Blank Spots in the Barents Region
Environmental journalism in a challenging climate
The northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia have much in common.
They are rich in natural resources and their respective capitals lie far to the south.
There are forests in the north. And ore. And oil. This attracts large corporations and creates wealth, but with extraction comes environmental risks.
Around the Barents Sea, journalism is often nature’s last line of defence. But how is environmental journalism coping with a climate that is becoming ever more challenging?
On 24 November, 2021, the oil barge MN-4001 ran aground off Russia’s Vaygach Island. A winter storm raged in the southeastern part of the Barents Sea. The compact darkness of the polar night made navigation difficult.
On board the barge were 7,000 tonnes of diesel. Had the oil leaked into the sensitive Arctic marine environment, it would have caused large-scale ecological devastation.
How did the outside world react to this news? It didn’t react at all, because the outside world wasn’t told about the incident until two months later that the news site The Barents Observer, based in Kirkenes in northern Norway, was able to reveal how close the Arctic had come to an environmental disaster.
The editors came across the news by accident. After covering up the incident until MN-4001 had been towed into port, the Russian transport agency Rosmorrechflot published an update on the grounding.
“So, the information that the Arctic is facing a gigantic oil disaster only comes out after two months, and then it comes out by chance,” said Thomas Nilsen, editor-in-chief and reporter at The Barents Observer.
“But all went well,” he added.
In the end, disaster was averted. Is the cover-up still cause for concern? Maybe not for the environment, at least not in the here and now, but definitely for democracy.
A critical component of democracy is that people have a right to information about things that concern them. One of the core missions of journalism is to provide this information, especially if there are forces that want to keep it hidden.
Any cover-up that comes to light leads to more questions. What else is being kept secret? What else is the public never told?
“There are very few journalists who have access to Russia’s Arctic coast. These are vast areas and it’s very difficult to get permission to travel. We believe that there is a great deal that should be covered, both by Russian and international journalists, that is never reported,” said Thomas Nilsen.
“So, the information that the Arctic is facing a gigantic oil disaster only comes out after two months, and then it comes out by chance”Thomas Nilsen – The Barents Observer, Norway
Distances in the Barents Region are great and journalists are few and far between. Environmental journalism in particular is expensive and time-consuming, and many media companies are struggling financially.
Still, high-quality environmental journalism is being produced. Small newsrooms take on multinational corporations. Zealous reporters scrutinise environmental impact statements, thick as books. Journalists investigate across national borders to follow the money and the emissions.
This report is based on interviews with twelve journalists – three from each country in the Barents Region – who cover environmental and climate issues and are based in cities such as Longyearbyen, Kirkenes, Murmansk, Rovaniemi, Oulu, and Umeå.
The Barents Region
On 11 January, 1993, the Barents cooperation formally began. In Northern Norway, the Kirkenes Declaration was signed by foreign ministers from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Russia as well as a representative of the European Commission (EC).
The cooperation is governed by the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, commonly called the Barents Council, which brings together representatives from the six member nations and the EC. In addition, there is the Barents Regional Council where the regional administrations meet.
The regional council includes the Norwegian counties of Troms og Finnmark and Nordland, the Swedish counties of Norrbotten and Västerbotten, the Finnish regions of Lapland, North Ostrobothnia, Kainuu and North Karelia as well as the Russian oblasts of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, the republics of Karelia and Komi and the Nenets autonomous okrug. The region’s indigenous peoples – the Sámi, the Vespians and the Nenets – are also represented in the council.
The Barents Region covers nearly two million square kilometres. Three-quarters of the region is in Russia, where 65% of its 5.2 million inhabitants live.
Few places on earth are as rich in natural resources – forests, fish, minerals, oil, and gas – as the region around the Barents Sea.
The name – the Barents Region – is said to have been coined in 1993 by Norway’s then foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg, who was a driving force behind the project. But even if the Barents Region as a political entity only dates back to the early 1990s, regional cooperation has existed for far longer.
The Sámi and their reindeer have been crossing borders for hundreds of years, as have ordinary citizens in search of adventure and opportunities.
Together they have close to 300 years of professional experience. They have won prestigious awards, educated people about unknown environmental risks, and shut down polluting companies.
They have also been sacked due to political pressure, threatened with legal reprisals and forced to go to court to obtain public records.
But environmental journalism is not primarily about exposing the big scandals or about the high-profile controversies.
