Sweden: Mainstream populism has emboldened extremist opponents of the press


Tess Asplund faces protesters from the Nordic Resistance Movement in Borlänge, Sweden, in May 2016

Tess Asplund faces protesters from the Nordic Resistance Movement in Borlänge, Sweden, in May 2016

In exactly a year from now, Sweden will go to the polls to elect a new government, and it seems certain that the far-right Sweden Democrats party will further cement their place in parliament, and possibly even support a conservative coalition government.

The rise of the party – and the normalisation of their nationalist agenda – over the past decade has been accompanied by a more toxic fringe with clearer ties to extra-parliamentary far-right and neo-Nazi-movements who have identified established journalists as a barrier to the re-assertion of traditional Swedish values. Buoyed by the success of populism in mainstream politics, neo-Nazi groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR) have become more visible and the NMR will this year protest outside of the Gothenburg Book Fair, a hub for Swedish publishing and journalism which symbolises the “cultural Marxism” the far right assert has ruined the country.

The sight of Nordic white supremacists rallying at such a huge cultural event is though merely the tip of an invisible iceberg of intimidation and opposition to Sweden’s cultural and journalistic community by the far right.

A survey by Swedish public TV’s Kulturnyheter editorial desk of five major Swedish media outlets found that the overall level of threats to journalists was increasing, as were the amount of incidents filed with the police by journalists or their employers.  Attacks range from low-level intimidation and character assassination on social media to direct and persistent death threats. A now-removed website recently named a list of journalists it deemed traitors – alongside politicians and other public figures – with a call for violence against them.

The relationship between the Sweden Democrats and the networks that seek to intimidate journalists is not straightforward, but party figures have been connected to the site Granskning Sverige for example. Granskning Sverige was implicated in misinformation campaigns against journalists through selective editing of interviews, and party figures shared Granskning Sveriges content whilst party spokesperson Adam Martinnen gave his approval of the site in an interview.

When the newspaper Expressen revealed the names of the people behind Granskning Sverige, its editor in chief was visited in their home by two supporters of the site.

A common belief amongst conservatives and the far right is that journalism is a hotbed of far-left politics. Mats Qviberg, a former financier who purchased and then sold a share in the Metro newspaper, recently said of his own staff that there were “Stalinists” who needed to be “cleaned out”.

Lisa Bjurwald, a former journalist with the Aftonbladet tabloid newspaper who has authored several books on right-wing extremism, has taken a leading role in discussions regarding far-right threats to journalists. Bjurwald and her colleague Lisa Röstlund both received threats from a 55-year old anonymous emailer last summer. They managed to identify the harasser and testified against her in court in May. The emails contain threats, including: “I would cut you up so that you can’t produce any more bastard kids.” And “It would be wonderful to see your Leninist whore throats cut.”

Her misgivings are backed up by statistics. A recent survey by Gothenburg’s school of journalism, media and communication run in coordination with the Swedish Journalism Union concluded that threats were an everyday reality for a majority of Swedish journalists. Thirty percent had been directly threatened and two-thirds had been the subject of derisory comments or assaults on their integrity. Thirty percent also said they avoided tackling controversial subjects in order to avoid harassment.

In July the Swedish minister for Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, unveiled a strategy spearheaded by the Fojo media institute at Sweden’s Linnaeus University to protect journalists and tackle threats and intimidation, aiming to support the location and prosecution of harassers or those posing a danger to journalists, elected officials and artists.

“The problems with hate and threats to journalists have escalated in recent years and constitute a considerable threat to Sweden’s democracy. In their latest report, the Swedish Civil Contingencies agency suggested that an inquiry was needed to increase the legal protection for journalists reflective of the seriousness of threatening and harassment to representatives of the media industry. That same report says that threats and provocation of journalists are particularly serious because they are working in the service of democracy,” says Kersti Forsberg, Fojo’s director.

Worryingly for a profession built on democratic values, another significant element in the Swedish picture is declining trust in the media among the Swedish population. A book and report by researchers at Gothenburg found that trust in the media fell noticeably the further right voters identified on the political spectrum, peaking amongst supporters of far-right politics. Even more noticeably, the study showed that 54% of those surveyed felt the media was not reporting on the negative social consequences of immigration in Sweden.

Rather than merely being the work of a small group of individuals, opposition to journalists and intimidation is now a relatively mainstream undertaking when seen in the context of mistrust of journalistic institutions.

Swedish journalism, which has often been a benchmark for institutional strength and which takes its role as an important organ of society seriously, faces new threats, and the establishment of populist right politics as a permanent fixture has put it under more pressure than ever. Rather than merely being a target for individual threats and harassment, journalists in Sweden are realising that significant sections of society see them not as guarantors of democracy but as a partisan threat which needs to be neutralised.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1506333367029-0a79f09b-a789-1″ taxonomies=”9008, 6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Wikileaks – the view from Sweden part 2

During the last few weeks, Wikileaks has been in focus in all kinds of media worldwide. This has certainly been the case in Sweden, and for a number of very different reasons.

