UPDATED: Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug, under pressure to apologize for claiming on Facebook that Norway’s Labour Party puts terrorists’ rights above national security, has finally published a response after days of refusing to comment. She also finally deleted the post many found so offensive, but refused to admit defeat even after her initial response stirred even more anger.
Listhaug, who’s part of the far-right faction of Norway’s conservative Progress Party, also continued to face calls to resign her prestigious ministerial post. Pressure was also growing on the Conservatives’ Prime Minister Erna Solberg to fire Listhaug, while both Solberg and Listhaug have been challenged to address Parliament and face the questions and criticism Listhaug’s post has raised.
On Wednesday it also emerged that the veteran administrative leader of the Justice Ministry, Tor Saglie, had submitted a formal request to resign before his term expires. Saglie, who’ll turn 70 in September 2019, claimed he wanted to only work with “professional issues” during his remaining months on the job.
Listhaug’s Facebook post late last week has set off a national uproar and stirred the most serious criticism against Solberg’s conservative minority coalition government yet. The criticism continues to come not only from opposition leaders in Parliament but also from within both Solberg’s Conservative Party, the government itself and the general public, not least the survivors of a right-wing extremist’s terrorist attack on the Labour Party and Labour government on July 22, 2011. Listhaug’s claim in her Facebook post, pasted over a photo of armed and masked terrorists, was too much for them to bear.
Reaction to the post was swift, with the leader of the Christian Democrats Party saying Listhaug had “trashed the debate” over terrorism, and Listhaug’s own new fellow government minister from the Liberal Party calling Listhaug’s claim “unfair” “unreasonable.” The debate, which included suggestions that Solberg never be invited to future memorial ceremonies for Norway’s terror victims, climaxed Tuesday when Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre accused Listhaug of consciously and in a “calculated” manner re-igniting “the hate that took so many lives on July 22nd.”
Listhaug, who’s been attending the government’s annual state budget conference in Hurdal this week along with Solberg and all other ministers, responded late Tuesday night by publishing a new post on her Facebook page. She claimed it was “never, never in my thoughts” that her terrorism claim against Labour “would be connected to the gruesome massacre on (the island of) Utøya that rammed so incredibly many innocent people and the Norwegian democracy.” She claimed that would have been “completely reprehensible,” adding that it was not her intention “to hurt anyone and I really hope to be believed on that.”
She claimed she had “great sympathy” for the survivors and those who lost loved ones on Utøya, where Labour was holding its annual youth summer camp, and to “everyone who experienced” what happened in 2011. She wrote that she was distressed by Støre’s comments, claiming they amounted to attaching attitudes to her that she doesn’t have. Listhaug concluded by claiming that “this debate has made me and many others aware of how important it is to have consideration for all of those who have experienced terror.”
Nowhere in her response, however, does Listhaug write any of the Norwegian equivalents of expressing regret or saying she’s sorry, begging pardon or otherwise extending an apology. While many of her followers published comments that praised her and urge her to “stå på “ (hang in there), many others made it clear her words were not intepreted as sincere. Many wrote that they did not believe her, and noted that she was once a highly paid communications consultant for First House, a firm that has stirred controversy itself because of its use of former top politicians and its lobbying power: “You now exactly what you do,” wrote one man. “To say that Labour supports terrorists is incredible … and as justice minister! Shame on you!”
Another wrote “Too little too late Sylvi,” in English, and suggested her response “smelled of instructions” from higher-ups. “I strongly doubt you have learned anything about how dangerous your methods are in appealing to the darkest corners of humanity,” he added There were repeated calls for her to delete the offensive post from last week, along with questions as to why she hadn’t already.
At around 12:30pm on Wednesday, Listhaug posted a new message on her Facebook page: “I have now deleted the post and photo that were published on Friday. The reason is that those who have rights to the photo in Norway have given us the message that it can’t be used for political expression. We must of course go along with that. I wish everyone a nice day forward.” She admitted no blame, defeat or regret. As justice minister, she was quickly assailed for having failed to check on photo usage rights, and for continuing to refuse to apologize.
Defended by her party’s boss
Listhaug’s Progress Party boss Siv Jensen had also finally responded to the uproar, by publishing a Facebook post of her own in which she admitted that the timing of Listhaug’s post “was wrong” (it came just as the first of several films about the July 22 terrorist attacks opened at Norwegian cinemas, prompting many to relive the horrors of that day when 77 people were killed). Jensen also wrote that she could understand debate had arisen over “words and photo use.”
Jensen nonetheless went on to defend Listhaug, and accused Labour-leader Støre of being the one to exceed limits of proper debate. “Sylvi’s message has no connection with July 22, and she has herself said that was not her intention,” Jensen wrote. “She has of course had no desire to hurt survivors or families after the Utøya terror.” Jensen added that the fight against terrorism was important and something “we must talk about.”
Listhaug’s government boss, Prime Minister Solberg, meanwhile, has accepted an invitation to meet with the national survivors’ group after the July 22 terror attacks, to try to soothe hurt feelings. Solberg continued to face questions over how she could justify having Listhaug as her justice minister. Solberg had criticized Listhaug’s post, saying it exceeded the limits of professional political debate, but Listhaug let it stand in defiance of Solberg’s remarks, until Wednesday afternoon.