Defamation remains a criminal offence in Iceland.
The first, “injuring the personal honour of another by means of insult in word or in deed [or] spreading such rumour”, is punishable with up to one year in prison or a (Art. 234). When the insult is directed against a spouse, former spouse, child or other close relation, the maximum potential prison sentence is elevated two years (Art. 233. gr. b).
The second, insinuating something about a person “which would be to the detriment of his/her respect” or circulating such an insinuation is also punishable with up to one year in prison or a fine (Art. 235). However, if a defamatory insinuation is circulated with knowledge of its falsity or without “likely reasons for believing it correct”, the maximum punishment is increased to two years in prison or a fine (Art. 236).
The third, “upbraid[ing] another without any cause”, is punishable with a fine even if “he/she tell [sic] the truth” (Art. 237).
The court may also declare any libellous statements “null and void” if this is requested by the injured party (Art. 241). The offender may also be required to pay for the publishing of the court’s judgment or a correction.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Provisions on the books.
Under Art. 101 of the Icelandic Criminal Code, when criminal defamation or insult is committed against the President of Iceland, the usual punishment shall be increased, but not more than doubled.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Provisions on the books.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Provisions on the books.
Under Art. 94 of the Icelandic Criminal Code, the punishment for criminal defamation or insult may be increased by half if directed at the head of a foreign state or foreign diplomats stationed in Iceland.
Additionally, disgracing “a foreign nation or a foreign State, its superior official, Head of State, flag or other recognized symbol of nationality, the flag of the United Nations or the flag of the Council of Europe” is a criminal offence under Art. 95 of the Criminal Code. The punishment is a or imprisonment for up to two years. In the case of a “gross offence”, the punishment may be imprisonment for up to six years. The same punishments apply to disgracing, insulting or uttering defamatory insinuations about “other employees of a foreign State present in [Iceland]”.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Provisions on the books.
Criminal blasphemy was repealed in Iceland in June 2015. Previously, “[r]idiculing or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religious community in Iceland”was a criminal offence under Art. 125 of the Icelandic Criminal Code. The punishment was a fine or imprisonment for up to three months.
Other Relevant Criminal Offences
Art. 233 of the Icelandic Criminal Code punishes slander, insult or ridicule toward an individual or group on account of “nationality, colour, race, religion or sexual inclination” with a fine or up to two years in prison.
The contains a more expansive version of this clause, stating that the press is forbidden from “encourag[ing] hatred” on the grounds of “race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, nationality, opinion or cultural, economic, social or other standing in society” (Art. 27). While there is no specific punishment foreseen, the Media Law provides that ensuring compliance with this and all other directives in the Law falls within the purview of the newly established Media Commission, which monitors and licenses all media operating in Iceland.
For infractions of Art. 27, the Commission can issue an “executive fine” of up to 10 million Icelandic krónur (Art. 54). Violations can also incur criminal liability resulting in imprisonment for up to six months; police investigations may only begin at the request of the Media Commission (Arts. 55-56).
Notably, the Media Commission is a state body. Its five members are appointed by Iceland’s Minister of Education, Culture, and Science, according to the following formula: “Two representatives shall be appointed in accordance with a nomination by the Supreme Court of Iceland, one in accordance with a nomination by the standing Committee of the Rectors of Icelandic Higher Education Institutions and one in accordance with a nomination by the National Union of Icelandic Journalists; the fifth shall be appointed by the minister without nomination” (Art. 8).
Defamatory offences against a person “who is or has been a civil servant” and that “pertain to his/her work in some respects” are to be prosecuted ex officio, whereas otherwise criminal defamation cases can only be brought by the injured party (Icelandic Criminal Code Art. 242, par. 2).
Statistics on Application
Iceland has no civil defamation law as such. Rather, civil liability for defamation is subject to the general terms of the Tort Liability Act (1993), which allows anyone to seek non-pecuniary (moral) damages for unlawful culpable conduct.
In theory, it is possible for a person to pursue a private claim for damages under the Tort Liability Act. However, in practice nearly all defamation cases in Iceland are brought as so-called “civil-criminal cases”. This means that a person who claims to have been defamed according to the relevant articles in the Criminal Code files a civil law suit, but demands that the defendant be punished according to the terms of the Criminal Code (i.e. with a fine or imprisonment). This suit automatically also consists of a private claim for damages, so that the plaintiff may, at the same time, demand compensation for pain and suffering under the Tort Liability Act.
