‘Threat to democracy?’: Why an online campaign group criticising Sweden’s coronavirus strategy has caused a stir

'Threat to democracy?': Why an online campaign group criticising Sweden's coronavirus strategy has caused a stir
The debate about Sweden's coronavirus strategy has become increasingly heated in the past year. Photo: Martina Holmberg/TT
An online campaign group for fierce critics of Sweden's coronavirus strategy has been accused of being "a threat to democracy" and trying to influence foreign governments to tighten travel restrictions for Swedes. Here's what you need to know.

Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio reported on a social media group made up of people critical of Sweden's coronavirus strategy, accusing them of “trying to influence Swedish interests overseas”.

The group in question, Media Watchdogs of Sweden, describes its aim on its Twitter account as “exposing the failed Swedish COVID-19 strategy and advocating for the prosecution of the architects of the strategy in international courts”.

Sweden's Public Health Agency has criticised the group following the report, with the agency's head of press describing the report as “unpleasant and shocking”.

Sveriges Radio said that the Facebook group's moderator posted about attempts to “influence governments in Europe to have quarantine rules for Swedes traveling abroad and to keep the borders closed to Sweden” by contacting embassies and authorities across Europe.

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The group is not alone in all of its criticism of the Swedish strategy. Sweden's king, prime minister, state epidemiologist, and an independent commission set up to investigate the response have all said that the country “failed” to protect the vulnerable elderly, a key pillar of the strategy from March last year. 

Multiple researchers have been critical of the strategy from an early stage, and in particular the reliance on recommendations rather than the kind of legally-binding rules that were being imposed in other countries. Sweden did not recommend masks to be worn by the general public until January 2021, and shops, hairdressers, gyms and schools for under-16s have never been closed at a national level.

Following Sveriges Radio's report the Public Health Agency's press spokesman implied that the campaign group's contact with foreign media was linked to “mistakes and half-truths” about the Swedish strategy in international media, but no specific examples of disinformation were given.

But one of the group's founders defended the tone, telling the Expressen newspaper: “I come from Ireland and there we are much more direct […] In Sweden, it seems to be a method for disarming someone in a debate, to portray them as problematic and against Swedish values.”

There has also been criticism of the Sveriges Radio report from other journalists and scientists.

Anders Vahlne, a professor in virology and member of the separate group Science Forum Covid-19, told Dagens Media that there was limited room for critical opinions in Swedish media.

“It seems to be a classic crisis behaviour that everyone joins behind the government and authorities. But I am still surprised that the media have so passively followed what the authorities said. At the same time, the political opposition has for a long time followed the government,” he said.

A group of around 20 scientific researchers (including some who are members of the Facebook group) have published opinion pieces in Dagens Nyheter criticising the country's strategy, and some have argued there has been insufficient questioning of the Public Health Agency by the media.

Beyond only criticising of the Swedish strategy, the Sveriges Radio article accuses the Facebook group of trying to influence foreign countries' policies towards Sweden.

The LinkedIn page of the founder states that in his role in the group, he “successfully lobbied Members of the European Parliament” as well as securing press coverage for members of the group. The founder of Media Watchdogs of Sweden, Keith Begg, has been featured in several international news articles, including by Business Insider, Norway's NRK, and News in Australia, but all of these outlets disclosed that Begg was an active campaigner against the strategy.

It takes place against the backdrop of heightened tension in the Swedish public debate about the country's coronavirus strategy, a debate that has often become abusive on both sides. 

Scientist Emma Frans described the Media Watchdogs of Sweden group as a “threat to democracy”, saying that she had turned off comments on her tweets and that she knew of researchers who no longer commented on the coronavirus in the media due to harassment.

Some protesters have accused the Public Health Agency and other authorities deliberately or through negligence of causing unnecessary deaths. On its Twitter account, the Media Watchdogs of Sweden group has described the Swedish coronavirus strategy as “similar to Nazi ideology” and in particular highlighted reports of elderly people not being offered treatment. 

Meanwhile, Norway's state epidemiologist Frode Forland reported abuse after he said he did not agree with the Swedish strategy entirely. Readers of The Local have reported receiving xenophobic social media abuse after criticising the strategy, while others said they had been coughed at or threatened for the act of wearing a face mask.


A man outside the Public Health Agency holds a sign calling the agency 'murderers'. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT


Member comments

  1. As usual the entire Government of Sweden, together with every single western European and North American Government have missed the point. China, Taiwan, S Korea, Singapore and Vietnam and controlled their Covid 19 outbreaks remarkably well, while western countries were appalling bad in comparison. And still they don’t learn, because they feel superior, but in reality they are dreadfully inferior in their knowledge of how to cope with a Pandemic. And still they persist in their ignorance… how pathetic is that!

  2. One can wonder what this group of 200 really want. Researchers and journalists can be notoriously envious and jealous of each other, so perhaps that’s their basic problem. But if they want to protest about strategies, they have the whole of Europe to choose from rather than focus on Sweden. Every single country has struggled, as can be seen in myriad graphs and statistics that cater to the bias of every potential protester and ‘expert’. Take your pick. The UK is probably one of the leading disasters with regard to confusion, frustration, U-turns and incompetence at Government level. Apparently the latest knee-jerk is to jail people for 10 years for fibbing about which country they’ve arrived from. Go figure.

    As for Swedish journalists being too soft, then I recommend the FHM’s twice-weekly press conference where after about 20 minutes of presentations the apparent elite of Swedish media pose questions. It’s often cringing and embarrassing to watch their amateurism, with the odd exception. The guy from Expressen (who always reminds me of Billy Bunter) puts on his show of tough half-truths with screaming capital letters, acting as prosecutor, judge and jury all within the space of a few minutes. While The Local asks matter-of-fact questions in a calm and polite voice. Pity that you always come nearly at the end!

  3. The article in Time contained a lot of half-truths and even false information. The authors could have written a critical article without misleading readers. For example, they wrote that “ Employees must also report to work as usual unless they also have symptoms of COVID-19.” The source they linked to had nothing to do with covid. It was Q&A on an employment website from 2015 in which a person posed the question “I have new tasks at work that are below my (competency) level and what I was employed for, do I have to do them?”

  4. This is assinine. State-funded media breaks ethics guidelines to inflitrate private group (including professionals working in health and epidemiology) and insinuates wrongdoing.

    It more looks like dissenting with the official line is tantamount to sedition now in Sweden. So besides murdering old and vulnerable people so people can pretend everything is ok and go to restaurants is not bad enough human rights violations, no, we have to add suppressing criticism of the government too now, right?

  5. It is a serious threat for society and it uses fake news and fear. Similar things happened in Germany and Austria and they worked. Media and some (few) expertes pushed the goverment in an awful insane panic position. The consequences are awful for the society and will last for years. Watch out! Don’t let a few well-paid activists distributed fear and hate with lies. It quickly infects and kills your society much worse than the actual Virus they talk about.

  6. Its a witch hunt. I know quite a few in the group. And its very telling. My guess is somewhere within the state the articles in TIME and so forth were noticed and then someone started to do some digging. Since its free speech, the only way they can bring it down is to intimidate and maybe hope some folkhälsonationalist does their dirty work for them. Because they can’t cite any evidence. So they tone police. Its a classic tactic used by those who benefit from the status quo to discredit any opposition and hopefully cow them into submission.

  7. If this is a threat to democracy, where is the substantiation? Sounds like basic free speech to me. I haven’t seen Sweden Radio produce a written report longer than 10 lines in years. Yet here they felt motivated to write a full, proper article. So much for their editorial independence.

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