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Dirty Tricks in Russian Media

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.




A Finnish professor who voiced solidarity with the Pussy Riot punk band became a target of wild allegations in Russian media. Why did Russian media report that the professor had taken a jerry can full of urine to Helsinki’s main Orthodox cathedral? What did the professor think about the whole affair? Heidi Laaksonen interviewed Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics at Helsinki University, on YLE’s Puheen Päivä programme on 24 August 2012. Below, edited and translated excerpts from the interview:

Heidi Laaksonen: Teivo Teivainen, has it felt like being in the “eye of the storm” in recent weeks?

Teivo Teivainen: Yes, indeed. The smear campaign attained quite massive proportions in Russian media. The same evening when the three members of the Pussy Riot punk band were sentenced [to two years in prison] in Moscow, millions of television viewers in Russia heard that there was a professor in Finland, a “Pussy professor,” who was about to be sentenced to five years in prison. All this was presented as fact in Russian media.

HL: Russian media reported that you wore a mask and tried to take a jerry can full of urine into Uspenski Cathedral with an intent to desecrate the shrine. Where did all this come from?

TT: This is a campaign of lies that has sought to create — with considerable success — a scandal that would allow [the Russian authorities] to say that charges have been brought in Finland against a professor who did something similar to what the Pussy Riot artists did in Moscow. This would allow to portray the sentence meted out on the members of Pussy Riot as “normal” and to deny that Russia would have turned its back on free speech, human rights, and the rule of law.

HL: Could it be that the smear campaign targeted you because of your human rights work?

TT: This campaign is linked to issues specific to Russia. I do not think that the campaign damaged my reputation in Finland, rather the opposite. In Finland, it is widely known what this is all about and who is behind this. In Finland, one of the few texts that smeared me stated that “feminism was a crime against humanity.” It could be that my work in defence of feminist goals has angered some people. In general terms, however, this is a series of events that is specifically related to Russia.

HL: You seem reluctant to name the person who has been the source of these Russian…

TT: The person is Johan Bäckman, who was the source of many of the false news reports about me. In his letter to the Rector of Helsinki University, Bäckman demanded that I be dismissed from my post. It is obvious that the target audience of these letters is not those Finnish institutions that they have been addressed to, given that the claims in the letters are regarded as simply ridiculous in Finland. However, this does not mean that those letters could not be used in a political smear campaign in Russia and then elsewhere. This is one of the more worrying aspects of this campaign.

HL: Are you afraid of the consequences? What can the consequences be?

TT: I have looked at other smear campaigns that this same person has launched before. Previously, the victims of these campaigns have received less overt support than I have. My situation is fortunate in that my employer, Helsinki University, has come forward very strongly in my defence. There has been no indication whatsoever that the university would have been unhappy about my actions.

HL: Lying is no crime in and of itself, but if someone is intentionally smearing someone’s reputation, that may constitute libel. Do you intend to take any action to restore your reputation or to have those responsible for this smear campaign face justice?

TT: I hope that this case will be studied, and that those studies will bring forth those mechanisms and sources that these sorts of smear campaigns are based on. Shedding light on these aspects may help prevent the damage to those people who end up being the target of similar campaigns in the future. I do feel that this is something that needs to be discussed. Where and how remains to be seen.

HL: This is by no means the first time that Russian media has published odd reports about Finland: In the case of Anton Salonen, Russian media published very curious reports about Finland’s social services. Is there anything that we can do here to change this situation?

TT: One should not give up just because there will always be media in Russia that do not adhere to journalistic criteria and that are willing to spread lies out of political considerations. By exposing the sources and credibility of those who spread these lies, we may help media outlets that do adhere to journalistic criteria avoid these pitfalls. Personally, I am not convinced that the quiet diplomacy that the Finnish Foreign Ministry and some larger media groups in Finland have pursued would have borne fruit.



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