It is perceived that the main reason why defamation cases are brought as civil-criminal cases and not as purely civil cases is that, in the latter, plaintiffs must pay court fees, which can be substantial, especially if the case is appealed. In order to avoid this, plaintiffs simply file a civil-criminal action and demand criminal punishment, even though it is clear that the courts normally will award only civil damages.
There are no caps on non-pecuniary damages for defamation in Icelandic law.
In defamation cases, plaintiffs may be awarded damages to compensate for economic loss as well as non-pecuniary damages to compensate for emotional harm, according to §26 of the Tort Liability Act.
Media Cases and Case Law
Notes on case law
As noted above, the Icelandic Criminal Code does not provide any explicit defences for defamation. Only one defence may be found in the Media Act: namely, that the printed press cannot be held liable for defamatory assertions by a third party as long as the latter is correctly quoted, gave consent and is subject to Icelandic law. Previously, journalists had frequently been held liable for comments made by interviewees (see below under “Recent Cases”).
Despite the nearly complete absence of statutory defences, in general Icelandic courts seek to apply principles similar to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), such as distinguishing between fact and value, granting a wide berth for statements made in the public interest or as part of a public debate, and emphasising the importance of the media for democratic society. However, the ECtHR’s case law and the European Convention on Human Rights themselves are normally not directly cited by the Icelandic courts. Moreover, this application is seen as fairly inconsistent and variable from court to court. This lack of predictability, noted one lawyer, makes “it very difficult for attorneys to work with, to provide advice on the limits of freedom of expression, for example to journalists”.
The principle of exceptio veritatis (defence of truth) is an established element in defamation cases. On the other hand, the Icelandic courts are considered to “offer no margin on the good faith of journalists” and thus do not recognise a defence of reasonable publication. As one legal expert explained to IPI: “Statements written in good faith, which turn out to be false, will be declared null and void. This goes so far, that if a statement turns out to be false, even if the content of an article is 99% correct, and the false (or inaccurate) statement amounts to 1% of the article, that statement will be declared null and void and damages and cost will be ordered, even if the content was of public interest.” [emphasis added]
Recent examples of cases involving the media
In June 2010, the Icelandic Supreme Court reversed a lower court judgment and ordered a journalist to pay damages and legal costs to a convicted drug smuggler for libel. In 2007, the journalist, Erla Hlynsdóttir, was covering the trial of a man, “RR”, accused of smuggling nearly 4,000 grams of cocaine into Iceland. In July of that year she published an article in the newspaper DV headlined “Scared cocaine smugglers”, together with a picture of RR entering the courthouse and a summary of the case against him. The summary contained the following sentence: “The cocaine was hidden in a vehicle which RR imported to the country and took in his possession in February 2007, believing that the cocaine was still in its place, but the police had already confiscated the cocaine and substituted it with fake chemicals”. The sentence was a quote from the official indictment, although Hlynsdóttir did not add the words “according to the indictment” in that sentence. RR was acquitted by the court, which determined that prosecutors had not proved the allegations beyond doubt. Following his acquittal, RR sued Hlynsdóttir for libel, pointing to the headline and the sentence above.
One month before the defamation trial began, RR was arrested again on smuggling charges after Icelandic police found 100 kg of various drugs on board a sailboat he was steering. While RR was awaiting trial, the Reykjavik District Court (in 2009) rejected all charges against Hlynsdóttir, finding that the media must be free to cover criminal trials (noting that this trial had been open to the public) and that journalists could not be expected to wait to cover criminal trials until courts rendered a verdict. Later that year, RR was sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, the defamation case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which on March 11, 2010 ruled in RR’s favour. The Supreme Court considered that, at the relevant time, the headline and the sentence in question amounted to a libellous accusation of fact toward RR and the Court emphasised that only the courts, not the media, could decide whether accused criminals were guilty. The Court did not give relevance to the fact that the sentence was a quote from the official indictment against RR. The Court declared the statements null and void and ordered Hlynsdóttir and her editor to pay damages and legal costs to RR. In Oct. 2014, the European Court of Human Rights that Iceland had violated Hlynsdóttir’s right to free expression in the case..
