Grave developments on the Icelandic media market

by alda on August 27, 2014

As most people are aware, a free and independent media is one of the four cornerstones of democracy. Therefore when serious struggles for control of the media occur it is definitely a cause for alarm.

fjölmiðlarWhen the economic meltdown took place in 2008, many of us were shocked to realize that much of the madness and corruption that had led to one of the worst crises in Icelandic history had gone unreported by the press. Why? Because the perpetrators of the meltdown owned all the main media outlets. [An exception was the state broadcaster, which on the other hand was staffed with politically-appointed directors].

When the shock wore off we started to see glimpses of reality through the smoke, and it became clear that there had to be laws in place to ensure the autonomy of the media. New laws were subsequently passed to that end. And we hoped for the best.

Iceland has three main print media: Morgunblaðið, Fréttablaðið and DV. About Morgunblather Morgunblaðið I have written extensively in this space in the past and no need to cover that ground again. If you are interested, you may want to start here.

Fréttablaðið has been owned since the mid-2000s by Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, one of the disgraced moguls who helped push Iceland to the brink of bankruptcy. A part of the 365 Media conglomerate, it was used basically as a PR tool for its owners and an advertising medium for their companies. It is delivered free to all households in the Reykjavík area, and to various locations beyond. After Jón Ásgeir crashed and burned in 2008 he managed somehow to hang on to 365 by putting it into his wife’s name.

Despite its lightweight editorial policy, Fréttablaðið has had some good people on board. They’ve run some very astute editorials, and have one of Iceland’s foremost commentators on board in the form of Halldór Baldursson, the brilliant cartoonist. However, there have always been rumours that the owners have tried to influence how the news has been presented, in particular news of their own misdemeanours.

About a month ago it was announced that a new publisher of Fréttablaðið had been hired. She is one Kristín Þorsteinsdóttir, who had previously been on the board of Fréttablaðið and is a long-time associate of the owners. She was on the PR team at Baugur back in 2007-ish, and after the meltdown became the spokesperson for Iceland Express, which also had connections to Jón Ásgeir & co. A couple of years ago she wrote a hard-hitting op-ed piece in Fréttablaðið in which she attempted to whitewash the perpetrators of the economic crash and urged that investigations by police and the special prosecutor into the meltdown be stopped, among other things.

Two days ago, one of two editors of Fréttablaðið was suddenly fired. The other, Ólafur Stephensen, immediately made himself scarce, only to return with an editorial – his last – in the paper yesterday. In that editorial he insinuated beyond any doubt that Kristín Þorsteinsdóttir had been tightening the screws and that he was no longer permitted editorial autonomy. Predictably, he tendered his resignation later in the day.

So that’s Fréttablaðið, which I think we can now write off completely as anything other than fluff and mindless propaganda. That leaves only DV, which has been one of the very few media trying to engage in any sort of investigative journalism over the last few years. [The others are Kjarninn, which comes out once a week I believe and which is now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and Reykjavík Vikublað, a weekly paper that is little more than a flier, but which nevertheless has been engaging in some very ambitious reporting over the last while.]

Long story short – there has been an incredibly nasty struggle over DV for the last few weeks. It appears to be a hostile takeover-type situation, with an individual who is clearly a frontman for God knows which moneyman, trying hard to gain a controlling share. He now seems to have succeeded, since the people who own World Class, the chain of fitness centres in Reykjavík, just bought a small share, which – if I understand this correctly – will push the controlling share over 50%. DV has been relentless in exposing corruption among the owners of World Class [repeated bankruptcies and write-offs, etc. with them simply starting over with a new kennitala … long story which I won’t get into here] and now the owner of World Class has openly stated that his objective for buying the share is to oust the editor, whom they obviously cannot stand.

In other words, corruption and dirty practices seem to be winning the upper hand, and things appear to be slowly moving back into the pre-meltdown darkness here in the land of the not-so-Nice.

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