It is mostly about unglamorous daily coverage: an uphill struggle that requires persistence but constitutes a last line of defence for the region’s inhabitants and environment.
In the interviews, the environmental journalists spoke about how multiple obstacles have made their mission more difficult. A number of hurdles recur in all Barents countries, while other problems are limited to just one or a few of them.
This report presents some of the most central challenges, as well as the journalists’ thoughts on how they can be overcome.
COMPLICATED, TIME-CONSUMING AND… NARROW?
A few years ago, Ulrika Nohlgren at Norran, a local daily newspaper in the Swedish city of Skellefteå, was assigned to cover environmental issues. Together with some colleagues, she was tasked with strengthening the newspaper’s reporting on the topic.
“It was based solely on the fact that we think it should be covered. It is not prioritised by the readers, according to the surveys that have been carried out,” she said.
Environmental issues makes up only a few percent of Ulrika Nohlgren’s working hours. She must also keep track of what is happening in the municipality and the region. Her job includes writing, photographing, online publishing, filming and editing.
It’s a typical situation for local newspaper reporters. The workload is heavy, and everything beyond the mandatory requires both planning and personal commitment.
“Environment and climate change are still not part of our daily coverage. It’s not considered necessary to ask environmental questions if a new residential area is being built. I feel that the environment is a special interest; it is treated as such. It’s like: ‘Oh, it’s International Women’s Day, we have to come up with something.’”
“I feel that the environment is a special interest; it is treated as such.”Ulrika Nohlgren – Norran, Sweden
At the same time, the newspaper’s survival depends on its articles being read, and environmental news stories have a hard time gaining traction. The reporters at Norran have developed their storytelling and tested new techniques to engage readers. While this has worked reasonably well, when taking the number of working hours involved into account, the clicks generated are quite expensive.
“It is very difficult to create an interest in these issues by simply presenting the facts. We have to include the human aspect and show how people have been affected. We have tested it and get decent readership figures, but then those stories took a lot of time to produce,” said Ulrika Nohlgren.
According to the journalists interviewed by Reporters Without Borders, news directors and editors welcome proposals for stories about the environment and climate change. The perception that these subjects are important is widespread.
“Management says that there is a great deal of interest in environmental issues. We often hear that readers want us to write more about climate change. But we get daily figures on what is clicked the most and which clicks result in subscriptions. I don’t see that these articles are actually being read,” said Anders Wynne, reporter at the local daily Västerbottens-Kuriren in Umeå, Sweden.
At Västerbottens-Kuriren, responsibility for covering environmental issues is shared by the entire newsroom, but Anders Wynne has been the newspaper’s science reporter for a decade and the assignments often tend to land on his desk.
“Readers are more interested in articles about consumption. If a store opens or closes in town, that will get a lot of clicks. So, it’s a bit of a contradiction,” he said.
“But environmental issues are generally very complicated. Most recently I reported on the municipality’s environmental goals and action plan. It turned out quite bureaucratic and hard to read.”
There is a reason that environmental stories sometimes make for difficult reading: the subject is complex.
“I resigned from Svalbardsposten to be able to write my book,” said freelance journalist Line Nagell Ylvisåker, who in 2020 made her book debut with My World is Melting, about how the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is affected by climate change.
“I didn’t have time to delve deep in the context when I worked at the newspaper. It is not because journalists are stupid, but you deal with these issues individually in isolated articles. I needed time to do in depth research, to be able to explain to others and to understand myself.”
“If we journalists want to be able to keep the public informed, in the future as well, we have to present the material in a way that appeals to young people.”Line Nagell Ylvisåker – freelance journalist, Norway
She thinks that interest in these issues has grown as journalists have become better at weaving personal stories in with the science. But progress is not unambiguous and reaching new reader groups is a challenge.
“Although interest has increased, it is difficult to reach especially the younger audience. Many people read Snapchat and Instagram, where everything is short and condensed,” said Line Nagell Ylvisåker.
“If we journalists want to be able to keep the public informed, in the future as well, we have to present the material in a way that appeals to young people.”
“That is especially true in this world of algorithms, where many young people only read what they see on TikTok. I think that the media must start working on this immediately.”
Based in Oulu, Timo Sipola has covered environmental issues for Finland’s public service media company YLE since the early 1990s. YLE is well funded and Timo Sipola is “lucky enough to be able to do time-consuming journalism”. But over the years, the company has adopted strategies that erode coverage of local environmental problems.
