Rant: Some government people in Norway did a stupid thing and we’ll all be stupider for it


BarentsObserver, one of the best English-language news sites in the polar regions, apparently is taking its final steps toward becoming a government propaganda rag as longtime editor Thomas Nilsen was fired Monday.

For everyone interested in Svalbard, especially those not fluent in Norwegian and wanting information about Russian activities here, this is a very bad thing.

We wrote in May about the tyrannical decision by the paper’s owners – essentially government officials in Norway’s three northernmost counties – to strip the newspaper of its right to publish without censorship. Two remaining editorial staff members, in a press release issued Tuesday, stated “they feel that the owners are doing what they can to destroy them and the news product which they have developed over the last 13 years.”

One of the primary reasons the owners’ actions are so detrimental for those wanting unbiased news about Svalbard is BarentsObserver is in the unique position of having a foot on either side of the Norwegian/Russian border, so to speak. That has allowed it to exclusively report numerous articles about Russian activity here, including the highly publicized and controversial visit by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin this spring.

The newspaper also offers a window into other communities in the region on both sides of the border suffering many of the same economic problems (i.e. sharp downtowns in mining and other industries), exploring some of the same opportunities (i.e. Russia’s efforts to turn Franz Josef Land into the “next Svalbard” for tourists), and the intensifying political feuds between Russia and its Arctic neighbors.

The newspaper’s board of directors is scheduled to meet Oct. 23 to act on a set of recommendations from the owners, including “the website should be organized as a department of the Barents Secretariat with its own permanent staff and a chief editor employed by, and answering to, the Board.”

Nilsen, according to a letter he received from owners’ representative Stig Olsen terminating the editor’s employment immediately, “has acted disloyally to the owners and that he has seriously mismanaged his duties,” according to an article published Monday.

“I have done exactly what is an editor’s duty; standing up for our editorial freedom,” Nilsen told his former employer. “The owners of BarentsObserver decided in spring that the news publication should not have the editorial independence as stipulated in the Norwegian Rights and Duties of the Editor. I criticized that decision publicly, because I strongly believe that politicians should never interfere in journalistic products. I stand up for this freedom, and do not regret having done my job.”

With Russia increasingly clamping down on a free press, the idea of Norwegian government officials doing the same to a newspaper in the border regions is insulting and counterproductive if the owners are hoping the publication will remain something people actually read and are influenced by.

“If BarentsObserver becomes just another mouthpiece for political propaganda, promoting only the news considered ‘useful’ at any time by the Seretariat and its political masters, it will be discredited in the eyes of its readership,” wrote Per Finsaas, a self-employed consultant, in a comment on the newspaper’s Facebook page. “They won’t bother to read it. Perhaps this is the true intention.”