Finnish ‘Activist’ Backs Down
Published: October 24, 2012 (Issue # 1732)
Рetri Лrohn / wikimedia commons
Johan Bäckman has frequently courted controversy by making unsubstantiated claims to both Finnish and Russian media.
Johan Bäckman, who presents himself as a Finnish human rights activist drawing the attention of the Russian media to the alleged harassment of Finland-based Russian mothers due to what he calls Finnish “Russophobia,” has admitted his reports were exaggerated and should not be “taken literally.”
Russian media have repeatedly published information provided to them by Bäckman, who has even gone so far as to describe the treatment of Russian children in Finland as “genocide,” without any fact-checking.
Last week, Bäckman also announced that he had been fired from the University of Helsinki — a statement that was rejected by the institution — and that he had had to hide because of persecution, while the Finnish media revealed that he himself had been involved in a lengthy legal dispute over child custody, which he had lost.
The Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE said Thursday on its website that Bäckman believes the Russian media to be “extremely uncivilized, characterized by emotionality and prone to exaggeration.”
“All discussions are highly emotional in the Russian media, problems are made more intense there,” Bäckman was quoted as saying.
“You simply cannot speak in Russia the way people do in the Finnish media, where statements are often highly monotonous.”
That is why a special approach was needed, he went on.
“If I speak in the Russian media, I can rave about how children in Finland are put in concentration camps. The recipient will certainly understand the information when it is in that emotional context,” Bäckman told YLE.
On Oct. 16, Bäckman made headlines in Russia by claiming that the University of Helsinki had fired him for his human rights activities and by threatening to sue Rector Thomas Wilhelmsson for “defamation” and “discrimination.”
Dozens of Russian print publications and websites reacted with headlines such as “Finland Does Not Tolerate Criticism” and “Finnish Human Rights Activist Fired for Defending Russian Mothers.”
Speaking to Interfax, Bäckman described the alleged firing as a “rude violation of the freedom of science.”
“The rector has no right to put pressure on me or other employees of the university for defending human rights,” he was quoted as saying.
The University of Helsinki reacted with a correction the following day.
“The University of Helsinki cannot discharge Bäckman because he is not an employee of the university,” communications director Kirsti Lehmusto said in a statement.
“Docent is a title granted by the university. Therefore, a docent is not an employee of the university. A docent can teach courses or guide doctoral dissertations, if so requested by the university. Docent Bäckman has not taught at the University of Helsinki since 2009.”
The University of Helsinki has decided to shut down Bäckman’s university email account at the end of the month on the grounds that he had not worked there for a long time, and was also looking into whether it was legally possible to rescind his docent’s title, Helsingin Sanomat reported Oct. 17.
The newspaper pointed out that the title of “docent” formally indicated that the holder had an actual job at the institution that granted it, even if nowadays it is a lifetime honorary title.
The news about Bäckman’s own lengthy legal dispute over custody of a child was published in Finland last week.
Bäckman had a relationship with the woman involved in the custody dispute in the early 2000s, but the two separated before the child was born, Helsingin Sanomat reported Friday.
According to the newspaper, the most recent court records relating to his legal battle — which began in 2005 — show that Bäckman’s application for sole custody was not considered.
According to Helsingin Sanomat, Bäckman told the newspaper at one point that the woman’s family had moved to Finland from the Soviet Union in 1990, but when speaking to the Finnish News Agency STT on Thursday he said she was Finnish.
The newspaper wrote that in court the woman claimed she came from Russia and accused Bäckman of having a negative attitude toward her national background, something that he denied.
On Saturday, the state-owned Voice of Russia radio reported on its English-language website that Bäckman had been obliged to flee Finland due to “immense pressure from the authorities.”
“I feel very uncomfortable, the situation is very risky,” he was quoted as saying. “I could even be assassinated. I receive death threats regularly. They are doing everything to harm my reputation in Finland. Nevertheless, I feel that ordinary people support me. Now I can’t rule out that I will have to flee abroad to escape persecution.”
On Sunday, however, Bäckman appeared in a live talk show broadcast on Finnish television and said that he was not emigrating at this point.
Bäckman’s recent statements include accusing the imprisoned feminist punk group Pussy Riot of being “fascist” and his call for an infamous St. Petersburg law forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality” to be passed in Finland.
In the Russian media, Bäckman has usually been described as a professor at the University of Helsinki, but two months ago the university stated publically that he was not teaching there.
In August, Bäckman accused a University of Helsinki professor of trying to break into a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Helsinki for a Pussy Riot-style protest.
The news was widely reported by the Russian media in August, complete with the detail that the professor allegedly had a canister of urine with him that he planned to throw inside the church.
Bäckman claimed that a criminal case had been opened against the professor and that his actions were being investigated by the police.
All his claims were dismissed in a statement from the University of Helsinki soon after.
Later on, Bäckman made a statement to the Russian media, claiming that the alleged criminal case had been closed due to “pressure from the University of Helsinki.”
There has been no confirmation of any legal proceedings from any source other than Bäckman himself.