Norway: “Ways of Seeing” and how come that truth is not enough to counter fake news

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Ways of seeing by Pia Maria Roll, Hanan Benammar and Sara Baban. Photo: © Leif Gabrielsen

When in November 2018 the Oslo-based Black Box teater premiered Ways of Seeing, a piece by Pia Maria Roll, Hanan Benammar and Sara Baban, they hardly imagined that the following real-life events would replicate and even further evolve the main narrative of the play, which is about the rise and normalisation of the far-right rhetoric in Norwegian society. The complicated multifaceted case evolved through 2019 and, in 2020 it reached stunning new developments. IETM got in touch with Anne-Cécile Sibué-Birkeland, Artistic and General Director of Black Box teater and former president of IETM, to hear the story first hand.

What Ways of Seeing is about

The play aimed to explore “the networks whose interest it is to make Norway a more racist society” by mapping the connections between powerful politicians and the billionaires who sponsor far right media in Norway. As researcher Ragnhild Freng Dale describes it, on stage, two of the actors hide in the bushes outside the homes of some of the influential far-right supporters and politicians, while footage of the actual houses, filmed or photographed from a public place on the street is projected on screen. “The actors only ever quote public statements, and no names or addresses of family members are mentioned in the production”, the researcher explains.

The play, featuring famous former Norwegian Supreme Court judge Ketil Lund, goes through a self-reflection whether such actions towards public figures are legal and delves further into the connection between the rise of the far right and the increased surveillance of citizens in nowadays Norway.

The far-right propaganda machine in full action

It wasn't long until the right-wing media, targeted in the play, initiated a mass campaign against the theatre and the actors, accusing them of violating the privacy of public figures and their families, inciting hate speech and even insinuating connections with radical Islam movements. The Human Rights Service, Document, Resett and other far-right media gave platform to populist right-wing commentators and politicians who condemned Ways of Seeing as “indecency”, and several of them insisted that public support for the Black Box teater is removed. Many of the politicians from Norway’s Progress Party, like the Minister of Public Security, Ingvild Smines Tybring-Gjedde, or Parliamentary representative Christian Tybring-Gjedde, made statements sharply attacking the artists. The Minister of Justice (now former), Tor Mikkel Wara, whose house appeared as a background in the play, and whose partner Laila Anita Bertheussen, filed a report against the artists and the theatre director for illegally invading her privacy, spoke about the “moral bankruptcy” of the theatre and the whole creative team while several attacks on the couple’s property happened, allegedly provoked by the play at Black Box teater. In March 2019, after a new “attack”, even the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg (of the Conservative Party), who has not seen the play herself, made critical comments based on claims from the right-wing publications.

Having far-right media united in a campaign against the artists and the theatre was not totally surprising. But the scope of these attacks was extremely offensive, combined with false narratives, guided by a clear political agenda. What startles in this case is how Norwegian mainstream media took the story from a few marginal far-right websites and disseminated it on a national level without even a simple fact check. How could that happen in Norway, which ranks first on freedom of speech in the RSF index? - Anne-Cécile from the Black Box Teater, shares her thoughts with the media after the right-wing allegations started building up. Although formally the theatre and the artists have been given the right of reply, interviews usually headed from assumptions that the piece violated privacy or why the theatre did not cancel the piece. “One of the drawbacks of today's journalism, Anne-Cécile contemplates, is that it gets more about mere reporting of opinions rather than commenting on and analysing them. And in such a situation, the most strident opinion wins…”

Sometimes being rational is not enough

No matter how many times the artists and the theatre director explained that the play is a fictional piece, that no one has been actually hiding in the bushes for days to film the private life of politicians and their families, that there is no law infringement, the far-right narrative of a “gross and ruthless violation” prevailed. Why? - Because it heavily exploited emotions, referring to common and dear values like the safety of family and the private life of ordinary people. Quite intentionally, Bertheussen signed her emotional letter published in the VG newspaper, which fuelled the debate on the mainstream media, as “Laila Anita Bertheussen, a mother”. 

