The Swedish Institute for International Affairs research scandal

Note: This text is part of the longer text NGOs and state-funded research trying to silence peace voices in Sweden.

Could it be worse? Yes, it could. On the January, 5 2017, two researchers at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, one of them also at the Uppsala University, published an article in an international journal of strategic studies.

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Article published in The Journal of Strategic Studies January, 5 2017:
“Russia’s strategy for influence though public diplomacy and active measures: the Swedish case”.
Authors: Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg.

The article accuses several Swedish organizations and individuals to be carriers or ”interlocutors” of a Russian narrative and thus they are to be viewed as a threat to the security in Sweden. Some of the persons are anonymized while others are presented with their real names in the article. The reason for anonymizing is expressed as these individuals not being public figures. The interlocutors are defined as being peace organisations, conspiracy theorists and environmentalists as well as right wing extremists and left wing extremists. The authors also accuse mainstream media, the cultural pages of Aftonbladet, the biggest daily newspaper in Sweden. The article is widely spread internationally by newspapers such as The GuardianNew York TimesHuffington PostTagesspiegel etc. All, with the exception of the conservative Aftenposten in Norway, represent the study without criticism.

In Sweden, the paper received harsh criticism and soon the authors had to state that they were going to correct the text and take back their accusations against four Green MPs, the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society and the cultural section of Aftonbladet. Academics claimed that the paper has such great methodological, empirical and theoretical flaws that it could not be called scientific. The Swedish Institute for International Affairs claimed, in defence, that it was not an official position of the institute although it was financed by the institute since the authors work there. In the international press, the paper was and still is presented as a study published by the institute and this applies also to articles based on the interviews with the authors.

The controversy about the article continued when Martin Kragh announced in Medierna, a special public service radio program scrutinizing media, that a scoop based on the paper and its background material soon was going to be published in a big daily newspaper in Sweden. Already in the article he had claimed that a meeting in Crimea had been a key nexus between Kremlin, European fascists and Swedish pro-Russian groups. Now the full story winames was going to be presented to the public about this Crimean meeting including contributors to the Aftonbladet cultural section present mingling with separatists and fascists.

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Article published in Expressen Kultur January, 19 2017:
“The secret names in the study of Kremlin fawning”.
Author: Karin Olsson.

The main scoop announced by Kragh did not hold water. This became clear at an early stage when Karin Olsson who had the task of writing the scoop started to check the story. Olsson is the head of the cultural section and deputy publisher of Expressen, the main competitor to Aftonbladet. Olsson could be seen as a good choice for writing the scoop. In the first publication directly after the article had been published in an international scientific magazine, Olsson dehumanized those accused of spreading the Russian narrative calling them “värddjur”, animals being hosts to parasites. This dehumanizing way is typical for the most aggressive propaganda against opposition to Swedish-Ukrainian policy and rapprochement to NATO.

The claim in the original article by Kragh was that a ”Swedish environmentalist” was present at a twofold meeting on the same day on Crimea, who in the first part mingled and exchanged experience with leftists, and in the second part with European right wing extremists.

The “Swedish environmentalist” was Tord Björk; a veteran environmentalist since the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm 1972, holding positions as board member or coordinator of committees at national level of Friends of the Earth Sweden since decades and active in the social forum Prague Spring 2 Network against right wing extremism and populism (PS2). The name was stated already in the references of the paper. This makes the claim, that the authors were making the names of the accused interlocutors of a Russian narrative, anonymous if they were not public figures, questionable for at least two reasons. First, it only requires looking at the reference link closely to find who was behind the ”anonymised” name. The name was only a few seconds away already in the paper published online. Second, Tord Björk has worked for several decades with environmental public activities and must thus be regarded as a public figure.

The accusations also proved to be false by the references in the paper itself. One can question if the authors even had looked carefully enough at them. In the references, the time for the two meetings were stated as being almost two months apart. This makes the authors’ claim about mingling between European fascists and Swedish environmentalist physically impossible.

Another source was then supposed to prove that Sachnin had been at this Crimean meeting. Sachnin, who has been contributing to the cultural section of Aftonbladet did not attend the meeting on Crimea. Sachnin’s role as a “false political refugee” and “Putin’s agent” could not be proven. The idea to make a scoop showing how the cultural section of Aftonbladet directly was a Kremlin tool did not work out as this neither could be proven. The whole scoop fell apart.

But, Olsson did the best she could to hide the mistake by the authors of the allegedly scientific article. She concealed the false story in the paper by presenting a new version so that the mistake would not be exposed. The European fascist meeting was erased. So was the later claim by Kragh that contributors to the Aftonbladet cultural section had been present on Crimea. The media made somehow magically the fake claims to be erased from public memory. When asked by journalists, Kragh afterwards claimed that he was sick during the interview when he announced the upcoming story about the contributors.

Instead a new story about the Crimean meeting was presented as a journalistic sensation. The “secret” names behind ”Kremlfjäsket” (In English: Kremlin fawning) were revealed by Expressen. Key evidence of the link between Russian disinformation in Sweden and the Kremlin was now presented in a lightweight version, still with a Crimean meeting as centrepiece.

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Article published in Internationalen July, 24 2014:
“Ukraine: Dancing on the edge of the abyss”.
Author: Tord Björk.

The problem is that the facts were known since the meeting took place during the summer of 2014. An article written by Tord Björk – Ukraine: Dancing on the edge of the abyss – about the meeting on Crimea was published in Internationalen soon after the meeting took place. The report was from the first of the two separate meetings held on Crimea during the summer of 2014. The opposition from all over Ukraine could meet there, a meeting not practically possible to organise anywhere else. The article presents the presence of a wide range of groups including left wing organizations such as Borotba and left wing groups from Europe and Canada, as well as representatives of the militias of DPR and LPR. The problem with right wing extremism in the new republics was also openly addressed.

Two members of the social forum network PS2 were present at this meeting on Crimea. One of them was Tord Björk. The presence of PS2 was, besides solidarity concerns, part of an effort to develop dialogue between civil societies across the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict and this included both pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan groups. It was a sustained effort that in 2015 enabled a seminar at the World Social Forum in Tunis with participants from both Kiev and Donetsk.

According to the researchers at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs a main component of the Russian narrative is that the new government is stated as a “fascist junta”. The common international statement at the meeting on Crimea does not use this term. Instead it claims that there is a right wing neoliberal government with some right wing extremist ministers in Ukraine. This is correct at the time and no one disagrees with this claim. But instead of presenting these facts about the meeting and referring to the article by the accused ”Swedish environmentalist”, both the so called scientific article and the tabloid scoop in Expressen chose to hide this source. The fact that “separatists from Eastern Ukraine” were present at the meeting is instead presented as a fact to expose as a sensation although this, together with the problem that right-wing extremists are also part of the resistance against the Ukrainian military, is already addressed openly.

By unnecessarily making the name anonymous of accused ”interlocutors” of Russian disinformation, the research paper was helping a tabloid paper make a scoop under the headline of secret names being revealed helping the Kremlin. The media has sensationally “exposed” a fifth column in Sweden with the help of the unnecessary anonymity chosen by the authors at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. It was done to maximize the effect of the sensation in the report they seem to have planned to help from the very start.

There were only two problems. First, the journalist Olsson needed to check the facts since a newspaper cannot publish wrong accusation against individuals. Thus, contrary to the methods used by Kragh, journalistic methods such as asking people and checking the sources showed that the research included fake facts. It was proven that the background material did not show what the authors from the Swedish Institute for International Affairs in advance claimed to be the most sensational revelations. Since this was to be exposed in the coming scoop, the sensation imploded.

Secondly, while researchers can claim that they chose to put off publishing sensational material for two and a half years, journalists cannot do so. The sensation was not the news since the criticism against the Crimean meeting as well as the report from it were openly presented already close in time to when the meeting took place. Applying journalistic rules to the tabloid ”scoop”, serious journalists would have addressed the issue already then, during the summer 2014. The only way Expressen could present the material as a scoop was to put normal journalistic news rules aside and instead use the fact that the researchers made some of the names anonymous. In this way, they could pretend that a scoop was made.

Kragh, the main author of the research article, claimed while he announced the upcoming scoop in the media that there was a group of journalists, researchers, and others – in that order – that had shared background material and followed the accused interlocutors during a long period. The accusations have in other words been known to the journalists during a long time. Only Olsson however, has stepped forward as part of the group, with which Kragh has collaborated. Their access to key institutions in Sweden is shown already by the fact that the key actors include resources from the most well-funded foreign policy institute in Sweden, the prestigious Uppsala University and a large national tabloid newspaper.

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The head of the unit for psychological defense at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency tells one of the authors that it’s “A very good report!”.

The fact that the initial paper received uncritical welcoming response from the media in Sweden as well as on Twitter from people such as the head of the unit for psychological defense at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency shows that there is substantial power behind the group of people that for many years have been collecting background material about the accused “interlocutors” of a “Russian narrative”.

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