On April 9, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was fined 20,000 kroner ($2,352) for breach of COVID rules during her 60th birthday celebration on February 26.
It was nothing remotely like the Shashti Abda Poorti (celebrating completion of 60 years of age) seen in India.
Solberg was simply unlucky. Not for hosting a dinner for 13 people at three separate tables in a restaurant where she herself was not present. But for being the country’s prime minister. As a lesser mortal, she may have got away.
Thereby hangs a tale that is instructive about Norwegian social, political, police, governance and administrative values and practices.
Solberg hosted her family in a restaurant as she felt it was the best way within the rules. The day after the dinner in the mountain resort, the extended family of 14, including Solberg, gathered in a rented apartment where they ate sushi. This was despite a government ban on “events”, which is defined as gatherings of more than ten people.
On March 23, police inspector Per Morten Sending told Reuters: “We have started an investigation and part of this involves questioning the prime minister. We have taken the initiative and the questioning has begun.” He mentioned the prospect of a fine for breach of the social restrictions.
Regardless of the police probe, and her own health minister’s criticism of the event, the two-term prime minister had already apologised for gathering more than 10 family members over two days. She admitted her ignorance of the social distancing rules.
“I, who every single day stand in front of the Norwegian people and tell them about infection control, should have known the rules better. But the truth is that I have not checked the rules well enough and thus haven’t realised that a family going out together with more than ten people is considered an event,” Solberg had said.
Police chief Ole Saeverud announced the fine at a news conference in Oslo. “Even though the law is the same for everyone, not everyone is the same,” Saeverud said.
Which may explain Solberg’s husband, Sindre Finnes, not being fined. In most such cases, the police would not have imposed a fine. The prime minister, the police said, has been at the forefront of the government’s campaign to enforce restrictions. Hence, it was only appropriate to impose a fine in order to maintain the public’s trust in the infection control rules.
The police justification of the fine shows it to be a case of reverse discrimination. Erna Solberg may have got away without a fine had she not been the prime minister. She didn’t. The police did their job in a matter-of-fact manner. In doing their duty, they were neither apologetic nor gleeful, neither fawning nor crowing.
Long years ago, I had a conversation with a judge of Norway’s supreme court about laws of contempt and defamation for writing or speaking against judges. He said there was no such law to shield those on the bench. People were free to criticise case verdicts, judges and judicial conduct. No court or judge could silence critics, including lawyers, by threatening to invoke the defamation law. The laws on libel and slander are the same for every citizen, including a judge when it relates to his personal conduct.
In 2012, when Arvinn Gadgil, state secretary (international development) in Norway’s ministry of foreign affairs, was in India, I had proposed that India’s elected elite should be invited to see how democracy and rule of law works in Norway.
I do not know whether India’s political class travelled to Norway for such a programme. Perhaps, no such exercise or exposure was arranged in the years since then, for there is no indication of any osmotic effect of Indian “political culture” in Norway.
Be you ever so high, the law is above you –remains as true of the Land of the Midnight Sun today as it was when I first went there in 1991.
The author, a journalist writing on foreign and political affairs, is editorial consultant, WION TV. He worked as senior editor/writer with The Times of India & The Tribune in India; and, China Daily & Global Times in Beijing.