A Letter From Iceland
by Jennifer Karchmer
Journalist and former Whatcom Watch Editor Jennifer Karchmer is a volunteer correspondent with Reporters Without Borders-USA. She is living in Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik for six weeks talking with radio, TV, newspaper and web-based reporters on an independent research project studying the news profession and freedom of the press. Jennifer will return for the spring term at Western Washington University where she is a Senior Instructor in the Dept. of Communication.
Iceland (population 320,000) has been ranked at the top of the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index over the past decade. Karchmer has interviewed veteran newsman Bogi Ágústsson, considered the ‘Walter Cronkite’ of Icelandic news; reporters at the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið; and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Icelandic parliament who co-sponsored the Icelandic Modern Media Imitative (IMMI), a proposal that would strengthen press freedohhaks “Collateral Murder” video with Julian Assange.
In addition to reporting, Karchmer gave a lecture, “How US Media Consolidation Has Affected the News Industry” to graduate students at the University of Iceland on Feb. 7. She plans to publish reports in the English-language newspaper, The Reykjavik Grapevine, among other publications. You can learn more at www.jenniferkarchmer.com.
Following is an informal piece she shared with Editor David Camp on Feb. 6 via email.
Here’s what I’m learning so far. RWB (Reporters Without Borders) ranked Iceland #6 on its Press Freedom index for 2012. This is down from #1 where Iceland ranked for about 10 years (along with Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and some others). Icelandic journalists are “worried” about the state of their profession. Similar to the situation for journalism in the USA, budget cuts have meant layoffs in the newsroom, veteran journalists leaving the profession and young, newbie inexperienced students coming into the newsrooms. They’re wide-eyed and well trained. However, losing the veterans means losing the very watchdogs who have spend the time covering government. Since the financial crash here (2008) (known as “hrunið”), the country is feeling frustrated with government, politicians, and media, blaming the media in some ways for not giving the whole story of what has been going on with the banks.
The theme now is transparency, or lack thereof, in reporting stories. Journalists I spoke with admit that overall they enjoy and appreciate a relatively “high” level of press freedom (no death threats, car bombs, imprisonment...). Yet interference comes in more subtle forms of censorship, such as libel cases filed directly against journalists, who are then saddled with monetary fines and the hassle of court proceedings.
Also, journalists say that press protections are different for print versus broadcast journalists. Print journalism protections are becoming more and more outdated as the Internet becomes a more prevalent form of communication.
The other big theme is cronyism/nepotism: family members doing favors for others and getting them into places of power due to their connections versus qualifications. With a country of this (small) size, it has been a way of life. In some cases this has been positive and beneficial. But now with the financial crisis, people are waking up to the negative ramifications of this chumminess.
Transparency and Accessibility
Nepotism is a term I regularly hear people use openly. In fact, the financial crisis is talked about openly, regularly in the news, even the tourist publications. There’s no hiding the situation. People are pissed off, and despite some new parties in government (national and city level) some say they don’t see much changing. Maybe you’ve heard the City of Reykjavik Mayor is Jón Gnarr, a comedian/actor, kind of a Stephen Colbert who actually got elected. He won as part of the “Best Party.” You can “Google” his name or under YouTube see his party’s spoof on Tina Turner’s song, Simply the BEST! It’s very funny. I’ve seen him several times walking down the street and at a coffee shop. Yes, politicians are easy to get an appointment with. No going through a PR spokesperson and security. In fact, you ask someone at a store and they most likely know, or are related to, the person and can get you in touch. Or, you just look them up in the local phone book, by first name, and reach them. Journalists say that politicians are accessible and get back to them in a pretty timely fashion.
Financial Crash from 2008
Just walking down the streets in the heart of Reykjavik, you see lovely clothing stores, cafes, restaurants, tourist stores selling stuffed animals (puffins), key chains, Icelandic sweaters. The city is lovely, especially when snowing. Lots of music venues, very artistic scene. If you’re a 20-something and like to drink on the weekends, you’re in the right place. Because alcohol in the bars is expensive, people go to happy hour (cheaper), go home for a bite to eat, have more drinks at home, then go out at midnight. Things just get started at 1 a.m. (So I hear!...lol).
I see tourists in the restaurants even during wintertime, the heart of the off-season. Thankfully, no Starbucks on every corner. In fact, all of downtown is filled with unique, one-of-a-kind Icelandic places and stores. In the outskirts though you will see a Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominos. In fact, McDonalds was here for several years but eventually pulled out. Apparently, from what I hear, Icelanders liked the Mickey Ds… it was a financial decision by the franchise to exit due to the cost of importing all of the raw materials.
I’ve heard at least a few people say that they are starting to see effects of access to fast food, an obesity situation, although not as bad as we’re having in USA. It’s the younger generation glued to the computer and prevalence of the junk food on every corner. In that way, the country is much like US, with lots of American influence in terms of music, movies. US had a military base presence from WWII up until 2006 when they closed the base in Keflavik (location of the international airport, fifty miles southwest of Reykjavik).
There are homeless, folks who live in poverty and people who have left for Norway because they’ve lost their jobs, homes, and/or cars after the crash. You just don’t see that on the street level. Not one panhandler or person who “seems” homeless. Not like walking down Railroad Ave. in Bellingham. With such a small community of people, there is a pride, you don’t show your face if you’re in that predicament. There are social services, and the Red Cross has ramped up its services especially post crash. So again, that’s reality but just not evident as you walk down the main streets. Also, some other folks with decent jobs say they have food on the table and things are generally fine, but items are just more expensive, such as groceries. In one anecdote, an acquaintance said that instead of taking that annual trip abroad (Oslo, London), they’re not doing that as much. Still, Iceland enjoys a relatively high standard of living, good access to healthcare and education.
These are prevalent and scattered all over the country with several around the city. In fact, I’ve made it a routine to hit the pool once a day. There is a big swimming pool where you do laps, then a smaller, wading area where you can just hang out or for kiddies (shallow), then hot pots (what they call hot tubs) in increasingly hotter temps for soaking. Basically you just keep bopping from the pool, to the hot pots, then into the steam room. By the time you get out of there, your body welcomes the freezing temps. It’s pretty amazing to be doing laps with steam coming off the water and it’s snowing outside. Even funnier is in the afternoon when kids have swim lessons, you see the coaches on the pool deck outfitted in huge snowsuits and warm hats and mittens calling out strokes (in Icelandic).
Most everyone speaks English, very good English in fact. In school, kids start learning formally around age 10, but they are exposed so much earlier than that through movies, video games, TV, products, printed instructions for appliances, etc. In the past, the compulsory languages were Icelandic (native language) and Danish as a foreign language (Iceland became independent from Denmark in 1944). In just the past few years I think, English has become the mandatory foreign language over Danish. Many Icelanders readily say that Icelandic is a difficult language for visitors and I agree. “Tak” is thanks and “bless bless” is bye bye.
It’s similar to Bellingham – variable minute to minute. I arrived amid snowstorms, blowing, blizzard conditions my first two weeks. Apparently, the country experienced the most snowfall in about 30 years. Now the temperatures have warmed up into the mid 30s (F) and we’ve had lots of rain. Icelanders are sick of winter and ready for springtime so I’m familiar with that sentiment. We’re coming out of the dark days. In wintertime, the sun officially rises at like 10:30a, so often I leave my room and it’s pitch dark (9a). Sun goes down 4:30p or so.
That’s all for now. I’ll have a full report when I return. Bless bless.