Editorial: Norway’s Russian-like tyranny threatens to crush one of Svalbard’s best news sources

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Remember the furor about the Russian deputy PM’s visit (you should since we and lots of other media are still fixated on it)? BarentsObserver made it happen by breaking the story – and now government officials in Norway are stripping the publication of its right to publish without censorship.

It’s the kind of sinister move you’d expect from Vladimir Putin against a newspaper daring to print anything less than laudatory about his increasingly tyrannical presidency. And if it sounds like we’re incensed this is happening to a “rival” that scoops us and Svalbardposten far too many times on major stories, you’re right.

This is the first editorial in Icepeople’s six years of publication, and we’re using it to denounce our own government in the most unequivocal of terms and ask the restriction be immediately rescinded.

Not because of any worries to our self-interest – we’re too insignificant for the government to care what we write, and we’d tell them to go to prosecute and look forward to a rent-free life in one of the world’s most luxurious jails if they made a federal case of it. And just not because of the general principle of freedom of the press, although it’s certainly applicable. But also because it’s totally contradictory to Norway’s status as one of the world’s top role models in terms of its society, economy and political freedoms.

BarentsObserver, for those unfamiliar with it, is a 12-year-old online newspaper based in Kirkenes that is published in English and Russian that is a foremost authority on matters in the border regions of Norway and Russia, including the complex relationship that exists between the two countries in Svalbard. There’s no paywall, and its editorial content is completely objective toward all countries and political interests.

The publication reported on Thursday its owner, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat – whose respective owners are the three northernmost counties in Norway – “approved a proposal prohibiting BarentsObserver from following editorial independence as stipulated in the Rights and Duties of the Editor.” By imposing the ban “the owners clamp down on one of the basic elements in the Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press; Freedom of Information and the Freedom of the Press.”

Nowhere in that article or several others is an explanation provided why the secretariat considers the change necessary or desirable. If anything, subsequent comments from the owner and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry are making even worse impressions as both are denying any censorship is intended or will occur, and the media is misrepresenting the situation.

No, we and the other media organizations objecting to the new policy understand the situation just fine, as should anyone who knows enough not to believe a used car salesman who tells you the fine print on a contract isn’t important.

Except in this case the stakes are far higher, since BarentsObserver is a comprehensive and well-reasoned voice during an increasingly tumultuous period between Norway and Russia. Russia’s media is being largely forced by Putin into a triumphalism reminiscent of Pravda in the Soviet era, resulting in coverage suggesting regions like the east Ukraine and the Arctic belong to the motherland by all but divine right. For Norway to impose restrictions carrying even a whiff of such thinking out of misguided worries about security, patriotism or whatever is a classic case of justifying fighting a monster by becoming a monster.

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