Arctic

Media & the Arctic: What happened at Barents Observer?

Note to Readers: The Barents Observer has been part of the Eye on the Arctic circumpolar news cooperation project since 2014. As some of you may have noticed, the Barents Observer byline stopped appearing on Eye on the Arctic this fall when questions around Barents Observer's editorial independence began circulating after the firing of editor Thomas Nilsen. Since then, we have been unable to get clarification from the Barents Secretariat, who owns Barents Observer, on whether the Barents Observer would continue as an independent news organization or not. The Barents Observer is no longer an Eye on the Arctic partner.

Since it began in 2002 in its first incarnation as Barents News, the Barents Observer punched above its weight.

Based in the small Arctic Norwegian city of Kirkenes and with just a handful of staff, barentsobserver.com quickly became a must-visit site for those working in or interested in the North.

The news site is owned by the Barents Secretariat, made up of the three northernmost Norwegian counties: Nordland, Troms and Finnmark, as a way to help the public better understand the cross-border issues facing northern Norway and Russia.

They also published in English and Russian so the stories were accessible to the widest international readership possible.

It was an unusual setup, but one that worked for a long time.

By the end of 2014 the Barents Observer was an undisputed Arctic success story, increasing its influence and social media community each year, covering everything from environment and military stories to press freedom issues like the case of Russia's Blogger51.

But then this year, Barents Observer suffered a huge public meltdown. It's something that nobody, let alone the former staff, still fully understands.

Until this spring, journalist Thomas Nilsen, the then-Barents-Observer editor, describes the news site as a dream assignment -- doing important work in an important part of the world with the latitude to pursue the stories they felt were important whether it was pollution in Murmansk Oblast or Russia's invasion of Crimea.

"We never had any interference in our reporting," he said in an interview over the phone from Kirkenes, Norway. "We had always had editorial freedom just like any other media in Norway and the rest of Europe."

But things changed once the Barents Observer team wanted to do more on-the-ground reporting in Russia, Nilsen said.

He approached the Barents Secretariat to adopt the Basic Principles of the Editor, a declaration in Norway that separates editorial staff from outside influence and would have allowed the Barents Observer team to get journalist visas and accreditation for Russia. Something he felt would allow them to report from the Russian Arctic with more protection.

But their request was denied by the Barents Secretariat.

"Surprisingly, our owners decided that we would not be allowed to edit our Barents Observer freely," Nilsen said. "And well, I felt I just had to inform my readers."

Nilsen posted a story on the Barents Observer describing what had happened. The story was picked up by media across Norway.

Shortly afterwards, Stig Olsen, head of the board of the Barents Secretariat told Nilsen he was being disloyal to the owners and to keep his criticisms in-house.

In September, Nilsen was again called into the office. But this time, he was fired.

"It took five minutes," Nilsen said. "He continued his arguments that I had been disloyal to the owners and because of that I couldn't continue as editor. I had to take my papers and leave the office the very same day."

"Relations between Norway and Russia in the North is tense at the moment and Barents Observer is in that bigger picture," says investigative journalist Tormod Strand.

Nilsen's firing caused a social media storm in Norway and was covered extensively across the country.

But the scandal intensified further after Tormod Strand, an investigative TV reporter with Norway's public broadcaster NRK, broke the story that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) had signalled to a Norwegian official that the Barents Observer "had to be silenced" because the Barents Observer "damaged the relations between Norway and Russia."

"Barents Observer was writing things that the Russians didn't like," Strand said in a telephone interview from his office in Oslo. "This message was brought to (Norwegian) politicians in the North.

"We don't know if that had something to do with the fact that the board at the Barents Secretariat didn't apply this (journalistic) code of ethics for Barents Observer and that the editor of Barents Observer was also sacked. But one can, of course, have a suspicion that there is a connection."

For more details on what's behind the Barents Observer meltdown and some of the wider Norwegian -- Russian issues the controversy has brought up, Eye on the Arctic spoke with Tormod Strand (mp3), the investigative TV journalist with Norway's public broadcaster NRK, who broke the the story about possible Russian involvement in Thomas Nilsen's dismissal.

The Barents Secretariat has not publicly addressed the specific issues around Nilsen's firing and possible Russian influence on their decision.

Eye on the Arctic made repeated email and telephone requests to the Barents Secretariat for comment during the reporting of this story.

Earlier this month, Anja Salo, head of communications for the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, said the head of the Secretariat's board, Stig Olsen, would make himself available for a pre-recorded interview with Eye on the Arctic about the circumstances around Thomas Nilsen's firing and the future of the Barents Observer site.

However, subsequent emails and calls to Ms. Salo and Mr. Olsen to confirm an interview time have gone unanswered.

Nilsen later received compensation for wrongful dismissal. Now, him and his former colleagues from the Barents Observer, Atle Staalesen and Trude Pettersen, have gone on to found the Independent Barents Observer.

The new crowd-funded site is devoted to coverage of the Barents Arctic and just celebrated its one-month anniversary.

However, tensions with the Barents Secretariat remain as it is threatening legal action against the Independent Barents Observer over the name of the new news site.

For some northern experts, the Barents Observer implosion is a symptom of the wider tensions between Norway and Russia over everything from western sanctions to the influx of refugees crossing the Arctic Norwegian border from Russia.

"This couldn't have happened in Oslo or Bergen,"said Geir Flikke, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo, speaking of the firing of Thomas Nilsen in a recent phone interview. "I'm deeply concerned. If this is an expression of increased Russian influence on Norway then it is even more worrisome."

Flikke has circulated a petition among universities both in Norway and abroad to support the Independent Barents Observer and calling for the Barents Secretariat to stop putting pressure on the journalists -- including the legal threats over the domain name.

"I don't think that the Secretariat should try to limit the journalists or use the courts against them in any way," he said. "It's clearly completely out of line with contemporary Norwegian political culture."

In the meantime, Nilsen and his team are working out of a small room he describes has having little more than "a coffee machine and two computers."

And despite pressures from their former employer and the chance that their work caught the attention of Russia's FSB, Nilsen and his team say they are more committed more than ever to reporting on Arctic stories important to the Barents Region.

"We are independent, we do what we want," Nilsen said.

"We report from the Arctic. We are online and no one can stop us."

For more details on what happened at Barents Observer, what it means for press freedom in Norway and where the Independent Barents Observer goes from here, Eye on the Arctic reached Thomas Nilsen in Kirkenes, Norway for this interview (mp3).

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch News as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

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