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Of oligarchs, the media, and the truth

So old Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson continues to stun and amaze. A few days ago he announced he would be suing the Glitnir winding-up committee for libel because they suggested he had abused his position as the owner of the bank. Now he’s sending messages to the Minister of Finance, via the press, that Steingrímur should  should kindly keep his trap shut until someone qualified rules in his [JÁ’s] case. This after Steingrímur publicly expressed his indignation at the activities that were revealed in email exchanges between JÁJ and some of the bank’s executives.

All of which reminds me: here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about.

Just before Easter, it was announced that ISK 1 billion in share capital had been injected into JÁJ’s company 365 Media, which operates Channel 2 and publishes Fréttablaðið, among others. It was also announced that with this capital increase, JÁJ’s wife Ingibjörg Pálmadóttir now controls 90% of the company’s shares.

Unsurprisingly, this raised a few eyebrows since the couple is ostensibly bankrupt and have debts amounting to hundreds of billions of ISK, most notably through Baugur Group, which was once the Supernova of the Icelandic business sector and subsequently went bust. [Perhaps one day I shall tell you about my dealings with Baugur Group back in 2007 — a.k.a. THE ASSIGNMENT FROM HELL. That is, if I can bear to remember it.]

ISK 600 million of that 1 billion in share capital comes from so-called “B-shares” that are held by … well, no one knows who. When pressed to reveal where the money came from, Ingibjörg replied that it came from “silent shareholders who do not have voting rights in the company and therefore have no influence on its operations.”

Yeah, right.

We have to give her credit, though, for being marginally more diplomatic than her husband, whose only response to a DV reporter who asked the same question was: “None of your business.”

When I was at the Gräv conference in Stockholm a couple of weeks ago, I shared the stage with a woman named Sanita Jemberga from Latvia. Sanita had been working for one of the only credible newspapers in Latvia [i.e. because it was not owned by an oligarch], when it was sold to a bunch of “silent shareholders”. The new front man for those shareholders refused to reveal where the money had come from, so Sanita and about 20 of her colleagues staged a walkout. In their own words:

Trust is the foundation of serious journalism. If there are unanswered questions about who really owns Diena and if the editorial staff has no reason to believe that Diena will continue to be a quality newspaper, then we cannot continue working there and at the same time maintain our readers’ trust.

The Icelandic media sector is in shambles right now. The mainstream media is far too tied up with the main players in the economic collapse, and RÚV – which is state-owned and therefore allegedly neutral – is facing such serious cutbacks that it’s hard for them to do anything properly. There is a small glimmer of hope in DV, which was recently acquired by a group of investors, all of whom have been made public and none of which have any ties to the oligarchs.

Incidentally, the sale of Sanita’s newspaper has a slightly sinister connection to Iceland, which I shall write about in a subsequent post. But first — stay tuned for the release of the Black Report tomorrow.

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  • Mark April 11, 2010, 8:42 pm

    Even before all this ‘truth’ is going to surface. Iceland is still like the Wicker man. I live here on and off but there are some serious issues that need sorting out.

  • Hildur April 11, 2010, 8:51 pm

    Although DV has been doing some good reporting lately, I still don’t trust editor (and now owner) Reynir Traustason. I can’t forget that whole fiasco where one of DV’s reporters said that the former owners had dictated editorial policy and Reynir was caught lying about it. The fact that he tried to ruin the reputation of an honest journalist, a member of his own staff, to save his own skin is just disgusting.

  • alda April 11, 2010, 8:59 pm

    Hildur – agreed!!

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson April 11, 2010, 9:12 pm

    I am not so sure what is new about this, when I started reading newspapers here in Iceland they were each (all five of them) owned by the different political parties and their editorial policies followed the political lines of each party. You always had to keep in mind who owned what and that has always applied (even to the Morgunblaðið)

  • James Wilde April 12, 2010, 8:55 am

    “But first — stay tuned for the release of the Black Report tomorrow.”

    Yeah, right! 😉

  • RLJ April 12, 2010, 9:48 am

    Sigvaldi: ESPECIALLY to Morgunblaðið!

  • Nancy April 12, 2010, 6:35 pm

    Sigh…. It’s the same all over. I remember reading a report from an insurance company executive where he stated they basically wrote the copy for Fox News (shocking! not!), but, really, all of the cable news stations are just as bad. I am reminded of this John Mayer lyric: “And when you trust your television, what you get is what you got; cause when they own the information, they can bend it all they want .”