Swedish public radio (SR) has defended a report saying a group critical of the country’s Covid-19 strategy, run by an Irish man, was trying to undermine Swedish national interests abroad.
Journalists at the station also dispute the claim by the group’s founder, Limerick-born Keith Begg, that he fled Sweden – his home for nearly eight years – as a direct result of he report.
Last month, SR broadcast a 20-minute report into a group set up by Mr Begg last April called Media Watchdogs of Sweden (Mewas). The group is highly critical of Sweden’s pandemic response, saying largely voluntary restrictions while avoiding lockdown closures have left nearly 13,000 dead – a death toll five times higher than its Nordic neighbours combined
SR journalists joined the organisation’s private Facebook group, and then showed examples of its activities and chats to experts. One such expert, cited in the radio report, said the group’s general tone could “at worst, encourage people to commit crimes”.
The report attracted huge attention but Mr Begg told The Irish Times last week it misrepresented his small group as a clandestine organisation with malevolent intentions, and confirmed his worst fears about there being a narrow corridor of acceptable opinion in Sweden.
SR insists it made no judgment call on the group’s claims, but merely relayed the concerns of various experts it contacted.
“The report is about how public debate is influenced,” Anders Pontara, SR acting foreign editor, told The Irish Times. “We did the report to highlight how actors work to shape the narrative around the extremely polarising issue of the response to the pandemic in general, and the Swedish strategy on how to handle it in particular.”
One of the experts quoted was James Pamment, a British-born associate professor in strategic communication at Sweden’s Lund University.
Mr Begg’s group stood out because of the cumulative nature of activities and rhetoric, he said, which at times drew parallels between Sweden’s pandemic approach and Nazism.
Mewas misrepresented itself as an NGO while adopting “questionable” techniques, Prof Pamment added, saying members trolled – made inappropriate or provocative comments online – and urged embassies and MEPs not to lift travel restrictions on Swedish citizens.
“They are trying to damage Sweden in the eyes of people making those decisions,” said Prof Pamment, adding he had commented on the group’s methods and not the legitimacy of its criticism of the Swedish strategy.
Similarly, SR editor Anders Pontara insisted the report team had not sought to judge the contents of the group’s communications. Nor, he said, did SR journalists examine what influence – if any – the private Facebook group of 200 people had on public opinion at home or official policy abroad, in particular to influence Swedish interests negatively.
SR cited an expert from the psychological operations division of the Swedish armed forces, he said, as a “relevant expert in the field”.
The station disputes Mr Begg’s claims he fled Sweden after reprisals following their broadcast, saying he had said in the Facebook group months ago that he had a new job outside Sweden.
Asked about this by The Irish Times, Mr Begg said he had been in loose talks since February about a possible job in Madrid, which had come to nothing, and he had no job now in Ireland.
The Limerick man described SR remarks about his job as part of a wider strategy of “deflection and denial” to “discredit people rather than take responsibility” for the human cost of Sweden’s Covid-19 strategy.
“I am appalled by this,” he said. “It was the vilification and threats that left me with no choice and I decided to leave a few days after the broadcast.”