The Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið received a threat from Russian hackers on Thursday morning: to apologize before midnight Moscow time (9:00 p.m. in Iceland) or face a cyberattack in retaliation. The hackers want the newspaper’s editors to issue a formal apology for posting a photo of someone using a Russian flag as a doormat with the caption: “Ukrainians have found a new use for the Russian flag.” Frétablaðið and Stundin report this story.
“A manifesto of uncovered disrespect towards the Russian Federation”
The image in question appeared as part of an interview with Valur Gunnarsson, an Icelandic journalist currently in Ukraine. When published on Wednesday, the photograph almost immediately caught the attention of the Embassy in Iceland, which sent Fréttablaðið editor-in-chief Sigmundur Ernir Rúnarsson a letter asking for an apology for “breaching applicable law and common moral values, as well as to the ethical journalist.”
“We would like to remind you that the Icelandic government has not yet repealed art. 95 of the General Penal Code of Iceland, according to which anyone who publicly insults the symbols of a foreign state will be fined or even imprisoned,” the letter reads, calling the image a “manifest of uncovered disrespect for the Russian Federation and its state symbols”.
The Russian Embassy urged editors to react immediately and “not to waste time defending this under the guise of freedom of expression”.
Two Icelandic authors convicted under same law for insulting Hitler
The legal provision cited by the Russian embassy – which can technically carry a prison sentence of up to six years – is rarely enacted, although it has quite a colorful history. The most famous cases of Icelanders convicted under this legal provision occurred in 1934, as World War II approached.
First, author Þórbergur Þórðarson was tried and fined for calling Adolf Hitler a “sadist” in an article he wrote for the socialist newspaper Alþýðublaðið titled “The Sadistic Appetite of the Nazis “. Later the same year, poet Steinn Steinarr was convicted under the same article when he and four others cut a swastika flag at the German consulate in Siglufjörður.
More recently, rapper and entertainer Erpur Eyvindarson and two friends were convicted under the same provision after throwing a Molotov cocktail at the US Embassy in 2002. The trio was determined to have no l intended to harm anyone with the homemade fuel, but rather to deface the exterior of the embassy. As such, they were found guilty of insulting a foreign state and its citizens instead of a more serious crime.
In 2017, left-leaning Greens MPs submitted a resolution to appeal the provision, saying, among other things, that it was an attack on free speech. The Foreign Office, however, opposed the repeal, arguing that the provision was justified under international agreements and friendship treaties.
“After hacking your newspaper’s website, we will publish photos of Kompromat”
On Thursday morning, the Frétablaðið site came under what appeared to be a preliminary or warning attack. “We noticed this morning that website traffic had suddenly snowballed and it was clear that this was part of an attack on the website,” Sigmundur Ernir said. The ISP had already put in place security measures to protect the website and further steps were then taken to try to prevent further incursions on its functionality. At the time of writing, Fréttablaðið’s website was still active and accessible, although it was difficult to keep it functional, according to sources at the newspaper.
Shortly after the initial attack, the editors of Fréttablaðið received a more explicit email from the hackers responsible, saying, “What right do you have to insult or dishonor the symbols of another nation!!! If you don’t apologize on Thursday, August 11 before midnight Moscow time! [sic] We will hack your website and your provider. Then after having hacked the site of your newspaper, we will publish photos of kompromat on your publication and you will certainly incur a criminal conviction for corruption, banditry [English word used in original message]etc.”
Ivan Glinkin, director of communications at the Russian embassy, says the embassy has no idea who is responsible for the attacks on the Frétablaðið website. Asked if the embassy believes such attacks are somehow an appropriate response to the publication of the offending photo, Glinkin said the embassy condemns all illegal actions, whatever they may be.
“The flag is almost irrelevant”
Editor Sigmundur Ernir said his newspaper would not apologize for publishing a journalistic image taken in a conflict zone, but took the threat seriously and referred the matter to the police.
Frétablaðið also contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which expressed support for the newspaper’s position. The Union of Icelandic Journalists (BÍ) also released a statement of support on Thursday, saying that “the importance of independent and free media is particularly vital in times of war and BÍ condemns all attempts to influence media coverage of the war in Ukraine. ”
“There is nothing sacred in a war where children, mothers and the elderly are killed and whole communities destroyed,” Sigmundur Ernir remarked in an interview with Vísir the same day.
“So the flag is almost irrelevant, as flags are trampled in many places around the world in protest. I think Russians should think first and foremost about treating the nations around them with decency rather than complaining about a photo in Fréttablaðið.