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Russian radio spread 'fake interview' about mental health in Sweden

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Russian radio spread 'fake interview' about mental health in Sweden
Försäkringskassan's Director-General Ann-Marie Begler. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
17:33 CEST+02:00
Some Russian media outlets are reporting on a wave of mental illness sweeping across Sweden, referring to made-up figures and a faked interview with the director-general of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, a spokesperson has told The Local.

The Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) said it was first alerted about the fake news when its press secretary Makan Afshinnejad received a call from the Swedish embassy in Moscow, reported Swedish news wire TT.

The embassy wanted to know if Försäkringskassan's director-general, Ann-Marie Begler, had been interviewed by the Russian radio station Baltic Voice about mental health issues. But no such interview had taken place.

"Firstly, our director-general has not been interviewed by Russian media. Secondly, they have taken figures from a recent report on mental health. If you start off with something current that may be true, and then twist and turn it – that's a form of disinformation," Afshinnejad told The Local.

He said that in the fake interview Ann-Marie Begler is claimed to say the number of Swedes on sick leave with mental health issues has doubled in five years' time, and that the number of cases of mental illness has increased by 70 percent. 

But those figures are taken out of context, according to Afshinnejad.

"If you look at what they write, for instance that the number of cases of mental illness have increased by 70 percent. What time period does that refer to? There is no mention of that whatsoever. And the fact is that we do not report on the number of cases of illness. We monitor sick leave and sickness benefits. So those are definitely not our figures," he said.

The fake interview has been spread across several Russian media outlets. The story appears to refer to an article by the Swedish public-service broadcaster Sveriges Radio, which reported on Monday that the number of people on sick leave for mental health issues has more than doubled in five years, and that the period of sick leave for such issues is 70 percent longer than sick leave for other reasons. 

Sveriges Radio's story is based on a report from Försäkringskassan, and includes an interview with Ann-Marie Begler. But the figures in the Russian report are used haphazardly, said Afshinnejad.

"They say that since 2014, mental illnesses are dominant in Sweden. What is meant by that? The truth is that mental illness is the most common reason for sick leave. They have taken something that could be true in some form, and then they have twisted it," Afshinnejad said.

Patrik Oksanen, an editorial writer at the Mittmedia news group, specializing in information wars and disinformation, told TT he believes the stories are part of a smear campaign against Sweden.

"In this case I would say it is mainly aimed at a Russian audience with the aim of tarnishing Sweden," Oksanen told TT. 

Afshinnejad said this was the first time Försäkringskassan had been involved in a disinformation campaign.

"We take this very seriously, of course, and we have also submitted an incident report to our security department," he told The Local.

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