But if Wikileaks represents a new sort of journalism, as some commentators have been arguing, then the media response has followed its own and rather dated logic. The first two rounds of leaked US documents stirred up a debate concerning their content —  including new information about US military activities in Iraq. The latest round, Cablegate, which exposes diplomatic cables has led to a heated discussion about Wikileaks itself. As McLuhan (almost) put it, the medium risks becoming the message.

Not that the Cablegate documents aren’t interesting in themselves. The Swedes discovered that their government, after first letting the CIA land planes making secret prisoner transports changed their minds about the system and discontinued cooeperation in 2006. This was very welcome news. But the released diplomatic correspondence started a discussion about the nature of secrecy itself — what is legitimate discretion and what is just much smoke and mirrors, intended to keep citizens in the dark?

Interesting as that may be from a philosophical point of view, the real discussion point this time is Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange — after the allegations of sexual harassment and rape emerged during his stay in Sweden. Ironically, the matter has been thoroughly exposed on Swedish blogs and websites. Everyone who wants to know the details of the allegations can find names, places and other “facts” online —  very much in the spirit of Wikileaks itself. What you learn as you step into this mire of allegations, counter-allegations, facts and speculations is how sordid and complicated the matter is. The general opinion in Sweden — if indeed such an opinion really can be discerned — is that Assange should face a Swedish court and, probably, be released for lack of evidence. Not many commentators here really believe that he runs the risk of being delivered into the hands of the US authorities.

If we restrict our discussion to Wikileaks as a phenomenon in its own right, the general opinion in the Swedish press (with few divergent voices) is that something of this kind is necessary and even welcome — if handled with the proper journalistic ethos. As columnist Lars Linder argues in the largest Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter (12/12). “Wikileaks operate within the territory of classic journalism.” As Linder put it: “Wikileaks has shown us that what the powers that be really hide behind their speeches on “security” and “responsibility” — and that is ‘too much’.”

Wikileaks operates within the spirit of the classic muck-raking journalism that we tend to respect and consider more or less heroic — 10 to 20 years after the fact. During the Watergate crisis the Washington Post was accused of having a hidden (left-wing Democratic) political agenda and meddling in things they did not fully grasp. Today we consider their exposure of Nixon as a triumph of democracy. Wikileaks’ abilility to rally support is, of course, rooted in another fact: that many of the democratic states during the so-called “War on Terror” have been rolling back fundamental human rights. In that context the Wikileaks’ phenomenon can be regarded as a necessary push in the other direction.

Therefore it is even more outrageous that media channels in the above-mentioned democratic countries like the US and Canada have been filled with comments that must be seen as death threats. There is no other way to interpret quotes from for example Fox news contributor Bob Beckel who, speaking about Assange, encourages his viewers to “illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. There have been numerous such quotes during the recent weeks.

And this brings us to the bottom line: if democratic states shut down inopportunistic news channels with questionable or even illegal means — and if death threats to journalists are accepted as part of common political discourse — what is there to say the next time a journalist is shot in Mexico or put behind bars in China or Iran? Nothing. As Pen International states: “In a world where journalists are regularly physically attacked, imprisoned and killed with impunity, calling for the death of a journalist is irresponsible and deplorable.”

And that, my friends, is a wake-up call.

Ola Larsmo is a Swedish novelist and freelance critic, and president of Swedish PEN

Julian Assange to stay in custody as Sweden fights bail decision

Wikileaks‘ founder Julian Assange was granted bail by a London court, but he will remain in custody until an appeal against the decision is heard. Assange is facing extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges including one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape. He denies the charges.

Before he is freed Assange must pay a £200,000 security into the court, he will be electronically tagged and subject to a curfew from 10am-2pm and 10pm-2am.

Sweden, Israel, Aftonbladet and organs

Free speech controversies are almost always cast in the media as a duel, with a journalist challenging the powers-that-be, and the powers-that-be attempting (and often succeeding) to smother the revolt. The scandal that’s been dominating headlines in Israel in recent weeks, by contrast, is more reminiscent of a traffic pile-up: A newspaper publishes unfounded smears, local public figures fail to contain the scandal, and then a third government delightedly smashes in, creating a veritable mess.

To recap, some two weeks ago the Aftonbladet, a Swedish tabloid, published an incoherent report by one Donald Bostrom, alleging that the Israeli Defense Forces are in the habit of killing Palestinian youths to harvest their organs. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, demanded an apology — not from Aftonbladet, but from the Swedish government. The Swedish government refused to apologise, citing principles of freedom of speech and political non-intervention, which incensed the Israeli government even more. Now thousands of Israeli consumers are threatening to boycott the local IKEA branch, while Lieberman attacks Sweden for being “as complicit as it was during World War Two”, and, for good measure, chides Norway for celebrating 150 years to the birth of its greatest author, Knut Hamsun, (who in his dotage, and long after his literary accomplishments, developed a feverish admiration for the Nazi movement.)

