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My Arctic: 25 years of covering the Arctic

Markku Heikkilä

Markku Heikkilä

Markku Heikkilä’s Keynote talk at the Media and the Arctic Master Class Week at the University of Tampere (26.-30.11. 2018).

I am here to take you to a journey. A journey from here to here. I was once a student sitting in these rooms and listening to visiting experts. I spent here about five years in the 80´s with media and social science studies. Now I am here as a visiting expert, talking about something that never came to my mind during the time I spent in this university. The reason was of course simply: the Arctic was not there. It was, as a place in the map, but it did not really exist and it never had any presence. I wonder if I ever heard the word Arctic during my years here. If there was something, it was the North, and strictly in the Finnish context only.

When I meet new people in my work role as coming from an institution with the name Arctic Centre, they often ask if I am myself from the North. I am not. I am originally from these regions, about 30 kilometres to the west from here. My parents still live there and I was there yesterday. I come to Tampere often, I know all the places and their histories in this region and I am very much at home here, as I am at home in some other places much to the north from here. I have learnt that life can have many dimensions, and I am actually building much of my talk today on that fact, on the fact of parallel realities.

However, it seems that I had some interest to the North already here. I worked as summer journalist in Oulu and I actually even made my master theses about the North, about how a Lapland newspaper had handled the river construction plans and projects and the civil activity against them. There was however not any wider Arctic framework available and it never came to my mind to think about one. It was more about the fact that environmental issues were coming in to the discussion that time.

Now the Arctic belongs to the mainstream. This week here in Tampere is a good example of that. I my speech I try to describe from my perspective how and why this has happened and how I have felt it. I have been more or less in the middle of that change.

Before going there I need to start from my study years. There is something I got from this university which very much explains why I am standing here today as an Arctic expert. It was the way to look to the world. Without it, I would not be back here now.

All student generations usually have their own things. I came here by the time when the once very strong leftist movement had already faded away and so-called alternative movements were coming in and taking this or that form. Hot topics were development issues and third world. With that, the way of thinking and talking in student cafes was very international. It had nothing to do with the globalization talk we have today, it was a spirit of sharing this word together. That spirit I later found in the Arctic cooperation and there I felt at home.

I have always had some difficulties with the concept of borders, and in the Arctic, there has been not so much of them. There may be now some coming and I come back to that later. However, the feeling of a place without borders has to do with what I am soon going to show you. But how does someone end up working with the Arctic?

That leads me to think about the choices we make and things that do or do not happen. It often comes to things you do not notice. For me, standing here today as an Arctic expert comes down to one decision: that I would not seek a job from Helsinki, the city with most job opportunities for a journalist in Finland. It is not that I have something against Helsinki. I like the place. It was more like an instinct, an instinct made easier by the fact that by that time I had already spent three summers working in Oulu in newspaper Kaleva and had enjoyed that very much.

Many of my friends from here went to work in Helsinki and I can easily see how my professional life would have developed there. There would have been many options, but none of them would have led me to the Arctic. The one choice I made did however take me there and I am very happy of that outcome. I have had the incredible privilege of being able to feel free for the most part of my professional life and do interesting things more than I can even remember.

My Arctic journey started literally by journeys and now I share them with you.

This is when I come to the title of my talk, the title which is “My Arctic”. I will show you what is my Arctic. I will start a slideshow of about 240 pictures that I have taken in different times and places in all of the Arctic countries. The pictures are in no particular order when it comes to time, place or quality. Some are quite good ones, some are bad copies of older paper pictures, some are just quick snaps by mobile phone. It is a collection of random memories. All of those pictures tell me a story, a story of some place or moment or person, but I will not explain them. This is how memories work, they are incomplete and they have levels that are not clear for anyone else, but I was asked to come here to tell about my Arctic and here it now goes.

There are quite many pictures from Murmansk region. It is where my Arctic journeys started in late 80´s. I have somewhere black and white pictures of Murmansk and some industrial towns of Kola peninsula during the last years of Soviet Union. Unfortunately, I just could not find them now and they are not part of this picture show. They would have told about a completely another world.