“We don’t do much regional journalism anymore; all features must be of national interest. The newsrooms outside Helsinki have become more like news agencies. To a larger extent, we now produce what the national company wants,” he said.
But if local or regional media do not cover local environmental issues, there is an imminent risk that no one will. Not all issues are considered big enough to generate interest on a national level.
“That’s what is decisive for our producers, how great the public’s interest is. How many readers do we get? How many viewer hours do we get?” said Timo Sipola.
Once an issue does garner national, or international, attention there is a tendency for the nature of the coverage to change.
“Climate change is a global issue, and you can read reports about the Arctic written by newsrooms in Amsterdam, New York, or London. But we who live here sometimes call it parachute journalism,” said Thomas Nilsen at The Barents Observer in Kirkenes.
“A team from the BBC will come to Longyearbyen and stay for 48 hours to get some footage of melting icebergs and a polar bear. Then they leave.”
“Up here, environmental issues often turn into something more. Everything is intertwined and natural resource-based investments also raise questions about what kind of society we want to have.”Arne Müller – freelance journalist, Sweden
Journalism is not only about reporting the latest news. Quality journalism is also about keeping focus on important issues despite the ever-changing news cycle, as well as following up and seeing stories through to the end.
This applies, perhaps to an even greater degree, to environmental journalism, where the consequences of an event or incident sometimes become visible only after a long time.
“Up here, environmental issues often turn into something more. Everything is intertwined and natural resource-based investments also raise questions about what kind of society we want to have,” said Arne Müller, a freelance environmental journalist who has covered the mining boom in northern Sweden for many years.
“At the same time, the workload in newsrooms is generally more intense today than it was 20 years ago. That’s detrimental to coverage of demanding topics. Crime and routine municipal coverage are easier. There are a number of areas where news can be produced fairly quickly. Environment is definitely not one of them.”
Pekka Rahko, at Kaleva in Oulu, Finland’s fourth largest daily newspaper, spends about half of his working time on environmental issues. The topic is appreciated by readers.
“Now that everything is published online, we have very detailed statistics. Environmental issues are in the top five of our most popular topics. It’s not as hot as health news or local politics, but still pretty high up,” he said.
Like the media industry in general, Kaleva has been affected by the structural transformation and the loss of advertising revenue. When Pekka Rahko first came to the newspaper 25 years ago, the editorial office had 140 journalists. Today, that number has been halved. As in all newsrooms, the avaliable resources affect the reporting.
“We are a local newspaper, and the distances here are great. If you want to go to an environmental station in Lapland, it is 400 to 500 kilometres, one way, and it is expensive. And if I have to bring a photographer, that means double the costs.”
“We are a local newspaper and the distances here are great. If you want to go to an environmental station in Lapland, it is 400 to 500 kilometres, one way, and it is expensive.”Pekka Rahko – Kaleva, Finland
When funds are scarce, time-consuming journalism often becomes dependent on the commitment of individuals. In a series of articles published in Norran, Ulrika Nohlgren reported on how nature in the Swedish region of Västerbotten has changed since humans first settled in the area.
“I had to work on the articles every now and then, between other assignments. It is difficult to estimate the time required, but each part in the series probably took three to four days of effective working time,” she said.
“And it still can’t compete with a short article about a road being closed in town. That will get you 7,000 clicks, compared to 2,000 for that reportage you spent several days working on. It can make you a little desperate.”
And yet, Ulrika Nohlgren and Norran, like many of the region’s newsrooms, continue to cover the environment and climate change.
“One wishes we could find a way to write about the environment that is truly engaging. We haven’t found that key yet. But we have to keep trying. It’s part of our societal mission.”
- Environmental journalism is expensive and time-consuming, especially for smaller newsrooms with high workloads.
- Many newsrooms struggle to reach audiences with their articles on the environment, increasing the risk of the issue being de-prioritised.
- Attention from international media cannot replace local and sustained coverage.
POLITICAL PRESSURE AND ANXIOUS AUTHORITIES
Right from the start, the Norwegian fertiliser giant Yara International’s plans for large-scale phosphate extraction in Savukoski, Finland, near the border with Russia, received strong criticism from local reindeer herders and the environmental movement.
