Journalist who exposed corruption kicked off course

A journalist who claims he lost work after his investigations exposed government corruption in Iceland has been kicked off his journalism masters degree in Edinburgh for owing £2,600 – just a quarter of the total cost of the course.

Investigative journalist Atli Thór Fanndal has worked on numerous political corruption scandals in his native Iceland, including one that led indirectly to the resignation of a government minister for her role in a smear campaign against an asylum seeker.

But the 32-year-old claims that Edinburgh’s Napier University has been far less receptive to his investigative journalism.

Since July, the Icelander has effectively been barred from accessing course materials or submitting assignments.

Fanndal says that his financial difficulties stem directly from his investigative journalism.

The Icelandic journalist was a frequent contributor to Reykjavik-based paper DV. But he was told that his services would no longer be required earlier this year, not long after the newspaper was bought by Björn Ingi Hrafnsson, an Icelandic media mogul with ties to the Icelandic prime minister. Fanndal’s work has often been critical of the prime minister and his Progressive Party.

In July, Hrafnsson bought another Icelandic newspaper that Fanndal contributed to. The investigative journalist has not worked for the paper since.

Fanndal began his MA in Napier at the start of this year, paying £3,500 as a first instalment and four subsequent payments of £1,300. But after his freelance journalist work in Icelandic started dried up he has struggled to pay the remaining fees, around £2,600 of a total of over £11,000.

“I don’t really have anything at the moment,” said Fanndal, a hirsute, soft-spoken man who currently lives with his fiancé in Edinburgh. He had been studying on a distance-learning course at Napier as he regularly travels for work.

In email correspondence seen by the Ferret, Napier staff told Fanndal that “due to the financial shortfall” he should consider suspending his studies or going part-time.

In May, his account was suspended but access was restored the following month after Fanndal made a £1,300 payment. At the time he raised his financial problems with Napier’s Independent Student Advice Service.

“I felt and still feel like this is unnecessary and if there was a will by the university to solve the issue it would be solved. Locking a student out should be a last resort response, not an automatic bullying technique.”

I have been attacked, threatened, fired and ostracised again and again because of my work Atli Thór Fannda

The experience has taken its toll. A university councillor diagnosed stress but was unable to offer any solutions to Fanndal’s financial problems.

“I saw the councillor and he recognised the stress and did offer help but it was limited to ways to cope with stress and did not cope with the finance. My stress is due to the harsh tactics of Napier,” he says.

“I don’t expect Napier to treat any student like this. In my case I have shown an incredible will to pay and stay with my studies despite any outside distractions. I don’t fail to see the irony in a journalism school seeing no value in leniency towards a student that is paying the price for journalism.”

Although Iceland has enviable laws on press freedom, the vast majority of the Nordic state’s media is controlled by a small number of rich individuals, many with links to the country’s lucrative fishing industry. More than once during his six years as a journalist, Fanndal has found himself on the wrong side of proprietors.

“I have been attacked, threatened, fired and ostracised again and again because of my work,” he says. Among the stories Fanndal worked on was Icelandic police involvement in the case Mark Kennedy, a British undercover agent who spied on environmental activists.

In response to Fanndal’s claims, a source at DV said that following a restructure after new owners bought the Icelandic newspaper, the services of freelancers were no longer required, adding that Fanndal was not fired.

Icelandic commentator Huginn Thorsteinsson told the Ferret that it was important that Fanndal completed his course so that he could bring his skills back to Iceland.

“A lot of people would be thankful for a hard hitting and thorough investigative journalist here in Iceland. Basically he needs to finish his course and get a break somewhere,” he said.

Paul Holleran, the National Union of Journalists’ Scotland organiser, said universities needed to support investigative journalists such as Fanndal.

“Investigative journalism is the life blood of our industry and an essential part of the democratic process, particularly in holding people in power to account. This young journalist should be supported and helped to complete his studies and I would expect colleges and universities who run journalism degree courses to understand and empathise with those circumstances.”

Fanndal is currently attempting to raise the money he owes Napier but he says his studies have already been damaged. “If I pay now I will have no time to submit any work. The trimester is over.”

The practice of locking students who fall into arrears out of course work “is the most damaging way of dealing with students”, says Fanndal. “It leaves no time to deal with anything, it makes work stack up, makes it unable to submit anything on time and late submission lowers grades.”

“It would be a more practical approach to sit down and talk to me and come up with a solution that benefits me and the university. It would be possible for the university not to let me graduate until fully paid.”

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Students from outside the European Union are a growing cash cow for UK universities. In 2011/12, expenditure by non-EU international students on fees and accommodation amounted to £3.8 billion. Many of these students are enrolled on masters programmes.

Scottish universities have been at the forefront of drives to recruit more international students. Last month, in China, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was present at the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the University of Glasgow and Nankai University to set up a new postgraduate higher education programme on Chinese soil.

Almost 40 per cent of Napier’s students come from overseas. In 2014, the university was forced to scrap plans for a Hong Kong campus. 

Some within the academy have expressed disquiet about how international students are treated in UK universities.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen an international student being barred from their course or being stopped from graduating because of financial difficulties beyond their control,” says Mostafa Rajaai, International Students Officer at the National Union of Students.

“If the UK wants to maintain its reputation as a welcoming destination for international students, it needs to make it clear that they mean more than just money.”

Atli Thór Fanndal agrees.

I have come to realise that international students are here for their wallets to be harvested. What Napier and any university must realise is that if you are going to actively seek foreign students for their full fee status it is important that they are met with some understanding and a functional system.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh Napier University said: “It is the responsibility of post-graduate students to adhere to their payment plan.

“Students who are experiencing difficulties are pointed in the direction of our confidential Independent Student Advice Service, who offer guidance on issues like debt management.”

A journalist was paid £165 for researching and writing this story.

Cover image: Ragnar Hólm Ragnarsson
Photo: Atli Thór Fanndal |

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