Norway’s Culture Minister, Thorhild Widvey, may have to answer to a parliamentary committee over accusations of interfering with freedom of speech. On Friday the Conservative Party (Høyre) Minister admitted she regrets having personally called the Chairman of the Museums in Sør-Trøndelag (MIST), after the Trondheim Museum of Art’s outgoing director described the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) as a nationalistic and dangerous political group.
The controversy started when director Pontus Kyander, who is leaving the position at the Art Museum (Trondheim Kunstmuseum), wrote in the spring program that “Nationalist parties – like the Progress Party – are dangerous; they belittle concepts like human common sense, human rights and equality.” The program’s theme is on the bicentenary of Norway’s constitution, nations and nationalism, wrote newspapers Aftenposten and Adresseavisen.
Widvey told Aftenposten she discovered the MIST chairman was Rasmus Brodtkorb, the brother of State Secretary Julie Brodtkorb. She said she got his number, and called for more information on the matter. “I had no intentions of instructing Rasmus Brodtkorb politically,” she justified. “It is not unusual for a minister to call a chairman to obtain information about what’s going on – it’s a conversation at an appropriate level. I would never have thought of calling the director of the museum directly.”
Suzette Paasche, the MIST director sent a text message to Kyander after Widvey’s call. “Hi, don’t know what you’ve done, but now you’ve managed to start a hell of a racket,” Paasche wrote, explaining that the minister had called the chairman and she’d taken a call from the Culture Department. “It appears that you have called the FrP a nationalist party. And it’s coming in print tomorrow. I thought we agreed that you should avoid this until you quit. You get this on your CV and it doesn’t rightly help to strengthen the museum. Unnecessary! ”
Political and artistic backlash
The strongest reactions this week have not been over what Kyander wrote, but over Widvey’s personal involvement and whether it stifled free speech. Per Sandberg, deputy leader of the Progress Party, said it was unacceptable for Widvey to step in. “I am annoyed, because the Culture Minister has ruined the whole case,” he told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Now I’ve missed the opportunity to meet Kyander in a debate, because the case has taken a whole other focus.”
Sandberg denied a comment by the Culture Department that Widvey had made the call because the FrP wanted more information on the case. He said their communications manager had contacted the Department for information about the museum’s ownership structure, not to prompt the Minister to call anyone.
Others in the arts wanted to know exactly what was said in the phone conversation. “I believe it’s generally problematic to use a position to set guidelines, if that is what she has done,” said Karin Hindsbo, director of the art museums in Bergen (KODE). “But the cultural institution also has an obligation to ensure the quality of what they release into the public domain.”
“It seems a little clumsy from the political leader to take direct contact in the case,” said Audun Eckhoff, director of the National Museum (Nasjonalmuseet) in Oslo. “It can easily be interpreted as a political intervention in the freedom of expression and cultural institutions’ control over their own operations.”
Widvey hasn’t disclosed exactly what passed between her and Brodtkorb, but told Aftenposten her intention was to get the facts she needed in order to prepare for questions from journalists and politicians on the matter. She said she called Brodtkorb directly “because she’s a spontaneous person who talks to people.”
“When I see how this case has developed, and I’ve been accused of trying to limit freedom of expression, I see that I maybe shouldn’t have made the call,” she told Dagsavisen.
May face committee
Socialist Left (Sentralistisk Venstreparti, SV) politician from Sør-Trøndelag, Snorre Valen wants Widvey to explain before parliament how strongly you can speak about a government party before she feels she can step in. “It is the courts that set the limits of free speech,” he said. “The Culture Minister shows a lack of basic understanding of the roles.”
The SV representative in the Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Karin Andersen, said she’ll bring the case before the committee for further investigation. Committee chair Martin Kolberg from the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) agreed. “A minister should not under any circumstances engage in this way, creating fear,” Kolberg said. “It goes against the Constitution’s rulings on freedom of speech.” The Greens (Miljøpartiet de Grønne) also supported the calls.
The Conservative and Centre parties don’t see any reason for the case to go before the committee. The Liberals’ (Venstre) Abid Raja said he’d look further into the case before commenting, but said as a general rule every “clumsy and foolish” action by a minister is not an issue for the committee.