“They were doing massive excavations while ore prospecting. There were suspicions that Yara might have done more than their permit allowed,” said Tapani Leisti, a reporter at YLE in Rovaniemi.
He decided to investigate and requested a report about the prospecting, compiled by the regional supervisory authority.
“The authorities explained that they couldn’t send the report because, according to Yara, it contained industrial secrets. I appealed to the Administrative Court of Northern Finland and won, but it took over a year and the company had time to cover the trenches,” he said.
“The authorities are afraid of these big companies, but they are not afraid of us journalists. That’s a problem.”Tapani Leisti – YLE, Finland
It was not an isolated incident. Tapani Leisti has experienced the same thing several times and sees a pattern.
“These ‘industrial secrets’ have started to pop up in recent years. Companies use this argument and authorities are so afraid to be accused of malpractice that they don’t release information that should be public. The authorities are afraid of these big companies, but they are not afraid of us journalists. That’s a problem.”
Tapani Leisti talks about a “David versus Goliath situation”. In Oulu, his YLE colleague Timo Sipola agrees.
“It is not authorities that are trying to delay things, but corporations. It is a general trend that corporations are becoming more and more closed off and employ more people in their press departments. It is becoming much more difficult to get information from them. The feeling is that the press departments’ aim is not to help us journalists, but to limit the flow of information coming out of the corporations.”
In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, though it is unusual for public authorities to directly attack the freedom of the press, there are examples.
In 2014, the Russian Consul General in Kirkenes launched a fierce attack against The Barents Observer, which was accused of “distorting the facts” and having an anti-Russian agenda. The accusations were baseless but still politically sensitive. The newspaper’s owner took drastic measures.
The Barents Observer was financed by the publicly owned Barents Secretariat, an organization tasked with strengthening cooperation between Norway and Russia, and it published in both Norwegian and Russian. The editor-in-chief, Thomas Nilsen, received orders that the content should henceforth be innocuous and non-combative.
“When I was informed that we were no longer allowed to have our editorial freedom, I had to raise my hand and say that I do not intend to follow that order, that The Barents Observer intended to continue conducting free and independent journalism. Then I was fired for disloyalty.”
“We who work here own the newspaper and it is organised as a non-profit.”Thomas Nilsen – The Barents Observer, Norway
The scandal was a fact. Press freedom organizations raged. Norway’s then foreign minister, Børge Brende, condemned the decision, and the Barents Secretariat responded by reversing the dismissal.
“At that time, me and the editorial staff were already very clear that we would leave that organisation. We moved to our own office and started again as The Independent Barents Observer. We who work here own the newspaper and it is organised as a non-profit,” said Thomas Nilsen.
“But things like this happen in Norway, in the country that ranks first in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.”
What was behind the Russian Consul General’s attack? According to the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK, it was the Russian intelligence service FSB’s opinion that The Barents Observer’s journalism “did not promote the relationship between the countries”. Exactly what prompted the FSB, or the Consul General, to react is not known.
“But we feel that a lot of the criticism against The Barents Observer has been related to our coverage of environmental issues. There are very large companies that work in northern Russia, such as Norilsk Nickel, Phosagro, Gazprom and Rosneft. These are companies with very large financial interests, and thus very little interest in being criticised,” said Thomas Nilsen.
He was declared persona non grata by Russia in 2016. The Barents Observer’s website has been blocked in Russia since 2019.
“Large corporations or municipalities sign contracts with local media and pay them to report on what the mayor or the city council is doing.”Anna Kireeva – environmental journalist in Murmansk, Russia
Frontal attacks are not the only way to obstruct journalistic investigations. There are also soft power tools that can be used to avoid negative coverage.
“For some media, it is more difficult to report on environmental issues because they have so-called information support contracts with polluting corporations. And these corporations create jobs and pay taxes,” said Anna Kireeva, environmental journalist in Murmansk, Russia.
For many newsrooms, these contracts are the difference between survival and bankruptcy. But the phenomenon has a structural impact on reporting.
“Large corporations or municipalities sign contracts with local media and pay them to report on what the mayor or the city council is doing. Of course, they report all the positives,” she said.
“There is nothing in the agreement that says the media cannot report independently, but if you want the contract to be renewed next year, they avoid covering sensitive issues or embellish the story. Unfortunately, this strategy works,” said Anna Kireeva.
“Almost everyone has these contracts, except independent media.”
