Thomas Nilsen: Reporting on Russia-Norway Relations

Political tensions are rising between the two Arctic nations following E.U. sanctions. That presents even greater challenges to reporters covering the vast border region. Can a small startup news site stand a chance? Thomas Nilsen, one of the editors of the Independent Barents Observer, says it can.

Written bySamia Madwar Published on Mar. 10, 2016 Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Six months ago, Thomas Nilsen, Trude Pettersen and Atle Staalesen resigned from their positions as editors of the Barents Observer. The online news site, based in Kirkenes in northern Norway, had operated with full editorial independence for 13 years, covering the region bordering the Barents Sea.

In September 2015, the board of the Barents Secretariat, the organization that owned the Barents Observer, declared the site would no longer publish reported news. From then on, it would only produce preapproved content.

The editors chose to establish their own news site instead, with full editorial independence. “We have an 11-square-meter newsroom. It’s the smallest newsroom in Norway,” said Nilsen. “But we do have Norway’s biggest printed declaration of editorial freedom, two and a half meters, hanging on the wall.” Through various grants, sponsors and a bit of crowdfunding, the Independent Barents Observer has since continued the role of its predecessor – but with a few added challenges.

Arctic Deeply: Much of your coverage focuses on Russia. Why is that?

Thomas Nilsen: First of all, because what happens in Russia has a big influence on the Northern region. And secondly, we would like to be a newspaper that [projects] the voices of those who don’t easily get into Russian media – civil society groups, etc.

What is sad is that we do not have the Russian pages up and running yet [on the website]. That is a financial question, and our number one goal in the near future is to raise enough funding to have the Russian pages online. Russian readers accounted for one-third of all readers in the statistics of the old Barents Observer. Today, they account for less than 4 percent, and that shows how very important it is to also publish in Russian.

Arctic Deeply: What are your biggest reporting challenges?

Thomas Nilsen: Our lack of funding makes it difficult for us to travel. The Barents region [covers] a very big distance. It’s quite expensive to travel around, and with the little funding we have now, we do have to concentrate on doing newswire stuff and stick to the very local neighborhood.

Arctic Deeply: How would you describe Russia’s current relationship with Norway?

Thomas Nilsen: The relations across the borders up here are not as friendly as they were a few years back. Norway is a NATO member. Norway is following the European Union on the current sanctions regime against Russia. So on a political state-to-state level, things are a bit colder. But people-to-people contacts across the borders are developing more or less the same way they have been over the last 20 years, in a good way. Normal people, they try to ignore the disputes between Moscow and Oslo. They have friends, they have businesses, they have relatives across the border, so much of that contact is still going on.

Arctic Deeply: Are those tensions introducing challenges to reporting in Russia?

Thomas Nilsen: It is not as easy to be a reporter in Russia today as it used to be. I would say that for us as foreigners, it is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is for those living in Russia. But of course [even for us] it is difficult to go to the governor’s office in Murmansk, knock on the door, and ask for an interview. That was easier before.

Arctic Deeply: Are there more barriers now?

Thomas Nilsen: Russia is a more centralized country today than it used to be. People that we could interview freely on the regional level before now say, “We can talk, but off the record.” Or, “We can talk, but first I need approval from Moscow, and that will take five weeks.”

Arctic Deeply: What stories are you covering that you think should be getting more international attention?

Thomas Nilsen: Over the last six months, the refugee situation in Europe has also entered this remote corner of the world, with refugees from many different countries, not only from Syria and the Middle East, but North Africa and Central Asia, using the so-called “Arctic route” to enter Europe. Now, it looks like that is closed both in Norway and in northern Finland. That is a story that has created a lot of international attention.

In addition to that is climate change. We can see that as soon as we write about climate change, the number of readers goes up.

Such kinds of situations are important for us to cover. We are here, we are sitting on the border, and we can follow the tracks of the border relations much better than those journalists who fly in, take photos of refugees bicycling across the border, and then leave again. Or those reporters who just go up to the Arctic for a story ahead of the Paris climate change meeting and go back.

Arctic Deeply: What are some common mistakes you see in other media outlets when it comes to reporting on the Arctic?

Thomas Nilsen: When it comes to the refugee situation, the major focus has been on how [the refugees] are bicycling across the border. There are only 300 meters (900 feet) between the border checkpoints between Russia and Norway. The refugees are not actually bicycling in the Arctic; you can get that kind of impression when you read the New York Times or the International Herald Tribune or the BBC. That is a common mistake; it’s more complicated than that.

Secondly, the Arctic is a populated area. There are a lot of people living here, and they’ve been doing so for a long time. An important thing for us is to present the people who live here, the consequences for them in terms of what is going on in the exploration of natural resources or climate change or the refugee situation and so on.

Arctic Deeply: What developing stories in the Barents region should we be keeping an eye on?

Thomas Nilsen: International shipping is a result of climate change. When the ice disappears, the big industry of shipping moves here. That is a risky business, and accidents do happen. Also, the geopolitical situation of Russia’s militarization of the Kola Peninsula is something all of us should keep an eye on.

If you’d asked me three years ago, I would have said that there would be a lot of drilling for oil and gas in the area, but that has disappeared together with the fall and collapse of oil prices. So right now there is close to zero interest in exploration of offshore oil in the northern seas.

Arctic Deeply: Has anything replaced that interest?

Thomas Nilsen: Oh yeah, absolutely. The biggest growing business in this part of Europe right now is tourism. Busloads and busloads of Asian tourists are coming from the airport. The snow hotel in Kirkenes and other places in this area are [very busy], and it’s a very profitable business. It’s the fastest growing industry for the time being. People want snow, and when the snow melts away in Europe, there is one place they can find it, and that is up here by the coast of the Barents Sea.

Samia Madwar worked as a reporting intern at the Barents Observer for one month in 2011 as a recipient of the Norwegian High North Journalism Award.

Top image: When the board that owned the Barents Observer, stopped publishing reported news, editors Atle Staalesen (left), Trude Pettersen (middle) and Thomas Nilsen (right) resigned and launched their own news site: the Independent Barents Observer. (Susanne Hætta)