For a journalist, the last years of Soviet Union were an incredible treasure chest with untold stories everywhere. Most of all, it was about huge environmental and possibly nuclear contamination issues, but one needed to be ready for everything. Once I was walking across the square in the small town of Nikel in Petchenga (Petsamo in Finnish) tasting smell from a huge dirty nickel smelter in the background when our guide asked if we want to see something interesting. Ten minutes later, I was watching a living kangaroo in the basement of the cultural palace. I asked our guide how there can be a kangaroo in Nikel. You can buy anything in Moscow, he answered.

That moment, I knew that the Arctic is something different. I also understood how there can be many parallel realities.

In official Arctic narrative it is generally understood that the one single decisive moment for Arctic cooperation was the speech the Soviet secretary general Mikhail Gorbatshev gave in Murmansk in October 1987. That time I was already working in Kaleva but I cannot remember that anybody in media would have noticed the speech. I have not done any archive research but it was not in our radar any case. Soon after that, Finland made an Arctic initiative which gave a start for a process that ended with first ever Arctic ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi 1991. That one I remember. I was not there as journalist but my colleague was, and in those news was something that made me hope that I would have been there.

During this week here in Tampere, I with my colleague Gosia will give you very exact information about the elements in international Arctic cooperation. I am happy that we have people in this room who really want to learn more on these issues. I have met many journalists who have it difficult to see the official Arctic cooperation as something relevant and interesting. Their argument is that real stories are elsewhere. I may be so, but I have always felt that understanding the structure and workings of Arctic cooperation is the key for understanding the Arctic.

However, when looking to these pictures, one may easily argument the opposite. I have been sitting in countless Arctic meetings and conferences but most of them have left no memory traces. Many of these pictures I have taken during conference travels, but outside the venues, among those who really live in the Arctic. That tells something of what matters on individual level.

My Arctic does not easily fit to the common visual representation of the Arctic. You will see some glaciers and some signs of polar bears but you will also see an Arctic camel walking on the streets of Murmansk. For me, the camel somehow fits better to my Arctic image than the polar bear. I like the Arctic when it has some surprises. My Arctic also is not a vulnerable place somewhere far away from anybody else where indigenous peoples are struggling to survive.

The indigenous peoples I have met do not spend their days by struggling. They are living their lives. Arctic is not somewhere else, it is present. Yes, climate change is there, but it is just one part of the story. Most of all, my Arctic does not much care about the borders. It is more like a state of mind. You just know it when you are there. Often you can be in the Arctic without having that feeling, and you can be way outside the usual limits of the Arctic and still have that feeling.

I perhaps should use some words to describe how I ended up working a lot with the Arctic. It started with Barents, not with Arctic.

In early 90´s I was working in Kaleva newspaper in Oulu with regional and national political news and also with some international news. I used to call by phone to politicians in Helsinki and felt frustrated because there was no way I could get anything really own or good out of that. At the same time, Norway had made an initiative to create regional cooperation in the North, Barents cooperation. Also in Finland northern regions and northern politicians had to take a stand on that. I started to follow those developments.

When the borders were opening in the North, Norway had started a series of journalist seminars with Russian journalists. They also approached the Northern Finland Journalist association and invited someone to have a look. I volunteered and went with them to Murmansk. In there, with Norwegian Sami journalist Johs Kalvemo and Elena Larionova from TV Murman, we had an idea to build journalist network across the borders in the north. We invited some other colleagues to a brainstorming meeting in Ivalo and came out with a plan to establish something called Barents Press International. It turned out to be the most successful cross border journalist network in Europe and it still lives today, 25 years later, as we have heard. I was the first chair of the network and I learnt a lot with that. Perhaps the best lesson was that a lasting activity needs personal contacts and friendships more that it needs organizations.

Jelena Larionova passed away about five years ago. She was the bravest journalist I have ever met and I am proud of having known her. My Arctic story would have been much different without her.

However, that was not the only dimension. Murmansk is a fascinating place but the Arctic is more than that.

Together with two other young colleagues, we had an idea to edit a book about the environmental situation in Northern Finland. Using that as a smoke screen, I applied and got a travel grant to follow the upcoming Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. I am not sure how much you have heard about that event but it was a real game changer globally and for me personally. In Rio the UN climate change negotiations process started but what impressed me most was the feeling of world coming together to talk and solve common problems.