- Corporations try to circumvent the principle of public access to information by referring to industrial secrets.
- Public organisations are not immune to political pressure.
- Financial support can be designed to undermine editorial independence.
CLIMATE CRISIS CREATES COMPETITION
As awareness of the climate crisis has grown, so has its editorial coverage. This applies especially to newsrooms in or near the Arctic, where global warming is increasing faster than anywhere else.
But there is a tendency for climate journalism to crowd out other environmental issues. It’s almost as if there was a quota for news related to the state of the planet, where environmental issues and climate change compete for space, rather than complement each other.
“Environmental issues were trendy 30 years ago; they’re not so trendy anymore. Back then, YLE had special shows devoted to the environment, but that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Timo Sipola at YLE in Oulu.
In the Finnish Environmental Journalists Association, where Timo Sipola is one of roughly a hundred members, this perception is widespread. This development worries Timo Sipola. Important investigations into environmental issues risk not being carried out when editors instead decide to spend their limited resources on climate coverage.
“Corporations have a strategy of presenting themselves as environmentally friendly. All corporations claim they care for the environment, but at the same time there is more talk and less action. But as is surely the case in the other Nordic countries as well, it is climate issues that dominate the news. Climate change is all the rage in environmental journalism these days. The fact that species are disappearing is not as trendy.”
“Climate change is all the rage in environmental journalism these days. The fact that species are disappearing is not as trendy.”Timo Sipola – YLE, Finland
At Norran in Skellefteå, northern Sweden, Ulrika Nohlgren believes that developments in newsrooms reflect what is being discussed in society.
“I sometimes feel that the climate issue has grabbed the spotlight. It’s the issue that public authorities are talking about. There’s a lot of talk about reducing energy consumption, but not as much about other environmental measures.”
Different newsrooms have chosen different strategies and different approaches. The Barents Observer in Kirkenes sees environmental issues and climate change as integrated topics.
“For us, oil extraction in the Arctic and climate change are kind of the same thing, they are connected. When we write about oil in the Arctic, it is not necessarily because of pollution problems, but because increased extraction in the area can lead to an extension of the age of fossil fuel dependency,” said editor-in-chief Thomas Nilsen.
When Norwegian public broadcasting company NRK put together a climate news team a few years ago, it was instead decided that the issues would mainly be kept separate.
“If we write about nature or the environment, it must also be linked to climate change in one way or another,” said climate journalist Tiril Solvang, who is part of the team.
But NRK’s policy has not resulted in less coverage of environmental issues, according to Tiril Solvang.
“Quite the contrary, actually. We’ve done more environmental news because we have started to see, perhaps especially in the last year, how much nature and climate change are connected.”
“It seems to me that articles about climate change resonate more with an educated audience.”Anonymous environmental journalist, Russia
In Russia, the situation is different. Local environmental issues get media coverage while climate change has not yet impacted the news agenda.
“I feel that climate change is a blank spot,” said a journalist at a major newsroom in the Russian part of the Barents Region, who has chosen to remain anonymous.
They regularly report on natural gas pipelines, transhipment of coal, mines and the status of reindeer herding. But climate issues are more abstract, and interest from readers is lukewarm at best.
“I need much more time to write about it. And it seems to me that articles about climate change resonate more with an educated audience. At least that’s the impression I get from social media discussions.”
Murmansk-based environmental journalist Anna Kireeva agrees with her colleague’s description.
“Newsrooms here are small and very busy with local issues. Covering climate change requires time. And of course, with news on climate change it is difficult to find the connection to your region and get local people interested in reading it,” she said.
“But on the other hand, climate change is the only subject where we have total freedom of speech in Russia. Perhaps climate change is not really taken seriously at the political level, they just don’t see a problem when people criticise them. Maybe they don’t understand the risks.”
- There is a tendency towards climate news and environmental news competing for space.
- Important environmental issues risk being overlooked if climate news steal the spotlight.
- In the Russian Barents Region, climate change is underreported.
RUSSIA DRIFTING AWAY
It is often said that Barents cooperation began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech in Murmansk in 1987. On the threshold of the Nordic region, the Communist Party’s last General Secretary called for regional cooperation on the economy, environmental issues and security.
The years that followed were characterised by optimism and hope: the Berlin Wall fell, Norway and the Soviet Union strengthened cooperation, and the Soviet Union was dissolved.
