Journalist denied entry to Russia

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UPDATED: Thomas Nilsen, editor of the highly acclaimed Independent Barents Observer in Kirkenes, seems to have become the latest symbol of tensions between Norway and Russia. Calls are now going out for the Norwegian foreign ministry to demand an explanation from the Russian Embassy in Oslo, as to why Nilsen was stopped at the Russian border on Wednesday while traveling into the country with a delegation from the Danish Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Thomas Nilsen, editor of The Independent Barents Observer, posing with the relaunch of its Russian edition last fall. The Kirkenes-based newssite that specializes in Arctic issues publishes in both English and Russian, after relaunching its Russian version last year with support from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Speculation was already flying that Russian authorities are thus cracking down on a Russian-language news service they can’t control. PHOTO: Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer

Nilsen says he was told he’d been “declared unwanted” by the Russian federal security service FSB. He’s been banned from entering Russia for the next five years.

“I expect (Foreign Minister) Børge Brende to call the Russian ambassador in on the carpet, to clarify why Thomas Nilsen is a threat,” Nils Bøhmer of the environmental organization Bellona, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday. Bellona has had plenty of skirmishes with Russian authorities itself over the years but claimed it was “quite special” that Russia now has resorted to declaring that Nilsen is a threat to its national security. “There must be something behind this,” Bøhmer told NRK.

Nilsen is among the pioneering journalists in Kirkenes who have been covering Arctic issues and relations with Russia for years. He was given no reason for his sudden ban on entry. All Norwegian and Russian residents who, like Nilsen, live within 30 kilometers of the border at Storskogen are supposed to be allowed to travel over it freely.

Nilsen also held a five-year multi-entry journalist visa to Russia, which now has been rendered invalid. He’s basically been declared a threat to Russia’s national security, and Nilsen told NRK that he thinks it’s “very sad that we who have worked for years to spread knowledge over the borders in the north won’t be allowed to do our job in Russia.”

See the Independent Barents Observer’s own account of the ban on Nilsen here (external link).

Nilsen also pointed to the “paradox” of how Moscow otherwise has promoted the Northern Areas and the Arctic as an area for dialogue. Nilsen suspects Russian officials don’t like how the Independent Barents Observer publishes its articles in both English and Russian, using a server that is not in Russia. The newssite relaunched its Russian edition just last fall (external link to The Independent Barents Observer) with support from Norway’s foreign ministry.

Bøhmer of Bellona noted that The Independent Barents Observer, a small operation run by Nilsen and his journalist-business partner Atle Staalesen, has covered important issues in the Norwegian-Russian border area including many related to the environment, “and filled an information vacuum that few others can.” The news service has been lauded for its coverage of Russian activity in the Arctic, oil-drilling plans in the Barents Sea, industrial pollution and problems tied to nuclear power and nuclear waste.

Local Mayor Rune Rafaelsen, who is constantly promoting good relations between Norway and Russia in the Far North, told NRK he was “shocked” that Nilsen was prevented from entering Russia. “Thomas Nilsen and the Barents Observer have been pioneers in the Barents region,” Rafaelsen said, adding that it was “completely wrong” for the Russian authorities to ban him. “Nilsen has been an important brick in building up knowledge on both sides of the border.”

Nilsen is not the first Norwegian to be banned from Russia after tensions have risen following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Entrepreneur Atle Berge was banned last year, and researcher Julie Wilhelmsen of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI was denied entry as well. Two Members of Parliament in Norway were also denied visas last month, but that was in retaliation for Russians denied entry in Europe and the US in line with sanctions against Russia. Officials at the Russian Embassy in Oslo initially claimed they “regretted” how the visal denial prompted all members of the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee to cancel a planned visit to Moscow, but later blasted relations with Norway as “unsatisfactory.”

Norway’s foreign ministry has not yet specified how it will respond to Russia’s ban on Nilsen, but told NRK it regretted that a Norwegian journalist has been denied entry.

“This makes our reporting more difficult,” Nilsen told newsinenglish.no on Thursday afternoon, “but there’s no doubt we will follow our ‘Plan A,’ and that is to continue to report as well as we can about relevant issues in the high north and in Russia. There is no Plan B.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

EDITOR’s NOTE: Newsinenglish.no cooperates with The Independent Barents Observer through link and photo exchanges. We carry a direct link to The Independent Barents Observer’s front page on all our pages, and encourage readers to follow its coverage of issues in the Arctic, Northern Norway and neighbouring Russia.