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Independent BarentsObserver: between well-being and independence

How survives an independent Norwegian media that writes about the problems of the Barents region, including Russia

Gleb Yarovoy
Gleb Yarovoy
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http://barentsobserver.com/en/society/2015/09/massive-support-barentsobserver-29-09A year ago, the history of confrontation between owners and the creative team of the Norwegian media BarentsObserver resounded all over the Barents Region and beyond. Norwegian media and their Russian colleagues spoke in support of Thomas Nielsen, who was dismissed from the post of chief editor for failing to comply with the restrictions of freedom of speech (read about the support of BO – in Russian and English). Murmansk journalist Alexander Serebryanikov even came with picket to the Norwegian consulate.

Later, the media owners abandoned their decision on dismissal under threat of litigation. But that did not stop journalists: an "old" BarentsObserver – authoritative and popular Internet media about life in the Barents region – has ceased to exist, replaced by a "new" independent, received the name The Independent BarentsObserver.

The correspondent of «7x7» spoke with the editorial board of the "new" BarentsObserver, the first article of which was published in October 2015, and found out what it’s like to be a small independent online media in the vast Barents region.

Office of The Independent BarentsObserver (IBO) is situated a hundred meters from the previous one. From its window you can see the windows of Barents Secretariat, which have been given work space and a stable income to all employees of IBO for several years. On the window of the new office there is a big Russian nevalyashka with the inscription "Try to tip over the freedom of speech ... and see what happened". The doll can be seen from the street, and, if desired, even from the old office windows. However, t is unlikely that someone attempts to do it.


Thomas Nielsen, former chief editor of BarentsObserver and editor in chief of IBO, inviting to enter, says proudly:

We have the smallest media-room in Norway, but the biggest banner with the declaration of the rights and duties of the editor

On the table in the next "meeting room" there are five cut glasses for aromatic morning coffee. Two of them – with cupholders: for guests. Perhaps, people in this office understand the Russian soul better than in many Russian offices.

All employees of the IBO sit down to the table – editor-in-chief Thomas Nilsen, director Atle Staalsen, and journalist Trude Pettersen.

— A year ago I visited you in your previous office, which is just around the corner from your current office. There is a very dramatic story behind this move. What did you take from you previous working place, from your “previous life” to a new place, “new life”?

Thomas Nilsen (TN):

— Oh, very few things. We took the nevalyashka, our mascot. And a few pens. What else… The good spirit, the good ideas. Nothing else.

— What did you leave then?

— We left bad climate; it was the main reason, and the most positive result. And we left, unfortunately, many good colleagues at the Barents Secretariat. But it was the only possible solution of the situation. Looking back from today, we spent exactly zero minutes thinking of our old owners, and we spent a lot of minutes thinking about good journalistic work we left there.

— Do you have any relations with ex-colleagues?

— This is very important to remember that the conflict we had was not with the former colleagues, it was with the owners, the county councils. Kirkenes is a very small town. We meet with the people who are working in the Barents Secretariat. But our best colleagues already left the Secretariat. One of them became a mayor of Kirkenes. He is, by the way, very much support the cooperation with Russia, as he did before.

— When you left the (old) BarentsObserver, this was a big issue, a big scandal. Have the owners changed their approach, their governance principles?

— As I already said, we spent zero minutes thinking about them, and how they reflected on that situation. When I see an article in the local media about the county administrations, I start reading cartoons. [laugh]

Alte Staalsen (AS):

— As you probably know, the former owners of the BarentsObserver tried to sue us for the brand of the “BarentsObserver”. And we still have a letter from them saying that they will sue us. We also get a letter from their layers, a big office in Oslo. This is very much illustrating their approach, and this is illustrating that it hasn’t changed. They know that we own the brand, we’ve got all the rights we need. But they are still trying to keep the issue, and this is a rather frustrating factor for us.


— What are the main changes in your professional life, in your work?


— Today, when we go to work in the morning we know how the day is gonna be. We decide by ourselves. This is the main positive change. There are also negative changes, of course. Now we are in a situation when we don’t have much funding. We need to work hard to get funding. This is what we have to learn.


