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Illiberal trends in Norwegian media

Harsh attacks on skeptical dissent and lack of criticism of those in power: Is the mass media helping to restrict freedom of expression? Ny Tid has spoken with media researcher Rune Ottosen and Fritt Ord's director Knut Olav Åmås. 


media researcher Rune Ottosen – professor at HiOA and board member of Norwegian PEN – thinks there may be cause for concern when the media neglects its role as critical corrective to the rulers on security policy issues, and at the same time becomes too stigmatizing in their statements of the critical voices in the security and foreign policy debate: "My own research shows that it is largely consensus in the newspaper editorials on Norwegian security policy, and especially in foreign operations. It shows the media coverage of the Libya and Afghanistan wars, although the latter became the subject of some more investigative journalism. When the Storting is unanimous, without dissent, as in the decision on the Libya war, journalism often becomes even more traced. Without contradictions, there will be even less debate. "

The Holberg bridal shower

Asked about Bergens Tidende's attack on WikiLeaks and the Holberg debate 2017, Ottosen replies that he considers Assange and WikiLeaks important players in giving the public access in key conditions that the authorities would otherwise keep hidden. At the same time, he has a mixed relationship with Assange as a person and his views. However, he has no doubt about what should be the media's duty in the face of the persecution Assange is facing: "I think Norwegian media should defend his democratic rights and freedom of speech to a much greater extent than they do. "

About both Bergens Tidende and Dagbladets slaughter of Assange and Holberg debate (see case) Ottosen says that one must often criticize Assange and other dissidents for their views and actions, but that the criticism must be factual and proportionate. He warns against excessive stigma: “Cold war rhetoric can lead to self-censorship. This is often the consequence when you see that others are exposed to this type of attack. After Libya and Afghanistan, we need more critical voices, rather than critical voices being met with hateful reasoning. ”

Coarse failure

Dagbladet journalist and now permanent staff commentator in the management department, Inger Merete Hobbelstad, called last fall Klassekampen – who for a couple of years has distributed Ny Tid as an insert – to «break all ties to Ny Tid». As is well known, the class struggle gave in to pressure and broke the distribution agreement with Ny Tid.

In the article, Hobbelstad claimed that Ny Tid wrote that "(…) it is 'obvious' that the American authorities were behind the demolition of the World Trade Center on 11 September (…)". IN The New Time article she is referring to However, there is not a single word that the US authorities may have had any role in the attack at all.

"I personally think it was an illiberal proposition."
Knut Olav Åmås

When asked by Ny Tid whether it is justifiable to grossly misquote Ny Tid in an article in which she advocates depriving the newspaper of an important distribution channel, Dagbladet's Hobbelstad answers the following in an e-mail: «I can see that it would have been more precise to (…) write that the US government 'deliberately hides' the truth rather than that they were behind it, and offered the contextualizing background information themselves. At the same time, I'm not so sure if this is such a serious citation error as the question claims, given that this is the background for the conspiracy theories and for editor Lie's choice to print them. " However, Hobbelstad does not promise that Dagbladet's 1,5 million readers who were served the grossly untrue claim about Ny Tid, will have access to correct information. She also does not want to regret that Ny Tid was deprived of a distribution channel after she spread this false claim to her readers through Dagbladet.

The role of the media

Professor Ottosen believes that Dagbladet's call to Klassekampen to break the distribution agreement with Ny Tid has little to do with the media's function as a power-critical institution: «I do not take a position on the content of the article that speculates about 9/11, but on principle it is clear that It is natural for the media to criticize the content of the article, not to demand intervention against the newspaper's distribution opportunities. "

March 2017. The Media Diversity Committee delivers its NOU: The Norwegian media diversity? A strengthened media policy for the citizens. Committee leader Knut Olav Åmås. Photo: Lise Åserud / NTB scanpix

Ottosen queries that allegations of conspiracy theories should be the basis for such strong attacks: "Sometimes dissidents are rightly dismissed as conspiracy theorists, other times the characteristic is used unjustly to discredit legitimate power criticism," he says.

Hobbelstad was repeatedly asked whether it was the task of newspapers and journalists to call for a halt in the distribution of other newspapers on the basis of individual articles. The answer we received by e-mail was: "I think the argument that Klassekampen should have a kind of distribution obligation for Ny Tid, no matter what they had to put in print, is strange. All individuals and bodies have their freedom of expression, but it does not imply a right to have their statements disseminated by media with a larger field of influence than themselves. If a distribution agreement means that a newspaper ends up indirectly promoting a not harmless conspiracy theory to its readers, they are in their full right to reconsider the agreement. " For the sake of clarity, it should be mentioned that no one has argued that Klassekampen should have a kind of distribution obligation towards Ny Tid.

The fact that a nationwide Norwegian newspaper has advocated to limit another newspaper's distribution possibilities is unique.

Illiberal and inconsistent

Free Word Director Knut Olav Åmås asks the Dagbladet journalist's call: «It is completely legitimate to think something like that [that Klassekampen should stop distributing Ny Tid], even though I personally think it was an illiberal proposal. It is allowed to make serious mistakes, both Dagbladet and Ny Tid do it ", he writes in an e-mail to Ny Tid.

Dagbladet's Hobbelstad tells Ny Tid that conspiracy theories are one of the major threats to democracy today. But the Norwegian mass media in general, and Dagbladet in particular, have repeatedly published conspiracy theories in which Russia in particular is accused of being behind conspiracies and conflicts over large parts of the world.

Is there a tendency for criticisms of Western power elites to be dismissed as conspiracy theories or met with accusations of a "community of interests with Putin" – itself a kind of conspiracy theory – while conspiracy theories of Russia are published without claims to the evidence? Ottosen says on a general basis that Norwegian mass media is much less critical to allegations of Russian conspiracies than they are to allegations of conspiracies by the United States or Western powers.

However, Åmås sees no reason to cast any general freedom of expression alarm over the media's role in the security policy debate. Instead, he points to positive developments: “In recent years we have received more media that are far more critical to other media and their journalism. The criticism is to the degrees in social media, but to a much greater extent than in the edited media itself. And that's a step forward. "

"The natural thing for media is to criticize the content of the article, not to intervene in the newspaper's distribution potential." Ottosen

Gufs from the past

However, neither Åmås nor other sources Ny Tid has spoken to in connection with Klassekampen's break with Ny Tid can come up with another example in Norwegian press history after World War II that a nationwide Norwegian newspaper has advocated restricting another competitor. nationwide newspaper's distribution opportunities. Ottosen does not rule out that there may have been other similar calls, but states that it is in any case an extremely rare occurrence. He points back to the Cold War for historical precedent somewhat similar: "During the Cold War, newspapers such as Ikkevold, Ny Tid and Klassekampen were prosecuted and in some cases convicted of breaking consensus – on the grounds of spy law. It could be a bit like the Snowden case in the sense that you put a spy stamp on dissent. In the media, there was then a clear unwillingness to defend opposition newspapers on a principled basis. When the newspaper Ikkevold was subjected to a search, their subscription archives were seized and the journalists were prosecuted, there was far too little support on a principled basis from the mainstream media for their freedom of the press. There is historically little will to keep the flags of press freedom high when the wind blows ", says Ottosen.

See The factual basis for the slaughter of the Holberg debate
The Holberg debate: Essential falsehoods and immaterial truths

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Eirik Vold
Former freelancer in MODERN TIMES. Today political adviser in Red.

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