In 1993, the cooperation was extended and formalised. With the signing of the Kirkenes Declaration, the Barents Region was established.
The process that began when the then leader of the Soviet Union extended a hand was considered a peace project. And 35 years later, it may all come tumbling down, as Russia’s current leader has chosen war.
Like many other international organisations, the Barents Council quickly decided to freeze all cooperation with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia has further restricted press freedom at home. Journalists have been forbidden to call the war a war and have instead been forced to use the term “special military operation” or face imprisonment. Whoever spreads “fake news” – which, according to the Kremlin, is any information that does not come from state sources – risks 15 years in prison.
“Of course, the so-called special military operation that Russia is conducting in Ukraine has greatly affected the conditions for journalism in Russia. New laws have been passed and now only official information is considered non-fake,” said Anna Kireeva, an environmental journalist in Murmansk.
Several of Russia’s leading independent news outlets – such as radio station Echo of Moscow and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief Dimitry Muratov was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize – have completely suspended operations. Some have chosen not to cover the war at all, rather than become mouthpieces for the government’s propaganda. Others have effectively been shut down by Roskomnadzor, the Russian media authority.
“Many independent media outlets have had to close. Many have been banned. Nobody wants to spend 15 years in prison accused of spreading fake news. An enormous number of journalists have temporarily, we hope, left Russia to ride this out and see what lies ahead,” said Anna Kireeva.
“I felt that if I stayed I would be limited by my own fear.”Angelina Davydova – environmental journalist in exile from Russia
Among these journalists is Angelina Davydova, former editor of an environmental magazine in the Russian Barents Region and one of the country’s most renowned reporters in her field.
“I didn’t experience direct pressure. But I was a journalist and public figure speaking about environmental issues. I had a radio program on Echo of Moscow that was closed down. I felt that if I stayed I would be limited by my own fear,” she said.
The decision to leave Russia was difficult. But Angelina Davydova chose to have a voice in exile rather than be silenced in her homeland.
“When the war started, I was in shock. I cried a lot, I still do. I felt shame and responsibility for what my country was doing, and at the same time powerless to stop it. It has been a difficult time. Now, at times, I feel more balanced, and I can concentrate and do the things I consider important, meaningful, and useful, especially when I write or speak. But when I meet Russian or Ukrainian friends in the evenings, I can feel the sadness coming,” she said.
The invasion of Ukraine has global repercussions, but the Barents cooperation had started to crumble long before the first explosions were heard in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa on the 24th of February. Russia’s descent into authoritarianism has been going on for quite some time.
“Russian press freedom sank with Kursk. Russian media were openly critical of the government. It was too much,” said Timo Sipola of YLE in Oulu, Finland.
“In Russia, everything was much easier in the 1990s. Now it is impossible to investigate nuclear safety issues there.”
In August 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk and its crew of 118 sank in the Barents Sea, Vladimir Putin had only been president for a few months. Perhaps the newly appointed head of state did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation.
Putin initially chose not to interrupt his Black Sea vacation. As the rescue effort quickly grew desperate, news channels published images showing a casually dressed president hosting a barbecue.
It is said that Putin never forgave that humiliation. Shortly afterwards, he accused Russian journalists of “unscrupulously trying to exploit this misfortune”. Many interpreted the words as the harbinger of a crackdown on the country’s media. They were right.
“Russian press freedom sank with Kursk. Russian media were openly critical of the government. It was too much.”Timo Sipola – YLE, Finland
In 2012, Putin signed legislation targeting Russia’s democratic civil society. Non-profit organisations that have been receiving funding from abroad have since run the risk of being branded as “foreign agents”.
The law has gradually been extended to apply to newsrooms and individual journalists. Everything published by an individual or organisation that has been branded – whether it is an investigation of corruption or a cat photo on social media – must be accompanied by information that the author is a “foreign agent”.
So-called foreign agents must also provide Russian authorities with regular reports on their finances, at a level of detail that includes basic everyday purchases. The bureaucracy is in and of itself a time-consuming burden. Penalties for failing to report start with fines and extend to five years in prison.
Through her employer at the time, Anna Kireeva once had this unwanted status.
“I had to sign all my work with ‘this article is published by a foreign agent’. Every time when I was at a press conference, I had to raise my hand and say ‘I am a foreign agent’. Every time I called someone for an interview, I had to introduce myself as a foreign agent.”
The law has severely impacted the possibilities of journalistic cross-border cooperation. A newsroom in Norway, Sweden, or Finland can no longer contract a Russian journalist for an assignment.
“For Russian colleagues, the risk of being labelled a foreign agent means that your life will be very difficult if you are receiving salary from abroad,” said Timo Sipola.
“In the 90s, we had a Russian correspondent in Murmansk who, among other things, did weekly reports about environmental issues for us here in northern Finland. The people we contracted were journalists with Russian state television who were paid extra for the freelance work they did for us. But that is no longer possible. They would be considered foreign agents.”
There is no formal ban on cooperation across borders as long as no money changes hands. Journalists can still network and exchange knowledge.
But at The Barents Observer, Thomas Nilsen has noticed that fear of repression is increasing. Many journalists have become more cautious.
“When I am in contact with Russian colleagues, I notice that self-censorship, as you remember it from the Soviet Union days, is making a strong comeback. The foreign agent-law is probably one of the reasons.”
- When Russia invaded Ukraine, freedom of the press was simultaneously suppressed at home.
- Russian journalists risk being labelled as “foreign agents”.
- Journalistic cooperation between Russia and the other Barents countries has become more difficult in recent years.
GREAT CHALLENGES – AND GREAT POTENTIAL
Distances in the Barents Region are vast and there are few journalists. Environmental journalism is expensive and time-consuming. The workload has increased in many local newsrooms as the workforce has decreased. Corporations have attempted to obstruct journalistic investigations, and political pressure exists. Is environmental journalism in the far north doomed? No, far from it.
Several newsrooms are struggling to reach audiences with their environmental news. The topic is a demanding one, for journalists and readers alike.
“I think that many people perceive environmental issues as very complex, and that is objectively true in many cases. Many environmental issues are tricky. As a journalist, it is a challenge to make complicated things understandable without being too careless,” said Arne Müller, an environmental journalist in Umeå, Sweden.
At the same time, he has seen an increased demand for in-depth journalism.
“I would say that there is a growing group that is very active and trying to educate themselves. The mining issue is so striking. There are a number of local citizen networks that have emerged in northern Sweden, they get involved and raise public awareness about these type of environmental issues. I have met people who, in three years, went from zero knowledge to reading thick environmental impact statements from the mining companies and dissecting the content.”
At the daily newspaper Kaleva in Oulu, Pekka Rahko feels that public perception has shifted over the years. Even if environmental issues aren’t always at the top of the policy agenda, they can no longer be ignored.
“Maybe the common attitude towards nature conservation has changed. If I write a column about a possible nature conservation project, I don’t get as many angry calls as I got perhaps 20 years ago,” he said.
“There has been a very big change in local politics. And also, a change in attitudes concerning these kinds of issues. It can also be seen in how we journalists write about these things.”
“If you go back 20 years, journalists didn’t scrutinise the mining industry. I definitely belonged to the broad majority that simply thought ‘a new mine, nice, that means more jobs.’”Arne Müller – freelance journalist, Sweden
In Russia, independent media outlets have been forced to close and state-controlled channels are filled with propaganda. But before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian environmental journalism had been making great strides.
“When I started writing about climate and the environment, around 2008, I was one of very few journalists covering those topics, but in the last few years it has really been on the rise. Before the war, this was a growing field, with a lot of younger journalists starting to cover these questions,” said Angelina Davydova.
Despite current concerns that climate news sometimes takes precedence, environmental journalism has by no means deteriorated in quality. On the contrary, knowledge and know-how has increased.
“If you go back 20 years, journalists didn’t scrutinise the mining industry. I definitely belonged to the broad majority that simply thought ‘a new mine, nice, that means more jobs,’” said Arne Müller.
“But a lot has changed in that regard. Today, there is a basic understanding: ‘We have to check, what kind of corporation is this, is it reliable?’ In the past, very questionable information circulated by corporations could be published by the mass media in a way that would not happen today. It is an area where coverage has improved.”
Despite the challenges, there is plenty of high-quality environmental journalism being produced in the Barents Region. Editors have chosen to fund investigations even though there are easier ways to reach clicks and revenue.
What would be required to further develop and strengthen environmental journalism? One recurring answer from the journalists interviewed for this report is increased cooperation across borders.