The report in Aftonbladet was a textbook example of poor journalism. It also, in a rare instance of Israeli accusations of Jew-hatred actually being true, definitely reeks of anti-Semitism. The whole article is geared towards establishing a deliberately vague linking of the recent case of one of the accused in the New Jersey money laundering arrests:

“You could call me a ‘matchmaker’, said Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, from Brooklyn, USA, in a secret recording with an FBI-agent whom he believed to be a client. Ten days later, at the end of July this year, Rosenbaum was arrested and a vast, Sopranos-like, imbroglio of money-laundering and illegal organ-trade was revealed in New Jersey: rabbis, politicians and trusted civil servants had for years bin involved in money laundering and illegal organ-trade.

Rosenbaum’s matchmaking had nothing to do with romance. It was all about buying and selling kidneys from Israel on the black market. Rosenbaum says that he buys the kidneys for 10 000 dollars, from poor people. He then proceeds to sell the organs to desperate patients in the States for 160 000 dollars.”

The very reference is already inaccurate — Rosenbaum was the only one of the “rabbis, politicians and trusted civil servants” accused of any connection to organs trade, and only one kidney purchase is believed to have come from Israel, with the rest believed to have come from Eastern Europe. Not deterred by such nuances, Bostrom continues:

“Francis Delmonici, professor of transplant surgery at Harvard and member of the National Kidney Foundation’s Board of Directors, tells the same newspaper that organ-trafficking, similar to the one reported from Israel, is carried out in other places of the world as well.”

Note how the Israeli connection is re-inforced in an indirect quote. He then goes on to weave an embarrassingly improbable story about the failure of an Israeli public campaign for organ donation to “of a dramatic increase of young men disappearing, with ensuing nightly funerals of autopsied bodies”.

Bostrom then splashes through to the story of one such alleged victim:

“When Bilal was close enough they needed only to pull the triggers. The first shot hit him in the chest. According to villagers who witnessed the incident he was subsequently shot with one bullet in each leg. Two soldiers then ran down from the carpentry workshop and shot Bilal once in the stomach.”

Several high-velocity bullets into the chest and abdomen sure leave a whole lot of organs to be harvested. Bilal’s body is returned five days later, and

“As Bilal was put in the grave his chest was uncovered. Suddenly it became clear to the few people present just what kind of abuse the boy had been exposed to. Bilal was not by far the first young Palestinian to be buried with a slit from his abdomen up to his chin.”

In the photographs accompanying the report, a man’s body is pictured sown up, so it is unclear how the journalist determined organs were missing; not a single medical opinion — Israeli, Palestinian or international — is quoted to reinforce the claim, while the family of the victim told the Jerusalem Post they had never told Bostrom organs have been taken. Oh, and the incident took place 17 years ago, and Bostrom confesses not to have spoken to the family since.

It would seem that the best avenue of action for anyone concerned with anti-Semitism was to ignore it — the report appeared on the back pages of a tabloid, and would have been forgotten within days. Failing that, a libel suit might have been in order; Bostrom claims that “doctors in management positions at the big hospitals participate [in the illegal organ trade]”. Israel’s medical services are among the best in the world and attract thousands of students and patients every year; surely, the Israeli hospitals could have joined together to file quite an awesome compensation suit against the newspaper.

Israel chose instead to demand a formal Swedish apology, displaying a rather shocking ignorance of the official lack of connection between press and government in a democratic state. Nevertheless, Sweden could, at that point, have defused the scandal, by making a non committal comment to the effect of “while we cannot and should not take responsibility for something printed in the free press, we do find it regrettable some journalists and editors don’t bother to substantiate the rather serious allegations that they print.”

However, Sweden has a long tradition of freedom of speech, being one of the first countries in the world to have enshrined the principle in its constitution in the 17th century. Israel’s defenders have pointed out that the Swedish government did intervene into the Danish Islamophobe cartoon scandal and ordered a Swedish website hosting their reproductions closed; what they omit, however, is that this was the initiative of the then foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, rather than government policy. When her involvement in the shutting down of the website was exposed, she had to step down — and her party subsequently lost the elections. The then opposition leader, and now prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, made good use of the scandal, and could hardly be expected to reverse his position now.

In the meantime, Israeli authorities have introduced restrictions on Swedish journalists attempting to enter the country.

While it still remains to be seen how the crisis will be resolved, the political subtext of this diplomatic brawl must not be overlooked. This year, the EU, reassured by the United States, is finally beginning to step away from its long-cherished policy of exceptionalism towards Israeli suspected human rights abuses, violations of international agreements, and shunning of UN resolutions. Lieberman, himself a fanatical nationalist who supports ethnic cleansing (“population swap”) and archaic loyalty laws, would like nothing better then to present the EU’s current president — Sweden — as anti-Semitic and manipulated by its Muslim citizens and vested interests in the Arab world. The bad news is that a series of coincidences, a piece of journalistic trash and an unimaginative Swedish response, have handed him the opportunity on a golden platter. The good news is that he already seems to have blown it.

Apart from the politics, however, the ones damaged most by the scandal are individuals and NGOs genuinely concerned with human rights in the Occupied Territories.

Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist. He also co-manages Causeway — an experience-sharing project linking Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland