The Barents Observer is an online newspaper that’s published in English and Russian by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS), which is funded by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is under the authority of Norway’s three northernmost counties, Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark. The NBS’s official objective is to promote “good relations with Russia in a region where the two nations cooperate and compete over fishing, oil and military strategy.” The Observer, based in the town of Kirkenes, near Norway’s northern tip, is that country’s most important source of information on the Russian oil and gas industries and the major local news operation in its far north.
Until recently, the editor of the Barents Observer was a man named Thomas Nilsen, who has worked for NBS for thirteen years and served as editor of the Observer for six of those years. According to NRK, the Norwegian national broadcasting corporation, he’s “one of Norway’s leading experts on Russian nuclear security and nuclear submarines.” During these years, Nilsen has written “many critical articles and commentaries about conditions in Russia.”
Inevitably, his work has come under fire from Russian officials. Last year, according to the Guardian, Mikhail Noskov, Russia’s consul-general in the far north of Norway, “made a speech in which he strongly criticised Nilsen’s writing and warned it may damage bilateral relations.” Noskov singled out Nilsen’s reporting about Putin, which he considered disrespectful.
This May, when the newspaper’s staff asked that it be allowed to formally adopt a set of official Norwegian journalistic guidelines known as the Rights and Duties of the Editor, the NBS rejected the request. Nilsen and his colleagues publicly criticized the NBS for this action, which, they said, restricted their ability to engage in the “free exchange of information and opinions.” Their statement continued: “In a time with a repressive press freedom environment in Russia, we find it deeply worrying that the political leaders of northern Norway want to limit Barents Observer’s role as a provider of news and opinions that can be considered critical to crackdowns on democratic voices.”
The ax finally fell on September 28. Charging Nilsen with disloyalty, the NBS’s Stig Olsen fired him, effective immediately. In a press release, Nilsen’s colleagues said they were “shocked and outraged” and charged the Observer‘s owners with “doing what they can to destroy us and the news product which we have developed over the last 13 years.” Olsen refused comment.
Knut Olav Åmås, head of Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation that supports freedom of expression, described Nilsen’s firing as “a sad ending to an affair that we can only hope will not further cool down the climate of free speech in the northern regions….It is the opposite that is needed – more free media in an area where parts of the most important development in Norway will take place in the years to come.”
But Nilsen’s firing wasn’t the end of the story. On October 3, NRK came out with a report that was nothing short of sensational: Nilsen, maintained journalist Tormod Strand, had been fired because the FSB, Russia’s security agency, had “asked Norway’s government to silence the Observer.”
A Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesmen could neither confirm nor deny NRK’s report. Russia’s embassy in Oslo denied the charge. The head of the NSB refused an interview request by the Guardian. So did Noskov. As for Nilsen himself, he told NRK that the very idea was hard to wrap his mind around, but “if there is a connection here, that somebody on the Norwegian side has yielded to pressure, then the whole case is much more serious” than he’d thought.
Surprised though he was, Nilsen didn’t consider it unlikely that Norwegian officials might have kowtowed to Putin. Because of Norway’s reliance on North Sea oil, he told the Guardian, the Oslo government is obsessed with maintaining good relations with the Kremlin, despite the European Union’s Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. The Norwegian government’s mantra when it comes to the Arctic, he said, is “high north, low tension.”
Meanwhile Geir Ramnefjell, culture editor of the newspaper Dagbladet, pointed out that this scandal came along at a time when the Kremlin had been complaining about a Norwegian miniseries, Occupied, which was about to begin airing on Norway’s TV2. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow claimed that the show’s premise – Russia, in the near future, invades Norway and seizes its oil fields – is ridiculous and offensive, bringing to mind the hatreds and suspicions of the Cold War and having no basis whatsoever in the reality of today’s Russia.