Foreign minister backs website’s independence

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Norway’s foreign ministry, which finances the operations of the Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes that owns the website BarentsObserver, has grown weary of an editorial conflict between the two. Foreign Minister Børge Brende himself has now sent a message to the secretariat, all but ordering it to allow the website to function independently and in accordance with established journalistic principles in Norway.

Brende’s message to the Barents Secretariat, which in turn is owned by Norway’s three northern counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark, should have been unnecessary, but the conflict led to the secretariat firing the BarentsObserver’s editor, Thomas Nilsen, last week (external link). Nilsen, one of Norway’s foremost experts on Russian atomic security and nuclear submarines, was nonetheless accused of disloyalty after he had insisted on reporting, writing and editing the publication independently and uncensored.

The publication has long been a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities because of its critical coverage. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) had reported that Russian intelligence authorities had asked Norwegian authorities to silence the website, because its content allegedly harmed relations between Norway and Russia. Regional politicians who sit on the board of the secretariat, and are keen to maintain good relations with neighbouring Russia, backed Nilsen’s dismissal.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Wednesday that Brende has entered the fray, and sent a clear message to the Barents Secretariat’s board, also telling NRK that the ministry wanted to settle the dispute and had “asked the board to take the necessary initiative to do so. We also ask that the BarentsObserver’s free and independent voice be re-established and formalized under redaktørplakaten (which spells out the duties of an independent editor in Norway) for this website.” Nilsen and the BarentsObserver have also received strong support from journalists and press associations in Norway and abroad.

Stig Olsen, leader of the secretariat’s board, told NRK that the board was working to reinstall a good working environment at the BarentsObserver and was likely to free up the website to operate under the standard editorial principles. It remained unclear whether Nilsen might return as editor of the staff that has carried on in his absence, withholding bylines in a show of solidarity with him.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund