RÚV journalists Stefán Aðalsteinn Drengsson (left), Helgi Seljan (center) and Aðalsteinn Kjartansson (right). Iceland fishing giant Samherji launched a campaign to discredit Seljan and his colleagues after they reported on the company's allegedly corrupt practices in Namibia, and four journalists involved in covering that campaign are now under investigation by police. (Kveikur)

Iceland police investigate 4 journalists for alleged privacy breach in Samherji fishing company reporting

Berlin, March 25, 2022 — Iceland authorities must ensure that journalists are not subject to police investigations as retaliation for their work, and should drop their criminal probe into journalists who recently covered the Samherji fishing company, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

In November 2019, Iceland’s public broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV), the privately owned news website Stundin, and Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera published joint reporting on alleged corruption involving Samherji and government officials in Namibia.

In May 2021, Stundin and the news website Kjarninn both reported on efforts by Samherji to discredit the journalists involved in that reporting; CPJ also documented the company’s efforts to harass the reporters who covered those corruption allegations.

Following that May 2021 reporting, a Samherji employee filed a criminal complaint alleging that reporters had illegally accessed their cellphone, and police opened a criminal investigation into Stundin reporter Aðalsteinn Kjartansson, Kjarninn reporter Arnar Þór Ingólfsson, Kjarninn editor Þórður Snær Júlíusson, and Þóra Arnórsdóttir, who edits the RÚV’s investigative program “Kveikur,” for alleged violation of privacy, according to news reports and Kjartansson, who communicated with CPJ via email.

On March 16, 2022, the Court of Appeals in Northeast Iceland refused Kjartansson’s appeal to drop the investigation, according to the journalist and statements by the police and the court.

“Iceland police must ensure that criminal complaints are not used to stifle journalists’ work or to retaliate against their coverage,” said Attila Mong, CPJ’s Europe representative. “Journalists in Iceland must be able to cover powerful companies without fear that they will face legal harassment and smear campaigns.”

Police accuse the journalists of violating the law by using data from that Samherji employee’s stolen cellphone in their May 2021 reporting, according to a report by Stundin, which said that authorities allege that the phone contained pornographic photos and videos of the employee.

Kjartansson said that he and the other reporters denied the charges.

The complainant had filed the case “for the sole reason that [the defendants] reported on Samherji’s activities against journalists,” Kjartansson said, adding that police were investigating “in a case where there is no evidence that a crime has been committed.”

If charged and convicted of violating that employee’s privacy, the journalists could face up to one year each in prison, according to Iceland’s penal code.

Kjartansson said that he had challenged the police force’s decision to declare him as an official suspect in the case, saying that the journalists’ reporting was in the public interest and they had not violated the employee’s privacy.

The Court of Appeals in Northeast Iceland, however, rejected that challenge and has allowed the investigation to continue, reports said.

CPJ emailed the Police Department in Northeast Iceland, Samherji, and the Samherji employee who filed the criminal complaint for comment, but did not receive any replies.