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A fight for openness

Norway is one of the world’s most stable democracies. Yet in 2014, Stavanger Aftenblad discovered repeated violations of Norway’s Freedom of Information Act. Elected officials’ freedom of speech was under restriction and hundreds of documents related to political decisions were kept secret. This investigative piece of journalism led to a cultural change within local authorities and hundreds of documents came out in the open.

One of the most crucial missions of our media houses is to scrutinise politicians, authorities and institutions. This is one of the fundamentals of democracy and a guarantee to openness and awareness of political decisions and actions.

Not only did Stavanger Aftenblad’s investigations show that political committees had been illegally keeping hundreds of cases secret for decades and that unlawful punishment for whistle-blowing was practiced. What the story really is about is politicians not daring to admit the harm society has done to a number of Norwegian individuals.

It all started with Stavanger Aftenblad finding out that, behind closed doors, the administration in Norways leading oil community Stavanger, paid half a million NOK to a victim of bullying at school in order to avoid criticism in the press.

2014 Stavanger. Christine Sagen Helgø i samtale med Aftenblad-journalistene Thomas Ergo (t.v.) og Hans Petter Aass. Ordfører Christine Sagen Helgø (H) uttaler seg om Stavanger kommune sin håndtering av mobbesaker på stavangerskoler. En artikkelserie i Aftenbladet viser at kommunen hemmeligholder utbetaling av erstatning til mobbeofre. Mobbing.    

Politician Christine Sagen Helgø in talks with Aftenblad-journalists Thomas Ergo and Hans Petter Aass.

As the investigation continued, it turned out that this was not the only case of compensation kept secret. In only six months there had been compensations amounting to more than four million NOK to several individuals who had been let down by the local child care authority. All in all there were hundreds of secret compensation cases, showing that the important debate about the situation for vulnerable people had been silenced.

When facing these facts the local politicians admitted that the fear of openness was unjustifiable and the revelation has led to a cultural change. Stavanger and many other boroughs in Rogaland have reopened the report on Redress for Former Orphanage Children and a national initiative has been taken to make a common, national law for redress. Stavanger Aftenblad also showed that 106 of the 140 Norwegian municipalities investigated, imposed a general obligation of secrecy on their elected officials. Protocols, documents and even meetings were to be kept secret. The story led to implementation of several measures to increase openness and protect whistle-blowers. After the investigation, sixty mayors promised to put a stop to politicians being gagged. The Minister of Local Government and Modernisation asked all the boroughs and county councils to review their political rules and to start complying with the law.

2015 Stavanger. Aftenblad-journalistene Thomas Ergo (f.v.), Hans Petter Aass og Geir Søndeland var glade vinnere av Journalistprisen. Fjerdemann i kvartetten, Stein Halvor Jupskås, var ikke til stede. Prisen ble vunnet for artikkelserien «Hemmelighold, åpenhet og varsling i Kommune-Norge». Fra pressefesten i regi Stavanger Journalistlag (SJ) på De røde sjøhus.

Three of the journalists behind the story: Thomas Ergo, Hans Petter Aass and Geir Søndeland. (Missing: Stein Halvor Jupskås)