NEWS ANALYSIS: Pussy Riot, the professor, and playing the media game
How Johan Bäckman’s one-man anti-Finnish media campaign in Russia generated headlines worldwide
By Tommi Nieminen
Much has been made in recent days and weeks of adverse publicity about Finland and its stand on the troubled euro, caused severally by overzealous headline-writers (in a British newspaper), by the misattribution of statements by one person into the mouth of another (Reuters), or by sloppy translation (AFP), but rather less noise has hitherto been heard about another incident that took place at the beginning of August and caused headlines to be made and opinions formed, at least in Russia.
On August 3rd 2012, Teivo Teivainen, a professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, organises a ”World Political City Walk” in Helsinki.
One of the sights along the route through the capital is the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, in front of which Teivainen has staged a performance by two performance artists wearing balaclavas. The women shout: ”Free Pussy Riot!”
This action sparks a chain-reaction, which is based on a false piece of news, and which leads to juicy stories at least on three continents.
August 6th: Teivainen receives an e-mail, containing a Russian-language piece of news - one of the first.
The publisher is the Ekho Moskvy Radio:
”All Finnish Orthodox churches have announced a state of emergency, stepping up security in case provocations like Pussy Riot occur. Professor Teivo Teivainen attempted to repeat Pussy Riot’s act at the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki at the weekend, but he was not admitted to the church, Finnish human rights activist Johan Bäckman reported to Interfax. After that Teivainen organised a performance by two Finnish girls clad in clergymen’s robes outside the church.”
The only person quoted in the piece of news was sociologist Johan Bäckman. The story spreads within the same day at least to the newspaper Kyiv Post in Ukraine.
August 7th: the online news service Verkkomedia reports in Finland that Teivainen has tried to throw urine into the Uspenski Cathedral, and that all Orthodox churches in Finland are on a state of alert.
Two days later Verkkomedia retracts and apologises for the false information.
August 14th: Bäckman and five other Finns sign a petition to be submitted to the University of Helsinki: an open appeal to dismiss Professor Teivo Teivainen.
They are accusing Teivainen of disturbing the peace of religious practice. A request for a police investigation relating to Teivainen’s actions is submitted to the Helsinki Police Department.
August 15th: The Russian news agency Interfax (among other sources) cites Bäckman: ”If the State Prosecutor’s Office files charges against the professor, he could be sentenced to as much as two years' imprisonment.”
The piece of news ends up at least in Kyiv Post in Ukraine and Kanal Pik TV in Georgia.
The allegations about Teivainen’s can full of urine are still alive.
Voice of Russia specifies that it was a jerrycan full of the liquid.
By this stage, the story has moved forward a step.
According to the US news agency UPI, Teivainen has already been taken into police custody.
Under the headline "Man arrested in support of Pussy Riot", the agency writes: ”A man in Finland was arrested after attempting to stage a punk protest in the style of Moscow's rock band Pussy Riot, a human rights activist said Wednesday".
The story is picked up and reported for example by the Zimbabwe Star.
August 16th: Communications Director Kirsti Lehmusto of the University of Helsinki tries to correct the news.
She sends a press release, saying that the source of the piece of news was Johan Bäckman:
”The article contains serious errors. In contrast to what is claimed in various news articles published in Russia, charges have not been pressed against Professor Teivainen for blasphemy or wearing a mask in public, nor has Teivo Teivainen been charged with any other crime. ... In front of the cathedral, Professor Teivainen discussed the human rights situation in Russia. The cathedral was closed in accordance with its normal timetable, and Teivainen did not try to enter the building. ... The source of the news, Johan Bäckman, is not a professor at the University of Helsinki, neither is he employed by the university.”
UPI posts a retraction based on the email sent by Lehmusto. The University itself later posts a firm rebuttal on its own website.
On August 20th, it turns out that the media train has nevertheless left, and the correction attempts are late.
The piece of news has been read for example in the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives in Helsinki to meet with his Finnish colleague Erkki Tuomioja, and also comments at a press conference on the sentence given to Pussy Riot.
”Whether the sentence is in line with the act, I cannot say”, Lavrov notes. ”For example in Germany, staging a blasphemous event in a church would bring five years ... in Finland two years.”
This is a misconception. In Finland disturbing the peace of religious practice would bring only fines.
According to the penal code, the maximum sentence would be six months in prison.
But Sergei Lavrov has read the same news as everyone else in Moscow.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.8.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Foreign Minister Lavrov praises Finland for visas (21.8.2012)
Johan Bäckman: the Russian media´s favourite Finn (7.12.2010)
UPI: Man arrested in support of Pussy Riot, 15.8.2012
Kyiv Post: Finnish professor sued for replay of Pussy Riot stunt at cathedral in Helsinki, 15.8.2012
Voice of Russia: Pussy Riot: now in Europe, 15.8.2012
Moscow Times: A corrected version of an article that also carries the story
University of Helsinki rebuttal, 16.8.2012
UPI: Finland Pussy Riot arrest denied, 16.8.2012
Teivo Teivainen (Wikipedia)
Johan Bäckman (Wikipedia)
TOMMI NIEMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat