infamous WikiLeaks began in Iceland, an as Iceland’s president in 2014, Olafur Grimsson explains “Just as there are locations where you can keep your money without being taxed, there is now a need for similar safe havens to protect your information from the authorities.” (Grimsson 1) Before the historic Modern Media Initiative passed, there were efforts to place limits on media ownership, bills which were ultimately vetoed in 2005 by President Grimsson.


III. Free Speech

Since Iceland’s establishment as a free and sovereign country, and adopting its constitution in only 1944, there has not been many historic free speech issues. Freedom House reports that Iceland’s constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. The government is generally regarded to not infringe upon these liberties between independent media’s reporting on a great many ideas. (Freedom House 2) As Iceland has been historically in the past (until 2009) ranked #1 in free speech rights by Reporters Without Borders, it can be reasoned that a lack of court cases is not due to any type of oppression, but because the country calls for such a broad definition of free speech in the past, no case has been necessary to make its way up to the Supreme Court.

However, currently there are two prominent cases going on in Iceland that could affect the countries current free speech climate.

In 2013, Iceland’s Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson proposed a plan for Iceland’s government to try and limit online access to pornography. In an open letter to the minister that was coordinated and published online by the International Modern Media Institute, headed by lawmaker and ex-Wikileaks spokeswoman Birgitta Jonsdottir, she explains that, “restricting people’s access to information online in order to shape their views is as much censorship as the repression of free speech, it said, drawing a comparison with the governments of Iran, North Korea and China. The technology used by Iceland to restrict access to online pornography would be no different from that used by totalitarian regimes, the letter said, and would require automatic surveillance of all telecommunications.” (Smith-Spark 1) Internationally, this open letter also includes the signatures from all over the world, as the international community recognizes this ban on pornography a restriction on what can be accessed on the Internet. Iceland already has current laws in place that ban the making and proliferation of pornography illegal but this proposed ban creates a tension for free speech advocates in the country as the filters that the material would have to go through still constitutes censorship to what can be published on the Internet. The issue of this ban has lost traction in the recent years and has disappeared from media scrutiny completely in 2015.

The second case on free speech has to do with nasty Internet commentators. According to Freedom House some of the limitations on citizens of Iceland include “fines or imprisonment for people who belittle the doctrines of officially recognized religious groups. Additionally, people may face fines and up to two years’ imprisonment for assaults against race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.” (Freedom House 3) In June 2014 an article with the title “Could start to build mosque after weekend” on the Iceland website created a great amount of discussion and brought forth harsh comments towards the founder of the Muslim association of Iceland, Salmann Tamimi and the chair of the association, Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson. In the comments, Tamimi alleges that hate speech is the prominent component of the remarks and Tamimi is in the process of bringing charges against those who made such comments on the website. He, along with his attorney Helga Vala Helgadóttir, explained that it is important to make a stand against comments that include hate speech. (Robert 1) “Herðubreið has published some of the comments posted in response to the Vísir report. An individual named Guðmundur Ingi Vésteinsson, who demanded “No fucking Muslim churches in Iceland!!”, described Muslims as cockroaches and called for them to be killed, before adding “I’m not racist, this just does not belong in this country!” A Nazi sympathiser named Júlíus Gylfason denounced Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, who is a convert/revert to Islam, as a “traitor to the Nordic homeland of his ancestors” and called for him to be tortured and executed according to the blóðörn pagan ritual.” (Pitt 1)

From this case, by August 2014 it had sparked a discussion within the academic community of Iceland, ultimately resulting in an analysis of these hateful comments on different news stories in Icelandic media. 14,815 comments were analyzed and overall, “the study showed that when a person of foreign origin comments on an issue, an Icelander is usually quick to discredit that person’s reputation with a comment along the lines of: “these people should be sent back to their home countries.” In the commenting system, people of foreign origin don’t appear to be entitled to having a critical voice in society.” (Arnarsdottir 1) The study goes on further to explain that the commenters show a lack of present knowledge about the limitations of free speech, especially hate speech and the laws on human rights that Iceland has in place. The current case is ongoing.