In February 2010, the Icelandic Supreme Court ordered journalist Erla Hlynsdóttir to pay 400,000 krónur in damages to an Icelandic woman after publishing a defamatory comment made by an interviewee. The article in question related to a well-known Icelandic man who had been the director of a Christian charity (“The Shelter”) aimed at helping rehabilitate drug and alcohol addicts; the man was later convicted of sexually abusing women at the charity. The director’s wife, “HH”, was also charged in relation to the abuse, but the charges were later dropped. In the article, Hlynsdóttir published comments from one of the abused women about the HH’s role in initiating the abuse; in one of the comments, the woman described HH as “bewildered or crazy” and expressed concern that HH was working at a primary school. Following publication of the article, the abused woman sued Hlynsdóttir for defamation, claiming she never made the comments in the article and asking that 14 of them be declared null and void. Hlynsdóttir was unable to prove that the woman had made the comments because the recording was lost. However, the Supreme Court determined that, based on similarities with police reports and other statements made by the abused woman, it was probable that she had made 13 of the 14 comments, the exception being the one about HH working in a primary school. The Court agreed to declare only that comment null and void and, on the basis of that comment alone, awarded damages. The case was adjudicated prior to the enactment of the new Media Law, which excludes journalists from liability for defamatory comments made by interviewees. However, because Hlynsdóttir was not able to prove that the woman made the comment, she likely would not have benefitted from that protection anyway. Hlynsdóttir appealed the decision to the ECtHR, arguing in part that the punishment is disproportionate. In 2015, the ECtHR in her favour.
In 2012, the ECtHR of another Icelandic journalist found guilty of defamation for comments made by an interviewee in a 2007 article. The journalist, Björk Eiðsdóttir, had summarised accusations made by a strip club dancer who claimed that the owner of the club had encouraged his employees to engage in prostitution. The article appeared in the midst of a public debate on the possible banning of strip clubs in Iceland. Although the Strasbourg court agreed with the Icelandic Supreme Court’s ruling that the dancer’s comments constituted allegations of specific criminal conduct rather than mere value judgment, it noted that the club owner later withdrew his suit against the dancer while continuing to pursue his case against Eiðsdóttir, an act that the ECtHR said “reduc[ed] any possibility for [the journalist] to substantiate” the dancer’s comments. Even so, the Court determined that Eiðsdóttir had acted in good faith, given that she had accurately rendered the allegations, had sought independent evidence to corroborate them and printed a full rebuttal by the club owner. Finally, the Court noted that “news reporting based on interviews, whether edited or not, constitutes one of the most important means whereby the press is able to play its vital role of ‘public watchdog’ … the punishment of a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest”. The ECtHR vacated an award of damages to the club owner in the amount of 500,000 krónur and legal costs of 400,000 krónur It also awarded Björk Eiðsdóttir, €5,000 in non-pecuniary damages to compensate for “psychological pain and suffering” and damage to personal and professional honour. This case was tried under Iceland’s now-obsolete 1956 law; the current Media Law expressly releases the press from liability for defamatory statements made by third parties.
Recent Legal Changes
• Criminal blasphemy was repealed in Iceland in June 2015. Previously, “[r]idiculing or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religious community in Iceland” was a criminal offence under Art. 125 of the Icelandic Criminal Code. The punishment was a fine or imprisonment for up to three months.
• In 2011, Iceland’s new entered into force. Notably, the law included strengthened protections for journalists’ sources. It also expressly releases the press from liability for defamatory statements made by third parties, following a series of related ECtHR judgments against Iceland (see above under “Media Cases and Case Law”. However, this first success was overshadowed by significant criticism by press freedom groups over other provisions of the law, including the establishment of a “State Media Committee”, which would oversee media legal compliance and registration requirements. Thousands of people an unsuccessful petition calling for President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson to veto the measure. See also “Other Relevant Criminal Offences”, above.
• In June 2010, the Icelandic Parliament unanimously a resolution known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which called for the north Atlantic country to adopt the world’s most progressive laws on transparency and freedom of expression. In addition to source protection and protection for whistleblowers, and a “wide-ranging” freedom of expression law, new legislation was to include the abolition of criminal libel and the implementation of safeguards against “libel tourism”.
Supporters, noting the “complexity of the legislated changes required”, had signalled that completing the package could take up to one year from the passage of the resolution in June 2010. (According to the International Modern Media Institute, at least 13 laws needed to be changed.) However, at the time of this writing (August 2015), reforms to defamation law have not yet been undertaken.
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information on defamation laws in Europe was collected by the International Press Institute (IPI) in collaboration with the School of Public Policy’s Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and their partners at the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. (Read more about our partners here.)
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at ipi[at]freemedia.at.
Information on Iceland was last updated in January 2015.