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Cold War of Words: the Barents Observer Editor Barred from Russia

Thomas Nilsen, the editor of Norway’s Barents Observer, recently learned he has been barred from entering Russia. He vows that won’t stop his widely read Arctic publication from covering tough issues across the border.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Thomas Nilsen, editor of the Barents Observer, stands at the top of a Russian border control tower along the border to Norway. Nilsen was recently barred by Russia from entering the country.Photo Courtesy Thomas Nilsen

In early March, journalist Thomas Nilsen arrived at the Norwegian-Russian border like he had done hundreds of times before, ready to embark on yet another routine reporting trip.

Nilsen has served as the editor of the Barents Observer, a widely read online Arctic news site based in Kirkenes, Norway, since 2009. But this time, upon showing his passport, he was barred from entering the country, due to being declared a threat to state security.

In March 2016, Arctic Deeply spoke with Nilsen about Russia-Norway relations and the obstacles the reporting team had encountered, namely, attacks on editorial independence that led Nilsen and other editors to leave and reestablish as The Independent Barents Observer. At the time, Nilsen was still reporting from Russia at least once a month.

Following the most recent development, Arctic Deeply caught up with Nilsen once more to discuss the rising tensions that could leave more journalists out in the cold.

Arctic Deeply: What happened at the border last month?

Nilsen: I was on my way to Murmansk, where we frequently travel for reporting. This time I was traveling together with a group of parliamentarians from Denmark – a standing committee on foreign affairs from the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen. They were on a study tour, first to Murmansk, and then they were to continue down to Moscow. I traveled with them to do a story on their visit to Russia – that was important, of course, because this was the first time in three years that a group of politicians from Denmark had traveled to Russia. I was interested in why they traveled to the Arctic part of Russia first; that was because Russia had always said the Arctic is the territory of dialogue. So after three years of a freeze in political contact between Denmark and Russia, it was a good opening to go to the North. I was also traveling with them because I was supposed to guide them on the tour – I’ve driven the route between our town, Kirkenes, and Murmansk many hundreds of times.

I was coming to the border checkpoint and I lined up in the queue for passport control on the Russian side. I showed my passport and they started as normal. But then there was probably some sort of message on the screen that said, “This person must be taken aside.” I was taken aside by the passport control officer, and he asked me to wait for some few minutes. I waited for 10 minutes, and then I was invited into an office at the border checkpoint, and there were a few other officers with stars and so on. In a very polite way, they told me that I’m not allowed to enter Russia for reasons of state security.

I asked, “Why is this?” and they said they didn’t know. I believed them. And then I was returned home.

Arctic Deeply: Did this come as a surprise to you? There has been conflict between Russia and Norway in the past few years leading up to this.

Nilsen: Yes, this was a surprise. It was a surprise that I, as a journalist, was not allowed to enter Russia. With that said, for the Barents Observer working in this border region between Norway and Russia, we have been in bumpy situations before. Our job has not always been easy. We had a situation in 2015 where some of the politicians in this region tried to stop our editorial independence. They did not succeed. We later heard that FSB, the Russian security service, had been asking some Norwegian officials to stop the Barents Observer. So we knew the Barents Observer was controversial among FSB officers.

Arctic Deeply: What were some of the contentious stories you were covering in Russia prior to this incident? Do you think there was a flashpoint story?

Nilsen: It’s important to say that we don’t know the reason. There has not been any explanation. The only thing they said in a press release from the Russian Embassy in Norway is that this is a retaliation [for] Norway’s sanction list against Russia. Norway’s list of people not allowed to enter is from the European Union – a list of people in Russia who have been directly involved in the current war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. But the Russians have not explained what the background is for naming the Europeans and Norwegians on their list, including me.

We are doing exactly what journalists are supposed to do. Up here in the Arctic, we cover businesses, culture, environmental issues, cross-border relations, political relations, security and military. It’s a wide range of issues, so exactly what kind of articles have provoked FSB to try to stop us, we do not know. I think what makes us different from other media is that we are publishing in the Russian language.

After the situation in 2015, when they tried to stop our editorial freedom, we broke out and reestablished as the Independent Barents Observer, owned by the journalists working here. When we broke out, we also lost our funding, so we couldn’t afford to publish in the Russian language for nearly one year. Now we have got funding again from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to re-establish the Russian version, which began in October 2016. We are not at all back to the level of Russian readership we had before, but we are steadily growing. We went from four percent of our readers coming from Russia, and now we are up to around 15 percent. It has been a sharp increase over the last few months. And it will continue to increase. The Barents Observer is quite well known in northwest Russia. We do have many, many readers. And many of our Russian articles are republished in other media in Russia.

Arctic Deeply: The Arctic has often been praised by policy makers and scientists as one key area of cooperation and collaboration in an otherwise high-tension political arena. How does this change things?

Nilsen: Norway and Russia are quite cold for the time being, and it has been so since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But hopefully Norway and Russia will reestablish political contact. The Norwegian minister of foreign affairs was in Arkhangelsk, Russia, two weeks ago. The hope is that it could be a better dialogue up here than it has been over the last three years. But what kind of dialogue can you have when not everyone can participate? Trying to keep out journalists from the Arctic dialogue is not exactly building trust and good relations.

Arctic Deeply: What is the importance of free press in the Arctic?

Free press is of the utmost importance in any society, especially in times of political chilly winds and a cold climate between countries. Journalism is the one way to open the doors, spread information and learn what is happening in different countries in the High North. Journalism plays a vital role in building cross-border relations in the Arctic. The Arctic is an area of big climate change and big money coming in for investment in natural resources, so it is more important than ever to bring journalists on board the voyage to new frontiers – if we can call the melting ice an opening of new frontiers.

Arctic Deeply: How do you foresee this affecting your coverage of Russia in the future?

It is sad for me that I cannot travel to Russia to report. Cross-border journalism in the Arctic and northern part of Russia is about being there to tell the story from two sides.

With that said, FSB can stop a journalist – but they can’t stop the Barents Observer. Barents Observer will continue to report. We will do a brilliant job. There are so many highly interesting things to write about in this border region of the European Arctic. There are so many good stories to be told about people’s lives and cross-border cooperation. There is so much exciting news to cover that we will never be unemployed.

I have a brilliant colleague who doesn’t have any restrictions. He can cross the border as he wants. I have Skype, a mobile telephone, email and a fantastic network of contacts and friends in Russia. For me, personally, it will be more difficult, not impossible. But the Barents Observer will continue to do great reporting from this region.

Arctic Deeply: When your story came out a few weeks ago, some of the comments online said things like, “Well, at least he’s alive.” How do you respond to those?

Nilsen: What’s happening to me is nothing. I’m just banned from traveling. My really big concern is the situation for Russian journalists working domestically. They have a much harder time than any of us in Europe or North America. I’m not concerned about myself at all. But I’m really concerned about the future of independent media in Russia.

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