Thus despite a progressive government present in Iceland both historically and modern day, there are still cases on censorship and hate speech that persist in Iceland proving that even a country with a past number one ranking in freedom, can slip and decline into further restrictions.


IV. Free Press

A building block of a truly free country is the almost completely unrestricted freedom of the press. In Iceland, freedoms flow abundantly with only a few limitations to those freedoms which are altruistically, to protect citizens. Starting in the early 2000’s, Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson confronted a constitutional question when he vetoed a law that would’ve restricted media ownership. “The proposed law would have, in part, withheld broadcasting licenses from companies whose main businesses are not in the field of media or from companies that own shares in other businesses outside the field of media.” (Freedom House 1) This veto has set the precedent for the president of Iceland to use his veto power, but to ultimately set the stage for the country to enjoy some of the best free press rights.  In a March 2007 case, an Icelandic singer, Bubbi Morthens won damages in a libel case against a gossip magazine. The basis of this case was that the magazine insinuated in the cover image that the singer had resumed using drugs because he was smoking a cigarette.

The biggest case of free press violation in Iceland happened in 2005 when the largest daily newspaper in Iceland, Frettabladid was raided by police after an injunction was issued which prohibited the newspaper from publishing e-mail messages and documents related to a fraud case. The fraud case was concerning charges against Jon Asgeir Johannesson, the head of the retail investment company Baugur. “According to Baugur, the charges, which were based on alleged breaches of accountancy rules, were politically motivated. … Baugur owns a controlling share of Nordurljos (Northern Lights), which owns Frettabladid. … The International Federation of Journalists warned the Icelandic government that the raid endangered press freedom in the country.” (Freedom House) Ultimately the Supreme Court of Iceland rejected the request by the Baugur to throw out the remaining charges against them.

In another case, Erla Hlynsdóttir v. Iceland, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that Iceland violated a journalist’s right to free expression when a court there ordered Hlynsdottir to pay €2,600 in damages and costs to a woman accused of helping her husband commit sexual abuse at a rehabilitation shelter. This case came from a 2007 Icelandic ruling where the journalist Hlynsdottir published a statement in an article questioning the validity of whether a primary school teacher should continue teaching even after the woman previously had helped her husband pick victims for sexual abuse. The woman named in the case sued for libel and the Icelandic Supreme Court ruled in her favor, making Hlynsdottir pay damages. (International Press Institute 1)

The attitude toward libel changed by 2011 when another libel case came before the Supreme Court of Iceland and was struck down. This case involved a successful Iceland soccer player Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen who had taken out loans from the bank before the economic crash in 2008 without, what it seemed like, adequate collateral. His specific case was singled out by journalists after the crash to symbolize the banks favoritism of the rich and famous. Even though he was already a figure in the public’s eye, Guðjohnsen sued for libel when all of his financial dealings eventually came to light. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case explained that public discussion on Guðjohnsen’s financial situation was protected by the Constitution. (Erlingsdottir 1)

In the international community, Iceland is regarded as the best safe-haven for journalistic freedom in the world. Legislation to provide freedom of information has been in place in Iceland since 1996 and Internet access is open and unrestricted to the public. To build upon the safeguards already present within Iceland the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative was a proposal put forward in 2010 by Icelandic officals including Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who is the bill’s chief sponsor. “It was created with the help of Wikileaks, with the intention of making Iceland a very attractive place for investigative journalists to live and work, and for media organizations to be based without fear of reprisal.” (Greere 1) The initiative is an attempt to protect investigative journalism, whistleblowers, and help counter the idea of libel tourism. It was ultimately passed and has widely been received as a great victory for free press advocates across the globe. (Butselaar 1)


V. Critical Comparison

To compare Iceland to the United States almost seems like comparing apples to oranges. Even though Iceland enjoys the same freedoms as the U.S., both countries go about it in completely different ways. Reporters Without Borders in 2014 ranked the United States at 46 on the World Press Freedom Index whereas Iceland ranks 8 and Freedom House consistently ranks the U.S. below Iceland in their ratings. The next question to ask is why is that?