Relying on emotions and instilling fear of extremist attacks was not enough. Actual events, like the appearance of accusing graffiti saying “rasisist” near the Minister's of Justice home, were insinuated to be provoked by the play. In December 2018, the Minister's car was set on fire, which triggered Bertheussen filing a complaint against the artists and the Black Box Teater director. Several attacks and threats against other Norwegian politicians have followed and Wara´s car was set on fire in March 2019. All these developments were closely followed by the media, building a negative image for both artists and theatre – to such extent that even many in the cultural sector refrained from expressing their support to them in the first months of the controversy.

“In the meanwhile, our personal details have been disclosed and we have received numerous threats”, Anne-Cécile recalls. “On top of everything, the artists and the theatre have become the target of internet trolls. Our theatre's profile on social media would gather numerous hate posts every day including regular comments from Bertheussen. We tried to reply and reason but for a small team of four people by then, running in parallel the venue's daily activities, that was impossible. We were overwhelmed by the trolls.”

Guilty until proven otherwise. And even after...

On 14 March 2019, Norwegian Police Security Service charged Laila Anita Bertheussen for setting the family car on fire with the intention to build a fake chain of events that would incriminate the team behind Ways of Seeing. That could have been the starting point of re-establishing the rational discourse around the case. Yet... at a press conference that day the Prime minister still kept the focus on the Bertheussen family members being unlawfully impacted by the play and later the same week, the police decided to charge the artists and the director of Black Box teater for violation of privacy, asking permission to search their houses. After a massive support from the civil society and the art field, the charges were dropped in 48 hours. The request that Bertheussen filed in personal quality in December 2018 was rejected, then appealed again and received another rejection, yet for weeks they spoke to the media about some investigations, without making it clear to the artists what they were accused of. The lawyers of the artists and the theatre had to file a complaint against the wrongful accusations and ill treatment.

The silver lining

Although Anne-Cécile shares the whole saga has built in her distrust of the mainstream media and the will of the regulatory system to counteract fake news and fabricated allegations, it proves to be an eye-opener and a learning experience to the whole arts and culture sector in Norway. The alarming case around Ways of Seeing mobilised the artistic community to unite and stand up against the threats for funding cuts and the attempts of the political far-right to suppress the freedom of artistic expression. 

In March 2019, a large demonstration in Oslo gathered numerous cultural organisations to defend artistic freedom of expression. They have been thinking of signing a joint statement elaborating ways to stand united for their rights, following a similar model as Die Vielen (The Many) in Germany.

The play has not been taken down, on the contrary, Ways of Seeing has been on tour in Norway, met with interest by the audiences who have already heard a lot about it from the huge media coverage. “Attending the actual play helps people to see how the right-wing propaganda works to manipulate them and to instil fear and hatred in their lives”, Anne-Cécile concludes.

***

September 2020 marked the start of the trial against Laila Anita Bertheussen who is accused of threats against democracy, faking attacks on her family and blaming Black Box Teater and the artists behind Ways of Seeing. The trial is aired live on Norwegian television or shared minute-by-minute in written by main Norwegian news media. If Bertheussen would be pronounced guilty she might have faced up to 16 years in jail for endangering democracy. On October 22nd, the prosecution asked for a sentence of two years of imprisonment.

What are the most recent disclosures in this case?

Anne-Cecile: The piece Ways of seeing is mapping how racism is gaining power in Norwegian society, and now the trial brings evidence how the layers of power relations intervene and work for the purposes of right-wing propaganda. For example, it became apparent that Bertheussen was in a closed Facebook group with members of the government, heads of right-wing websites and they were chatting in a nonchalant tone how to structure the disinformation against the artists and Black Box teater. They constructed the plot and discussed how to leak it to the media, exchanged advice on how to write the chronicle... A big PR agency in Norway, former employer of the ex-Minister of Justice, to where he returned after resigning due to his partner Bertheussen being charged for arson and endangering democracy, gave consultations how to organise the whole disinformation campaign most effectively.

Some chats of Bertheussen that were made public in the course of the trial have revealed that she faked all her anxieties in connection with the alleged revealing of her private life. Even more, some of the troll attacks that flooded our social media newsfeed were actually hers, hidden under fake profiles…

Naturally, all these recent disclosures bring a lot of attention. What are the comments in the public space? Any demands for further steps?