I have later of course learnt that there was much empty illusions and power games in all that. In Rio, it all looked real for an innocent young journalist. I also noticed that it was surprisingly easy to get journalist travel grants to such events. In the years that followed, I was in place in a number of UN summits in different parts of the globe. That in turn gave me very valuable global perspectives when I was following the developments in the North. The same goes with the European Union. Finland was a new member of the European Union and for Finnish journalists it was a habit to be in place in EU summits. I also participated some of them and I liked the European idea.

In mid 90´s my real Arctic journey started. I had somewhere learnt to know Guy Lindström who worked in the Finnish parliament as a secretary for Nordic cooperation. He was organizing the first meetings of Arctic parliaments and he invited me to follow their meeting in Yellowknife, Canada, in 1994. That was another game changer for me: the first real Arctic event I ever saw. I was deeply impressed. I saw Indian chiefs, I heard native languages I knew nothing of, I was sitting in Western style bars with environmental activists and politicians.

Luckily, also my editor in the newspaper saw the point of starting to follow something that nobody else was following. It was not difficult to agree that I would go to Ottawa in September 1996 to witness the event that should establish the Arctic Council. I went there, to the surprise of Canadian organizers, because it really was not something that attracted the media. I did not notice any other journalist there but later I have learned that there was someone from a paper called Nunatsiaq News, a local paper from Iqaluit. It all was a very low-key event. Still, I was able to pick many stories from there. All doors were open all the time and it was easy to talk with anyone.

Around that time, I understood that I was indeed doing something that no one else was doing and got an idea of doing that more systematically. I took some months off from my work, made some more interviews and in 1998 I published a book called Arktiset visiot, Arctic visions. In it, I went through all the political visions and developments in the North: Arctic and Barents cooperation, Northern Dimension for the EU, also some other things. For me, that book is the backbone of my Arctic work.

That small book was only in Finnish and it has not been available for a long time. However, I have now updated it and added the developments in Finnish Arctic policy for the past 20 years. The new edition will be coming out early next year, this time also in English.

Despite all what I have told here, Arctic was never really my only focus when I was working as journalist. It was of course not in any way possible to focus on one topic only in a newspaper. I kept however my eye on the Arctic and tried to catch the developments but there was simply not enough of anything happening for most of the time.

From 2010 onwards, I have been working at the Arctic Centre and have been paid to do the Arctic only. There has not been any lack of work. Arctic has become a hot topic. You may already know the Arctic paradox: when the climate change goes forward, so do new economic possibilities and political interest. All this in turn makes everybody look to the Arctic.

There is something that can be called as an Arctic bubble: same people traveling all the time from meetings to meetings and from conferences to conferences and talking with each other. I am one of them, and one of my main concerns now is how to organize the next Arctic conference.

That Arctic bubble has been growing. There used to be a kind of family atmosphere. Not so much anymore. Besides, there are a number of smaller bubbles. The Arctic is very much different from the perspectives of businesspersons, natural scientists, indigenous activists, civil servants from the capitals, diplomats, social scientists and so on. They usually gather in their own groups and then show up in common panels telling that the Arctic is changing and we must act now.

Inside those bubbles, the Arctic seems to be inhabited by highly educated people who speak very fluent English and get their living by giving and watching powerpoint presentations.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems in Arctic cooperation is the illusion that there is a lingua franca, common language, which is English. There is not. The Arctic is very diverse, also when it comes to languages, but that fact tends to be forgotten all the time. In turn, this creates many blind spots because only English speaking sources, English publicity and English participation seem to count. I feel it as one of the main discriminative factors in the Arctic.

Exactly for this reason, it was a principle in Barents Press annual meetings that English is not used and there will be translation between Russian, Finnish and Scandinavian languages – the languages that journalists really speak in the region.

I am now moving from Arctic bubbles to Arctic hype and alarms. One can easily identify several periods of hype when it comes to the Arctic.

In Finnish context, the first one related to Barents cooperation, the next one to Northern Dimension of the EU, followed by the Arctic. The hype has been about economic expectations – something so big that will change the whole picture in Finnish economy. It has been always due to happen five years from now. At first it used to be about energy projects in North-West Russia, now it is about global connections.

Another sort of Arctic publicity comes with the alarmist hype. It comes in two forms: alarming news about a potential Arctic conflict and alarming news about Arctic climate change.

Both are true, in their way. They have something in common: the origins are not in the Arctic but the consequences can hit the Arctic – in certain limits.

Not long ago, my colleague got a following request from a globally known media company, and I quote: “I would like to speak to residents from within communities who are at risk of losing their livelihood or home through the after effects of climate change”.

This is a perfect example of how things are seen wrongly. The question came to Finland where we do not have anything like this. Everything is far more complex. Homes in Lapland are not dropping to a hole because of melting permafrost.

Put together, all these Arctic expectations and alarms create a strange picture of an Arctic reality. Their picture of the Arctic is completely painted by an outsider. What matters to the life in the Arctic are access to health care and social services, access to internet, access to transport options, job opportunities, quality of schooling – in short, what matters in the Arctic is how the society functions and if there are perspectives of good life. In some Arctic places there is, in some there is not.

In general, things in the Arctic are much better now than they ever have been. At least when it comes to issues that can be solved in the Arctic. When I was born over 50 years ago, there were Soviet nuclear tests in Novaya Zemlya and rising amounts of radioactivity were measured in Finnish Lapland. Indigenous peoples faced a strong assimilation policy in all Arctic countries. In Finland only, birds like swan and eagle were about to disappear. Factories did not have any pollution regulation. All travels in Soviet Union were strictly controlled.

What we have now would have then been a utopia, an ideal dream world. Environmental regulation and international Arctic cooperation are functioning well. Indigenous peoples have their seats in Arctic tables in a way that does not happen anywhere else.

Some years ago, I would have stopped here. Today, however, I will not. I have some new concerns. During my 30 years in the Arctic I have seen how international developments have made everything better in the Arctic. That in turn means that things can get worse as well.

In my picture show on the background there is one picture taken in Reykjavik harbour in October this year. It is a picture of a Canadian warship, frigate Charlottetown, on her way to the largest Nato war exercise for years in Northern water. When I returned from Reykjavik to my desk in Rovaniemi, I heard fighter jets taking off from an airport nearby to the same exercise. Some weeks later the news came out that Russia had jammed GPS signals in Northern Norway and in Lapland. The Russian military capacity has much increased in the Arctic during past ten years.

At about the same time I read the conclusions from the Arctic environment ministers meeting in Rovaniemi. The wordings about climate change were as watered down as they ever can be and one could read how “some ministers” had different opinions than the others. What this means in practice is that this is how far you can go with the Trump administration and consensus principle: you can get a paper, as far as it says nothing.

We have seen in conferences how the Russian voices are more and more only official Russian voices, how invited individuals from Russia can suddenly notice that some stamp or payment is missing and that they cannot cross the border with their documents. We have seen how Chinese can get angry if someone dares openly criticise what country is doing.

Nothing of this originates from the Arctic. On the contrary, everything in the Arctic is still functioning quite well, better than in many other regions. These are symptoms of a much bigger change, of something that is happening all the way from Brazil to the US, from Hungary to Poland, from Russia to China, from Britain to Italy. The blind illusions of national pride are again running high, and how could that all not affect the Arctic?

I am not speaking here about an Arctic conflict. Neither do I see that the Arctic cooperation would be discontinuing. It will continue but it can easily become different. The pictures you have seen tell about my Arctic history. Many of them I have taken in a context that would not be possible any more. They tell about a time of an Arctic innocence. My feeling is that we are now about to enter to another time. If so, it will then also call for new ideas and new initiatives, new people and new Arctic generations to make the difference. Almost all official structures we now have in the Arctic stem from ideas and visions that somebody had 25-30 years ago. It would be time for a new generation like you to have some new ideas and I am happy to see that exactly that is happening with the ongoing formation of Arctic youth network and a network of Arctic women. It is in such nongovernmental initiatives where I see the best future of Arctic cooperation.

Markku Heikkilä
TAMPERE 26.11. 2018

Media and the Arctic – Master Class Week at the University of Tampere 26–30 Nov. 2018



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