“There are few newsrooms in the Barents Region, and even fewer large ones, so I believe that cross-border journalism is incredibly important when working on environmental issues,” said Thomas Nilsen of The Barents Observer.
“If a mining operation causes environmental problems in northern Norway, it may very well be that we can learn something from talented journalists in northern Sweden who have investigated similar issues. Or maybe we can learn from what journalists on the Kola Peninsula or in Arkhangelsk have done.”
Environmental problems are often transboundary in nature – an oil spill is not stopped by political borders. Most of the time, neither are the corporations whose operations create the environmental risks.
“If you look specifically at the mining issues, it is super obvious that these are corporations that move very unsentimentally across borders and between continents. If you want to keep up with them, much more international cooperation is required,” said Arne Müller.
“We are not foreign agents, but we are working on it. That is a joke I make.”Anna Kireeva – environmental journalist in Murmansk, Russia
The international journalist network Barents Press was formed in the wake of the creation of the Barents Council in the 1990s. Many of the journalists interviewed for this report are long-standing members.
“Barents Press was founded by and for journalists. When the Iron Curtain collapsed, many people wanted to know what was happening in Russia,” said environmental journalist Anna Kireeva, who chairs the network’s Russian branch.
Barents Press constitutes a valuable forum for exchange of contacts and information. But its activities have been affected by both practical problems and political threats. First the border with Russia was closed due to the pandemic, and now it is closed as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. To make matters more precarious, the Russian branch of Barents Press receives funding from abroad and can incur the wrath of the authorities at any time.
“We are not foreign agents, but we are working on it. That is a joke I make,” said Anna Kireeva.
“We are registered as a company, not an NGO. We don’t do journalism; we assist in cooperation. But if they want to make us a foreign agent they will. We try to be diplomatic and choose neutral subjects for press tours and seminars, we don’t support any political parties, and we do not label journalists who work for government or independent media. We welcome all. We haven’t crossed the line yet.”
Initiatives such as Barents Press have created favourable conditions but translating these into journalism requires time and resources.
“We are keeping this network alive, but there is no longer much actual cooperation when it comes to journalism. Until around 2000 something, we in Barents Press awarded a scholarship to promote cross-border journalism. You had to be a team of journalists from at least two countries to be able to apply for joint projects. But Norway, which paid most of this, no longer thought it was important,” said Timo Sipola, who chairs the Finnish branch of Barents Press.
It would be more sustainable if media companies provided the resources. However, at management level there is not much enthusiasm, according to Timo Sipola.
“International cooperation is much more dependent on whether individuals are interested in pursuing it than before. I think journalists are interested in it, but the employers are not very interested. They want to limit themselves to the audience they are tasked with reaching. If you talk about commercial media, it is also the audience that pays for the content of the newspaper.”
“Imagine if newspapers in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia could join forces for a joint investigation on a mining project.”Thomas Nilsen – The Barents Observer, Norway
But Thomas Nilsen, himself an editor-in-chief, believes employers have reason to reconsider. Cross-border collaborations are not only about strengthening quality, but also about effective resource utilisation.
“Imagine if newspapers in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia could join forces for a joint investigation on a mining project. Today, an editor might say: ‘Yes, we can have one journalist working on this for a month, but we can’t afford two.’ But if you take one journalist from each Barents country, you suddenly have four persons in the investigative team,” he said.
“Newspapers such as Norrländska Socialdemokraten, Lapin-Kansa, The Barents Observer and 7×7 Journal are not competitors. We publish in different languages. To join forces and then publish in four different countries, I think that would give journalism a huge impact.”
- Environmental issues and polluting companies move across borders – journalism must be able to do the same.
- At management level, interest in cross-border journalistic collaborations is low.
- Cross-border cooperation can make resource utilisation more efficient and create mutual benefit for media companies.
Text: Ivar Andersen
Illustrations: Jonas Embring
REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS SWEDEN RECOMMENDS:
- Local environmental journalism is paramount – improve the financial conditions for newsrooms in sparsely populated areas.
- Environmental problems know no national borders – support cross-border journalistic cooperation in the Barents Region.
- Russian journalists should not be forgotten – raise the issue of press freedom in Russia in all available forums.
Video: Blank Spots in the Barents Region
This project has been granted funding from the FBA’s support to civil society for peace and security. Please visit www.fba.se/stod for more information. Reporters Without Borders Sweden is responsible for the content.