5th Jul 2022

Norwegian news agency fights Russia blackout

  • Sami village of Teriberka, in the Kola Peninsula in north-west Russia, near the Norwegian border (Photo: Ninara)

A story about a gay man who beat depression has seen a Norwegian news website taken offline for well over a year in Russia.

The Norwegians and a Russian NGO are fighting the blockade in court, but they face an uphill struggle, as the differences between Europe and the Russian regime deepen.

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The offending article told how Dan Eriksson, a Swedish man from the Sami ethnic minority, had faced so much prejudice he became suicidal before he came to terms with his sexuality and turned his life around.

It was "a very nice, sunshine story about a happy young man who overcame lots of problems," according to Atle Staalesen, the publisher of The Barents Observer, the Norwegian news agency which ran the original article in January 2019.

But Russia's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, did not agree.

The interview "propagated suicide", it claimed, ordering The Barents Observer to pull it within 24 hours.

When the Norwegians did not comply, their news agency went offline in Russia.

And it has stayed offline there more than a year later, after losing two Russian court cases, including one on 27 August, against its ban.

For the Norwegian publisher, Russia used the Sami story as a pretext to silence independent reporting.

The Barents Observer, which is based in Kirkenes, northern Norway, near the Finnish and Russian borders, publishes news in English and Russian and used to have about 300,000 readers a year in Russia.

"We suspect Russia wanted to shut us down because we are one of the few news agencies in Scandinavia and northern Europe that publishes in Russian," Staalesen told EUobserver on Tuesday (2 September).

The Barents Observer already had problems with Russia in the past, he noted.

Russian authorities had asked Norwegian ones to close it down back when it used to be linked to a Norwegian institute, Staalesen said.

And Russia had imposed a visa-ban on one of its former editors, Thomas Nielsen, Staalesen added.

But even if the Sami story was a pretext, there was also something about it that irked official Russian sensibility.

Modern Russia does not like positive stories about gay men or stories about the rights of the Sami, a stateless people scattered across the region, including in Russia, Stephania Kulaeva, the director of ADC Memorial, a Brussels-based NGO, told EUobserver.

"I think the LGBTI content played an important role ... the article touched on a number of issues they [Russian authorities] didn't like," she said.

Her NGO, which has Russian roots, gives legal aid and other support to people in need from ethnic minorities in Russia.

ADC Memorial receives some funds from a Swedish development agency called Sida.

And the NGO was now paying for The Barents Observer's legal campaign because Russians from sexual and ethnic minorities needed access to positive stories, such as the Sami article, which gave people "hope", Kulaeva said.

For its part, The Barents Observer had little trust in obtaining justice in Russia, Staalesen said.

But it would take its fight all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, if need be in order to raise awareness, he said.

"Quite a few media in Russia are under tremendous strain and dealing with a far more difficult situation than we are, so we hope our case can shine light on the bigger picture," Staalesen told EUobserver.

When contacted by this website, the Russian foreign ministry forwarded a report by Russian news agency Tass, which claimed that Roskomnadzor had blocked just one page of the Norwegian news agency's website.

But Staalesen said the Tass report was false.

"Unfortunately, the [Russian] press attaché, like the author of the Tass story, is wrong. The whole site is blocked in Russia, unless it has been reopened now in the last few days without our notice," Staalesen said.

Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor's ban was leaky because Russians can use so-called VPN software to bypass it or go to an alternative domain to read The Barents Observer anyway, he said.

Bigger picture

But what happened to the Norwegian news agency was part of a wider trend in Russia, the Paris-based press-freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) indicated.

Russia's media regulator has, in recent years, blocked more than 490,000 websites, often "without warning and without respecting legal procedure", RSF said in a study last November.

Roskomnadzor's targets included news agencies such as Ferghana, investigative websites such as Listok and Grani.ru, political magazines such as ej.ru and mbk.new, as well as environmental activists, and others.

Russia also blocked platforms and apps that refused to store data on Russian servers or declined to give authorities the keys to decrypt messages, RSF said.

The information gulf in Europe was on show in RSF's 2020 press-freedom ranking, which put Norway in first place out of 180 countries worldwide and Russia in 149th place.

Nearby Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, and Sweden also ranked highly.

But a Russian "sovereign internet law", which entered into force last year, would make it even easier for authorities to black out real news, deepening the European divide, RSF warned.

"Ten years ago, the virtual space in Russia was still a place where lively debates about problems in society and politics unfolded. In the future, it is planned to be censored and surveilled centrally," last November's RSF report said.


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