Barents Press is likely to be the most successful form of journalistic cross-border co-operation that can be found in Europe.
It is unique in many ways: it spreads over a vast geographical area, it includes different societies (Nordic countries, Russia, some indigenous peoples) – and, perhaps most important of all, it is purely voluntary. It does not exist because of some official agreement, it does exist because enough many journalists feel it is needed. How did this get started? It was a result of perfect timing of good ideas and strong needs.
From cold war to new possibilities
Back in 1980’s Northern Europe looked very much different from now. During the Cold War real contacts across the Soviet Union border were practically impossible. The journalists in the northern parts of the Nordic countries didn´t know much about one another either.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, things started to change. At the political level this was quite soon demonstrated in the originally Norwegian initiative to create a new area of co-operation in Northern Europe; in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region. It was officially born at a ministerial meeting at Kirkenes, January 1993.
Barents Press gets started
Those were the days of some kind of euphoria: everything seemed to be possible, and soon. Especially the Norwegians were eager to open new contacts to North-West Russia, mainly to the regions of Murmansk and Archangelsk. One form of this was a series of bilateral journalist seminars.
During these seminars in 1993 there came an idea to invite also others to these gatherings of journalists. First the Journalist Association of Northern Finland sent an observer to Murmansk and soon after that the meetings to discuss about Barents Press started. But, at that time it didn´t yet have any name. Meetings were held in Ivalo and in Saariselkä, Finland. One obvious reason for their success was good personal contacts and relaxed atmosphere from the very beginning, even if there were tough discussions about principles and practicies – or about the ideals of democracy.
Barents Press has several birthdays. March 1994 in Ivalo is one of them: things started to get serious. First of all, the name was decided there as well as some of the main principles: it is an open forum for journalists, it shall develop contacts and networks between journalists, it shall arrange seminars for journalists, it has a board of two members from each country and the presidency shall follow the rotation of (the) presidency in the official Barents Council. And it co-operates with journalist trade unions but it is not a trade union itself.
At this first stage only Norway, Russia and Finland were represented. On the same time efforts were started to find interested journalists in Sweden as well. Contacts were taken to every newsroom in the area and the first list of interested journalists was published in printed form by the Finns. The first board was able to find enough financing from Norway, Finland and Nordic bodies to invite journalists to the first big meeting in Saariselkä, Finland, 18.-19. February 1995. This can be seen as the official birthday of the Barents Press International.
Common rules and principles
Each country was able to send a delegation to Saariselkä, where common rules and principles were approved of and the first official board elected. Common practice from the very beginning at Saariselkä has been that the meetings are somehow messy and improvised but the atmosphere is good and networking is taking place all day and night.
There are some typical features at the BP meetings. Financing is always a problem because there are no big steady sources of incomes and because things are done at the voluntary bases. And travels take time: distances are terrible. But these are also the reasons to why big seminars are felt so important: they make personal contacts possible also to others than board members and they are usually quite unique experiences. Otherwise people wouldn´t be ready to sit 20 hours in a bus to get somewhere. The delegations´ sizes are limited to a maximum of 20 journalists from each country.
Four national organisations
After Saariselkä BP got its organisational structure. In each of the four countries there are national organisations of Barents Press: BP Finland, BP Norway, BP Sweden, BP Russia. Some of these are officially registered, some are not. For instance in Sweden there are members, in Finland it is an unofficial network. But each country has its own national board and the board of BP International is elected at the annual meetings. The presidency and the task to organize the annual seminar are rotating between the member states.
Our annual seminars always take place during springtime. After Saariselkä 1995 Barents Press has gathered in Kiruna 1996, Zapoljarnyi 1997, Hurtigruten (Tromsö-Kirkenes) 1998, Oulu 1999, Arjeplog 2000, Apatity 2001 and Alta 2002. Barents Press presidents have been Jan-Erik Andreassen (Norway) 1994-95, Markku Heikkilä (Finland) 1995-96, Jelena Larionova (Russia) 1996-97, Helene Alm (Sweden) 1997-98, Arne Store (Norway) 1998-99, Timo Sipola (Finland) 1999-2000, Jelena Larionova (Russia) 2000-01 and Turi Wennberg (Sweden) 2001-03.
Already in 1995 the BPI board started to plan if it was possible to open an information center in Murmansk. This idea soon got support and its financing was made possible by the Norwegian Barents Secretariate and the Nordisk Journalist Center (NJC) in Århus, Denmark. The NJC has been a long time partner for Barents Press.
Barents Press board meetings are usually held at Saariselkä due to the central location (long distance from everywhere) and due to the Finnish Journalist Union that has got a cottage there. Telephone conferences and e-mail are also regularly used. Because of the distances and language barriers Barents Press can never be a “mass movement” but is has proved its usefulness. It has been able to react to issues like visa regulations in Russia and the Kursk tragedy where the networks were very useful. Barents Press is also an “umbrella” for many kinds of journalist co-operation that has taken place between North-West Russia and the Nordic countries – or Western Europe. On the same time it is still very loose and very unofficial. More like a network, less like an organisation.
From dream to reality
What started as a distant idea in about 1993 has grown to be a well established and many sided – but still voluntary – forum and network. Journalists have been able to do something that is perhaps the best success story so far in the history of Barents co-operation, while not being a part of any official plan or program. We have done it by ourselves.