In Iceland, it appears throughout the Constitution, every free speech and free press right is protected. Most of these laws are legislated into the fabric of their Constitution. The government, in essence, cannot pass any law that might prohibit those rights or else the official proposing the legislation which would attempt to limit free press or speech will be rendered almost traitorous in Iceland. The difference in the United States is that Congress attempts to legislate away First Amendment rights, and the public doesn’t (or isn’t) able to do anything about it. Since Iceland is a considerably smaller country than the United States perhaps that might be a factor to take into consideration of the laws the countries respectfully create. For instance, in Iceland, a journalist can be sued for libel easier than they can in the United States, just look at the Guðjohnsen case previously discussed. In the article titled “Protecting Our Free Speech,” author Iris Erlingsdottir explains that even though the Guðjohnsen was a victory for journalists in Iceland, it also served as a warning. “Not only did the court fail to establish a bright line test that newspapers could use when deciding whether to go forward with a story but, outrageously, the reporter and his newspaper were required to pay their considerable attorney fees and litigation costs. The real threat created by the nuisance libel suits filed by the powers-that-be in Iceland lies in the expense and inconvenience that they entail.” (Erlingsdottir 2011) Even though freedom of the press exists in Iceland, the threat of libel can be devastatingly costly, untimely, and can be very intimidating to the journalists’ integrity in order to report on the facts and stand in the face of adversity if the reporter is writing on a subject that might be highly politicized or a figure that has power and influence. The U.S. has legislation specifically targeted against this type of intimidation, or “death by law-suit,” called anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP is defined as “strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” (Rafsanjani 2010) For Iceland however, no legislation exists and the courts have not established a bright line test for journalist about what is and isn’t a matter of public concern or part of a citizens right to privacy. Therefore journalists have no clear way of knowing before publication whether an article could be cause for a civil or criminal liability suit. Compare this to the United States, where in 1964, there was a case in which L.B. Sullivan, a commissioner of the Montgomery police force in Alabama, sued The New York Times for libel after publishing an ad that he considered to defame his character as a police commissioner. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled on New York Times v. Sullivan in this case that actual malice must be present in to win a libel suit. Sullivan lost the case because the ad in the Newspaper did not contribute to actual malice or the reckless disregard for the truth when the paper was published. In the instance of libel it seems that the United States seems to be the front-runner, despite Iceland enacting the Modern Media Initiative act to protect journalist from the libel that comes along with investigative journalism.

To move onto another free speech subject the United States and Iceland have in common, is that of hate speech. The United States has already ruled on and created a standard with which inflammatory speech can be said in Brandenburg v. Ohio where a member of the white supremacist group, the Ku-Klux-Klan, went on television to film his rally and propagate his views. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there must be imminent lawless action associated with the inflammatory language to be ruled as illegal or unconstitutional speech. Iceland while dealing with their own hate speech case concerning the founder of the Muslim association of Iceland, Salmann Tamimi and the chair of the association, Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson where harsh comments were made about them as it was revealed that the first Icelandic mosque could soon be finished. Tamimi is currently bringing charges against those who posted on the internet news story thread with hurtful comments as their hate speech violates the Icelandic Constitution under the stipulation of “fines or imprisonment for people who belittle the doctrines of officially recognized religious groups. Additionally, people may face fines and up to two years’ imprisonment for assaults against race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.” (Freedom House 3). This stipulation in Icelandic law could lead to its downfall in free speech rights because eventually a person wouldn’t be able to say offensive speech if it belittles anyones belief system. Considering it is one of the best countries in the world currently for free speech rights, that clause seems to be very contradictory to the ideals that Iceland strives for.

VI. Conclusion

In Iceland, a country that previously ranked first in free press and free speech indexes which ranked world wide, can still have cases against those rights. Just like in the United States of America, there are checks and balances that exist in the government to safeguard the people from having to give up those rights. Iceland has come a long way since 1949, from its independence, all the way to the Modern Media Initiative which is a revolutionary piece of legislation to protect free press rights.  Iceland endeavours in the future to still secure a foothold in international free press and free speech indexes as one of the most free countries in the world.




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Last updated April 30, 2015


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