The chapel at Oslo’s large Vestre Gravlund cemetery was packed on Monday for the funeral of Jahn Otto Johansen, dubbed by newspaper Aftenposten as “one of the 20th century’s most important Norwegian journalists.” Johansen died on New Year’s Day at the age of 83, after an “intense” career that never ended, and illness that caught up with him.
Johansen was a fixture for many years on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), where he served as foreign editor and as NRK’s correspondent himself in Moscow, Washington DC and Berlin, the latter a post he held until as late as 2000. He also served as editor-in-chief of newspaper Dagbladet for seven years, until 1984.
Not only was he said to have an “elevated” writing style, and quick to let his opinions be known, he was also a highly social person with a love for good food and drink. In addition to all his high-ranking and highly visible media positions, he wrote scores of books on topics ranging from historic political conflicts and foreign policy to the Middle East, antisemitism, Jewish culture and even lutefisk. He loved the unusual dish of codfish soaked in lye, and was one of lutefiskens biggest fans.
He also wrote a three-volume series based on his own memoirs that was published between 1999 and 2001. His more international topics were translated into several languages including Finnish, Danish, Swedish, English, German, Czech and Serbo-Croation. He became a professor at the University of Oslo and headed a long string of organizations from the Artists’ Association (Kunstnerforening) in Oslo to the Heyerdahl Institute and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Academy.
Johansen was born on May 3, 1934 in Porsgrunn, rising from humble beginnings and, by his own account, a troubled childhood to get his first jobs in journalism at Porsgrunns Dagblad and Varden, local newspapers in his home county of Telemark. He started working at NRK in 1966 and became one of the national broadcaster’s biggest stars.
‘Revolutionized’ foreign reporting
“He was a marked profile, one of those whom people in Norway relied upon the most and learned the most from,” NRK’s current chief, Thor Gjermund Eriksen, said at Johansen’s funeral. Instead of sitting safely in his office and relating what officials said and local media wrote, Johansen broke ground by venturing into the streets and getting “ordinary people” to speak with him. Eriksen made a point of stressing that Johansen “spoke with and not to people.” He studied geography and ethnology, along with Russian, and had a special interest in Eastern Europe. He’s credited with “revolutionizing” the foreign correspondent’s role in Norway.
“He was a formidable foreign correspondent and foreign editor himself, perhaps one of the biggest,” said NRK’s current foreign editor, Knut Magnus Berge. “But he was also a generous colleague who encouraged everyone.” His son Per Anders Johansen now serves as newspaper Aftenposten’s correspondent in Moscow, while his daughter-in-law Ida Grieg Risnæs is a highly respected journalist at newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
Stoltenberg paid his respects
Among those attending Johansen’s funeral was former Norwegian foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg, father of former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg who’s now secretary general of NATO. The elder Stoltenberg told NRK that he and Johansen had spoken together just two days before he died.
Also in attendance was Ervin Kohn, leader of the Jewish community in Norway, who greatly appreciated Johansen’s books about Jewish culture and antisemitism. “Jahn Otto Johansen contributed towards bringing attention to vulnerable groups,” Kohn told NRK. “He wrote school books about Jews and Roma folk right up until recent years.”
Aftenposten’s longtime editor Harald Stanghelle wrote how Johansen “thought quickly, wrote nearly as quickly but lived even more quickly.” That’s how he found time for all his books, columns, TV, radio and other projects, along with being an avid fisherman who loved women and parties. “I’ve never said ‘no’ to a beautiful woman or a good cigar,” he was often quoted as saying. Perhaps not politially correct now, but it created a myth around Johansen that, along with his brilliant career, will long outlive him. He’s survived by his wife Siv Kirsten from Skåne in Sweden, whom he met in Berlin in 1963 and whom Stanghelle suggested he would have been lost without, plus five children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.