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Sara Oskarsson

Meet the chief organizer of Iceland’s historic protest movement

'It's about ethics—it's about ethics more than anything else.'


Dell Cameron


Posted on Apr 6, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 11:43 pm CDT

A consortium of journalists in nearly 80 countries made history this week with their unveiling of the largest leak of private data on record. But for the people of Iceland—a nation with a population roughly equivalent to Corpus Christi, Texas—history is on the horizon.

Reports about the content of the so-called “Panama Papers”—more than 11 million documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca that span 40 years—have put some of the world’s wealthiest elite on the defense. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s government refuted allegations of his involvement in the exfiltration of billions of dollars by a tight-knit group of his close and powerful friends. 

In Chile, Gonzalo Delaveau, head of the Chilean branch of watchdog group Transparency International, stepped down on Monday after the Panama Papers linked him to five shell companies in the Bahamas. (The group’s aim, according to its Berlin-based chair, is to register shell company owners and “make it harder for the corrupt to hide illicit wealth.”) 

“The initial demands were that the prime minister resign, but as it got closer to this protest on Monday, we began to realize it was on a much bigger scale than just him.”

France has, once again, blacklisted Panama as an uncooperative tax jurisdiction. And in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to discuss his father’s control of a personal offshore fund that, according to the Guardian, “avoided ever having to pay tax in Britain.”

No one has experienced the consequences of the leak more keenly, however, than the people of Iceland. In a span of 48 hours, an inflamed protest movement demanded, and then received, the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. And just today, his successor was named.

MP Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, former minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, was appointed new prime minister on Wednesday. However, a March poll conducted by Fréttablaðið, Iceland’s most-widely circulated newspaper, revealed that only 3 percent of the country think Jóhannsson is the most trustworthy minister. Seventeen percent said they trusted his predecessor, Gunnlaugsson, the most.

Gunnlaugsson, beleaguered by the sudden exposure of his secret offshore activities, surrendered the reins of the coalition government on Tuesday, while refusing to retire as head of the ruling Progressive Party.

Incensed by the Panama Paper reports, a record number of protesters stormed the courtyard of one of the world’s longest-standing democratic institutions—the Althing—the center of government in the capital city of Reykjavík that is more than 10 centuries old. 

Among the crowd stood 35-year-old Sara Þórðardóttir Oskarsson, co-founder of Jæja, the group responsible for organizing the demonstration.

An artist first, Oskarsson is also chair of the Pirate Party in Seltjarnarnes, a small township in the Capital Region, which has been controlled by the center-right Independence Party for more than 40 years. Before heading back to the Althing on Wednesday for another round of protests, Oskarsson spoke to the Daily Dot about what the protesters expect for the future of Iceland.

Daily Dot: Tell us about your protest group.

Sara Þórðardóttir Oskarsson: The group Jæja is called Jæja, which means “well”—kind of like “well, well, well,” in English. It was founded about a year and a half ago when me and two of my friends decided that we’d had enough of the way this government was running the country. So we started organizing protests. We did many protests, many weeks in a row, again and again. Many thousands of people turned up to the these protests, and we have a Facebook page which just kept on growing. So anytime anything comes up, we have protests, about things happening in the healthcare system, down to leaks and corruption. Everything really came to a head now with these recent revelations, the Panama Papers, with the prime minister and his wife, and basically, the government being somehow entangled into a web of lies and deceit and corruption. 

That caused a huge amount of anger, so we organized a protest last Monday, and it turned out to be the largest protest in Iceland’s history. About 22,000 people turned up at 5 o’clock on Monday. And it was a peaceful demonstration, although there was some egg throwing, that sort of thing, but nobody got hurt. But people were very angry. There were a few speeches held. I held a short speech… a bit of music. And then there was kind of just a chanting, you know, they began chanting these slogans again and again and again. Then it ended peacefully around about 8 o’clock.

What are the demands of the protesters on the ground?

The demands are that—the initial demands were that the prime minister resign, but as it got closer to this protest on Monday, we began to realize it was on a much bigger scale than just him. So it kind of shifted a bit from being just about him resigning over to, “We just want an election right away. We want this government dissolved. We want an election. We want these people to stop running the country.”

Are the demonstrations about convincing certain officials to step down, or are the protesters demanding the entire coalition government relinquish control?

At the moment, it seems they want all of them entirelyfor most people, all of them. Everyone in the coalition, it seems.

Sara Þórðardóttir Oskarsson

Do the protesters support a specific political party?

Well, there are a few other parties. The Pirate Party only has three members of parliament at the moment, but the latest polls today are showing 43 percent [of Icelanders would support the Pirate Party in the next election]. That’s been happening for about a year—it has been rising for a year. I initially started the demonstrations, and then I started my involvement with the Pirate Party. Now I’m head of a part of the Pirate Party and have a position of management and things like that. 

The Pirate Party seems to be a very popular option at the moment, but basically people are just calling for anything other than what’s been going on, and they want things to be looked at properly.

There was a constitution that the people of the country wrote following the last economic crash. In 2012, there was an election about that constitution and it was agreed on by, I think it was 70 or 80 percent. That was the constitution that the people of the country wanted. But this current government sabotaged that whole process and just made a complete and utter joke out of the whole thing. Still people are angry about that. Things just came to a head with these Panama Papers.

“We had a suspicion that it was bad, you know, that it was quite bad, that they were hiding money in all sorts of ways.”

Mr. Gunnlaugsson, the former prime minister as of this week, says nothing he did was illegal. Is this protest about legality?

No, it’s not. It doesn’t really matter at all, because it’s about ethics, first and foremost, and about trust, and about [Gunnlaugsson] representing the people of the country whilst living in a whole other, sort of, world of money. He talks about the krona [Icelandic currency], about how we have to have this currency here, that’s the best, that’s how we would keep the country and the economy strong here, safe, that would be in our interests. And at the same time he’s keeping his money in another economy. It’s about ethics—it’s about ethics more than anything else.

How do you feel about the release of the documents so far? Were you surprised to find politicians from your country on the list of offshore clients?

No, I was not surprised. I was not surprised at all. A year and a half ago when we started these protests, we kind of—we had a suspicion that it was bad, you know, that it was quite bad, that they were hiding money in all sorts of ways. So we always kind of assumed that something like this was going on, but maybe not quite as bad. So I can’t say that me or anyone was really surprised, no.

If you could say something to the leaker, who we’re now being told was likely a hacker, what would you say to them?

Thank you. I would say thanks. 

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*First Published: Apr 6, 2016, 6:54 pm CDT