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Iceland: Investigations against journalists reporting on Samherji undermine press freedoms and anti-corruption efforts

Transparency International joins our national chapter in Iceland in expressing alarm over reports that Iceland’s Northeast Police are investigating journalists for their coverage of alleged misconduct at Samherji, the company at the centre of the Fishrot Files corruption scandal. By interrogating at least four journalists as defendants on the suspicion of violating privacy, the authorities are sending a dangerous message to the entire Icelandic community. These investigations threaten press freedoms as well as Iceland’s future progress on anti-corruption and should be promptly dropped.

Last year, based on emails and chat logs leaked to them, two Icelandic media outlets – Kjarninn and Stundin – uncovered a self-styled “guerrilla division” at Samherji dedicated to intimidating and smearing journalists and civil society reporting on the Fishrot Files. According to the revelations, this division collected personal information on independent actors, including Transparency International Iceland, to be used to undermine their credibility.

Following public outrage, Samherji apologised. The company admitted that its managers “reacted strongly to negative coverage [...] and it is clear that those reactions have gone too far”. Transparency International Iceland recognised this as a commendable first step and sent Samherji a letter outlining urgent actions that the company should take to improve integrity.

In 2019, Kveikur, Stundin and Al Jazeera released the Fishrot Files investigations, which implicated Samherji in the bribery of government officials in Namibia for fishing quota rights. After the scandal broke, Namibian authorities actively pursued criminal investigations into implicated public officials and business executives. In Iceland, the Minister of Fisheries Kristján Þór Júlíusson – who had previously served as the company’s chairman – came under fire and faced calls to resign. Reportedly, his first reaction was to inquire about the wellbeing of his friend Thorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, CEO of Samherji – who stepped aside at the time but since has been reinstated.

Icelandic journalists covering the Fishrot Files scandal have continuously faced retaliation and public attacks from Samherji. The country’s police are now exacerbating this worrying trend by pursuing legal action against the journalists instead of investigating the company for collecting their critics’ personal information to target them. In Transparency International Iceland's view, it is incomprehensible that in a vast global corruption case, authorities' priority is to seek punishment of journalists for their public-interest reporting.

Transparency International stands in solidarity with Icelandic journalists and calls on the authorities to promptly drop the investigations and prevent further legal harassment.

Press freedoms are crucial for keeping corruption in check. Iceland’s performance has already suffered on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, dropping 4 points since 2019 when the Fishrot Files scandal broke. Unless civil liberties are protected, Iceland will struggle to regain either the Icelandic or international communities’ confidence that it can effectively curb corruption.

For any press enquiries, please contact

Transparency International Iceland, transparency@transparency.is

Transparency International Secretariat, press@transparency.org