— Indeed, it is a dramatic change and a great challenge for us. We moved from a very convenient — in technical terms, at least — working place, where we had administrative staff doing the invoices and sorting out many practical things. Now we have to do it by ourselves. This is challenging. As Thomas said, we also have to learn how to earn money. We never doubted that we will make it, this is only a matter of time: when, not if, we will have all those things settled.

— Do you have a development strategy?

— We are now working on several tracks of fundraising right now. We are working on grants applications, with the sponsors, with the crowdfunding. Not everything is equally successful, but it is a step-by-step strategy.

— There are at least several Nordic foundations which support journalists and media. Do you get any support from them?

— Some of them are focused outside the Nordic regions, to Russia and other Eastern European countries. But there are some, which can be used also by us. There is a big foundation in Norway called “Freedom of speech”, it is the biggest private foundation, and they support us. And we are also thinking about the cross-border cooperation media projects, where we will be one of the partners together with our Russian colleagues.


— Relations with the local and regional community is another important aspect of our current life. We’ve got support from the owner of the building where we rent the office for a very low rent price. When the owner has got to know who is renting an office, who we are and what we do, he gave us the second room of this office for free. Local people from Kirkenes come with free coffee. That kind of things are very supportive. However, this doesn’t give us a salary, only a platform to work.

— Have you contacted with the business to ask for the support?


— We have started, but we haven’t done enough yet. We are trying to find a right way to approach those companies. We know a few companies and a few people in those companies, who can potentially be among our supporters, and we even have a fairly good support from one of the local companies. But we need to be more efficient in this respect to attract more support from the business.

— What are the relations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, which was the main, or even the only, sponsor of the previous BarentsObserver?


— We have very good relations with the Norwegian MFA, especially regarding the issues of cooperation with Russia. They consider BarentsObserves as a very important source of expert knowledge about the Barents cooperation. Trude and Atle are not scientists, but very experienced researchers in those issues. We are frequently invited to different meetings with the MFA. But we don’t have any financial support from them now. And since we are in conflict with the county administrations, which are directly involved in distributing the Barents cooperation grants coming from the Barents Secretariat, all our applications were blocked there so far.



— Are there many media in Norway which are running really independently, without permanent support from the state or from the business?

Trude Peterson (TP):

— If you mean the media owned by the journalists, like we are… Yes, there are some, but not any big one. If you have a good enough idea, then it can be sustainable and successful. There are some good examples.

— Good to know. So, what is your main idea, your main focus now? What are the most important things? Has it changed comparing to the last year?

— Well, we are now, in a sense, in a stand-by mode, waiting for all the needed accreditations from Russia. Until we got it, we are mostly reporting from this side of the border. But we are expecting to re-start going to Russia soon, since the main focus of our interest didn’t changed: we are cross-border media interested in everything important happening on the both sides and having a direct or potential cross-border effect.

— Any specific topics right now?

— Well, we have a project supported by the “Freedom of speech” foundation, which is concentrating of civil society coverage and freedom of press. Otherwise everything matters: oil and gas projects in the Arctic, both offshore and onshore, security issues, climate change. We are very interested in travel more, making reports, interviews, videos from the both sides of the border. To talk more with people.

— The “old” BarentsObserver was the only “Barents”-media, covering the stories from the both sides of the border almost equally, promoting the Barents idea, or the Barents identity also in Russia. Do you have any vision for the future of the “new” BarentsObserver?

— Barents region and Barents cooperation is very important for us. As we see it, we don’t have any mission to stimulate Barents identity, but we do have a mission to write about local stories, about local cooperation, about local challenges and problems.

— What about the Russian version of the website, which used to have the “old” BarentsObserver?

— We used to have 30 per cent of readers from Russia, and now only five to six per cent. We are now waiting for funding to open Russian language pages. We’re hoping to get that very very soon. And we also hope to have more cooperation with Russian regional media in the near future.

Articles of The Independent BarentsObserver on their site, Facebook and Twitter.

Gleb Yarovoy, «7x7»


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