Norwegian Editors: "The West has Been Too Naive in their Relationship with Russia"

Debatt ytringsfrihet Russland. Skjalg Fjellheim, Lars West Johnsen, Thomas Nilsen, Stein Sneve og Anki Gerhardsen.

Debate on freedom of speech and freedom of the press after Russia's invasion of Ukraine with political editor for Nordlys Skjalg Fjellheim, political editor for Dagsavisen Lars West Johnsen, editor for the Barents Observer Thomas Nilsen, commentator for Avisa Nordland Stein Sneve, and Anki Gerhardsen from Barents Press. (Photo: Hilde-Gunn Bye)

The West has been too naive in their relationship with Russia and have not realized that what followed the fall of the wall was an exception as far as Russia was concerned, say a group of Norwegian editors. They are now working on keeping channels of knowledge and information open towards the new iron curtain.

After decades of focus on friendly co-existence and cultural exchange in the Barents region, the war in Ukraine put a stop to almost all Western communication with Russia.

This also applies to the press.

The fact is that freedom of the press is mainly reserved for the Nordic countries. The press index from Reporters Without Borders shows that freedom of press can only be considered good in eight countries. Things have gone from bad to worse in Russia after the war.

The map from Reporters Without Borders shows the terrible conditions of freedom of the press in the world.

"Difficult territory"

Russian independent journalists are fleeing the country for fear of their own safety after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Russian people are therefore at the mercy of president Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine unless they know how to find accurate journalism and truthful information.

The lack of freedom of speech and freedom of press is a challenge that extends beyond the Russian borders as the internet in Russia is regulated and foreign media is blocked.

Accurate information on Russia can be hard to locate and convey even for Nordic press at the moment.

"This is a difficult territory to operate in. How should the press talk about this to normal people?", says commentator for Avisa Nordland, Stein Sneve.

The new iron curtain

He, along with other editors, participated in a debate organized by Nordland Music Festival in Bodø to discuss freedom of speech and freedom of press in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine almost six months ago.

It is a new iron curtain and a totalitarian dictatorship.

Skjalg Fjellheim, political editor in Nordlys

"Where the press previously had an opening in Russian media, there is now a totalitarian system after the invasion. It is dramatic," says Sneve, who is supported by political editor for Nordlys, Skjalg Fjellheim.

"For example, the Russian newspaper Novaja Gazeta was allowed to exist because they are a small paper with a small circulation that spoke to a small group of liberals in Russia. But now the door is completely closed. It is a new iron curtain and a totalitarian dictatorship," says Fjellheim.

He thinks that those who dream of democracy in Russia are dreaming in vain. 

"Russia will not be able to move in a liberal direction", believes Fjellheim.

Maintaining the flow of information

Anki Gerhardsen from Barents Press believes that a part of the solution to the information war is to keep journalists informed even though it is not possible to travel to Russia at the moment.

Stein Sneve og Anki Gerhardsen

Kommentator i Avisa Nordland Stein Sneve og Anki Gerhardsen i Barents Press under en debatt om presse- og ytringsfrihet etter Russlands invasjon av Ukraina, i regi av Musikkfestuka i Bodø. (Foto: Hilde-Gunn Bye)

Stein Sneve, commentator in Avisa Nordland, and Anki Gerhardsen from Barents Press during a debate on freedom of speech and freedom of press organized by Nordland Music Festival. (Photo: Hilde-Gunn Bye)

The press organization managed to bring Russian journalists in exile to a meeting in Finland with other Nordic journalists in May. The meeting took place in silence because of safety concerns and HNN could only publish an interview with Russian exiled journalist Alexey Kuvalyov after the meeting had finished.

"Russian journalists who were active in Barents Press were quick to leave Russia after the war because of threats. Some of those who remain in Russia have been fired after being too critical online. Others create what is considered safe journalism and are scared to be critical considering the safety of their family. That is the most common, because the risk is too great," says Gerhardsen.

She thinks an important part of the battle is to plant seeds in Russian journalists to create some resistance against Putin's propaganda machine.

Need to take a stand

The editorial staff of Thomas Nilsen, the editor in the Barents Observer, is located in Kirkenes and lives close to the neighboring country every day. He says it is difficult to get a good analytical depiction of what is actually happening across the border in Russia, but that it is important to note that we are speaking of a country with other working conditions than the West.

Nilsen believes that it will be possible to continue working as a journalist in Russia if the Russian people take a stand against the power elite.

"But to picture Russia going through a new perestrojka? No, not happening. Not without [the Russian people] taking a stand," believes Nilsen.

Western politics is too controlled and dominated by Russian means.

Lars West Johnsen, political editor in Dagsavisen.

Too controlled by Russia

Political editor for Dagsavisen, Lars West Johnsen, believes it is important to not burn all bridges to Russia.

"When the curtain lifts, we have to rebuild. But that is no reason to be optimistic," says Johnsen, who believes that the West should have reacted more harshly when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

"Western politics is too controlled and dominated by Russian means. Only now do we see what we are dealing with."

Too naive

Johnsen and several of the editors believe that Norway has been too naive in its relationship with Russia.

"The war challenges our understanding of Russia. We who have grown up with the fall of the wall, glasnost og perestrojka has not had enough insight into Russian history and tradition to see that this was an exception in Russia's mindset. The imperialism was always there," comments Skjalg Fjellheim, and adds that the Sovjet Union's last head of state, Mikhail Gorbatsjov, is now considered a traitor to the Russian empire.

"But what is the alternative to being hopeful?"

Skjalg Fjellheim

Politisk redaktør i Nordlys Skjalg Fjellheim under en debatt om presse- og ytringsfrihet etter Russlands invasjon av Ukraina, i regi av Musikkfestuka i Bodø. (Foto: Hilde-Gunn Bye)

Skjalg Fjellheim, political editor for Nordlys. (Photo: Hilde-Gunn Bye)

Holes in the iron curtain

For the Barents Observer, being censored and blocked by Russia is a part of everyday life, and it has been for many years. They have therefore found other methods and channels to penetrate the iron curtain.

"We have received great help in developing systems for publishing and reaching through to Russia. It is entirely possible. It is more nuanced than the idea that Russians do not know anything other than what Putin tells them. Because the information is there," says Nilsen.

He calls it a weakness on the Russian side that the Barents Observer's journalism actually reaches through, but that it is only a matter of time before the holes are sealed.

"They have improved. Our fear is that they will create their own Russian internet and cut ties to the rest of the world's internet. If that happens, we will have to revert back to smuggling in news the old-fashioned way. Even if it is through paper airplanes," the editor chuckles.

The editors agree on one thing; we need to keep working to reach the Russian people.

"We need to keep the runway open," concludes Anki Gerhardsen.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated into English by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.