Anne-Cecile: Discovering these layers of connections between the politicians, right-wing media, communication agencies etc. has gripped the attention of Norwegian society and the majority of media follow closely the disclosures in the course of the trial. The cynical tone of the revealed conversations is shocking to many and commentators start asking: do we really want to be governed by people with such low ethical standards? Yet, there are no mass protests against the government or calls to resign. There were some voices asking the Prime minister to apologise for saying that the artists of Ways of Seeing and the Black Box teater have made the life of Norwegian politicians more difficult, but that has not happened so far. None of the media that broadcasted the fake stories against the Black Box Teater and the artists has not apologised either.

Is there a more pronounced response in the artistic field?

Anne-Cecile: Not that much in a collective or structured way, but there is in general a lack of collective apparatus in the field, including among theatres. The Union of the visual artists has officially asked the Prime minister to apologise for her words back in March 2019 when she made that statement in public. Now, with the trial in the centre of public attention, artists voice out the need to secure the freedom of speech and the necessity to hold the politicians accountable for their connections, actions, and words.

Nowadays censorship in democratic Europe often takes the discrete form of funding cuts. There was a threat for your funding being cut due to staging Ways of Seeing. What happened?

Anne-Cecile: In mid-December 2018, representatives of the populist Progress party in the City council called for our funding being cut but their arguments were rejected. Now, in the course of the trial it has been revealed that Bertheussen herself has called numerous festivals and theatre organisations who would feature work by Pia Maria Roll, Hanan Benammar and Sara Baban, the artists behind Ways of Seeing, and asked them to cancel the performance. She has been lobbying with far-right politicians for funding cuts for any organisation which decides to show the piece or other works of the artists.
Arm-length distance gets shorter, when you see politicians trying to interfere directly with programming, artistic content and to how public funding is being used. It is very important to safeguard artistic autonomy and artistic freedom. Art carries the potential to stretch where it hurts and to challenge mainstream perspectives. Any well-functioning democracy needs to protect this subversive power. One problem is that social media and click baits contribute to strengthening the visibility and the impact of anti-democratic forces, even in a Nordic context.

What are your expectations for the trial?

Anne-Cecile: What is already a big step is that light has been cast on all these layers of power that have been connected to manipulate the opinion and interfere into democratic processes. The accusations are extremely serious, and if Bertheussen is found guilty, she will go to jail. That should be the case with any person who asserts influence on politicians, manipulates the truth so that other people get the blame for their actions, especially if this is a person of power. For society, it is important that the whole scheme of right-wing propaganda in the mass media is being revealed through this trial. And our case is not an isolated attack. Media here in Norway turn out to be prone to quickly giving platform to conservative voices without double-checking their narratives. This summer, the students at KHiO, Oslo National Academy of Arts, signed an open letter asking for the school to create a platform to discuss issues of racism, to include in the curriculum a post-colonial perspectives, queer and feminist studies, to work on a plan for diversity, inclusion and anti-discrimination. Right away, the newspaper Morgenbladet published a letter from another group of students, calling inclusion ‘indoctrination’ and opposing such measures as putting ideology before subjects and knowledge. This position was largely relayed by the media, by commentators and academics, with bad faith and outrageous simplifications, whereas the ones asking for positive change were undermined, attacked and marginalised.

In the long term, I hope this trial will make the media more critical next time when they get a well wrapped story, and they will question what they read and hear.

How do COVID-19 measures affect the artistic scene in Norway? Can you detect any attempts to restrict the freedom of speech under the pretext of safety measures?

Anne-Cecile:  Indeed, this might be the case in some countries through closure of businesses and body control. In Norway it is more about narrowing down our activities due to the reduced number of seats. The biggest uncertainty is how we will continue to work internationally. Not being able to tour a piece and to collaborate internationally is actually a threat against the freedom of speech. The current situation narrows down the opportunity to hear different voices in the cultural field. Here in Norway we need to hear voices from other continents. Mobility in arts is not a secondary thing, it is extremely important. It brings diversity of expression and sustainability in the field. This is my biggest concern for the next year and I still haven’t found a solution to it, particularly while travel restrictions are becoming even stronger.

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