Klaustur Scandal: one year ago today

20.11.2019 - 15:59
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Today marks one year since six Members of Alþingi sat down to drink at Klaustur bar in central Reykjavík and were unwittingly recorded letting their tongues run wild with comments most people found offensive when repeated in the media.

Bára Halldórsdóttir was sitting on the next table and quickly took note of the fact that the conversation between four MPs for Miðflokkurinn (the Centre Party) and two from Flokkur fólksins (the People’s Party) included unkind words against other MPs, women, and disabled people, among others. Bára recorded the conversation and later leaked it to the media—thereby creating the famous Klaustur Scandal that dominated public discourse in Iceland for months and raised many questions; including about the right to privacy and about parliamentary ethics. Crowds took to Austurvöllur to demand the politicians’ resignation and the transcript of their conversation was read out by actors to a packed auditorium at Reykjavík’s Borgarleikhúsið theatre.       

Bára thought she was joking when she first pressed record, “But then they started talking deeper and deeper about things that were totally off the wall and really bad if they are in positions of power and then I decided to just carry on recording them.” 

Four Miðflokkurinn MPs referred the recording to the Data Protection Agency in December and called for an investigation into Bára and whether she was working with other people to discredit the politicians. The agency ruled that the recording was a breach of personal privacy laws; partly due to its extensive length. Bára was not made to pay a fine, however, because the agency also ruled that sitting parliamentarians have less right to a private life than people who are not employed in running the country. 

The MPs also tried to take the case to court and asked for a process of gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses to take place in preparation for a possible case against Bára. Reykjavík District Court rejected their requests, saying there was no evidence to suggest she had been working with others. The Landsréttur appeals court later came to the same conclusion. 

The presidium of Alþingi later agreed with a decision from the parliamentary ethics committee that Bergþór Ólason and Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, MPs for Miðflokkurinn, had broken Alþingi ethics rules with their comments at Klaustur. The other four MPs were deemed to have not broken ethics rules. 

Bára is commemorating the anniversary of one of the most memorable evenings of her life with a symposium called ‘Klausturgate Revisited’. There, she will give victims the time and space to discuss what was said about them, as well as the aftermath of the Klaustur Scandal a year later. The meeting will especially focus on the effects of the scandal on disabled people and the LGBTQ community. Among the people who will take part in the symposium are people who were directly discussed by the MPs at the bar. Bára says several lessons can be learned from the affair. 

She says she was surprised and impressed by the strength of the reaction to the recording, but also says that despite all the coverage little has actually changed—adding that the changes that have been put into effect are going too slowly. 

“This case leaves one with the feeling that regardless of what happens, nothing changes. It leaves behind it people in parliament who find it hard to carry on in parliament and it leaves behind it hospital bills and financial losses for me.” 

Bára says the system has not dealt with the case as it should have done. The rules that are in place failed, and that is not good, she says. 

“We need better laws or rules in parliament to make sure staff there feel secure in their place of work. We need laws on whistle-blowers and maybe to root out this culture of silence that exists in Alþingi,” Bára says. 

Would she take the same decision today, with hindsight, to record the conversation and leak it? 

“Yes, because I think it was my duty as an Icelandic citizen. I mean, this is something that matters to all of us.”

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