The Soviet Union and its legal successor Russia have always wanted to spread peace in the world, a “war reported” calmly told a group of students. If during the first days the Kremlin’s agenda was just a vague foreboding, it was beyond doubt by the fourth – we found ourselves in a propaganda camp.
We, twelve students of journalism from the University of Tartu and our professors Brit Laak and Signe Ivask, travelled to the Uppsala University in Sweden for a week to learn how to cover armed conflicts in one of the oldest and most reputable Nordic universities.
The summer school has treated with painful but burning issues in the previous two years – last year, the focus was on covering the refugee crisis. This year’s topic – war reporting – sounded promising, and the program put together by assistant professor of the university’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute Gregory Simons seemed exciting. Participants received the final agenda a mere week before the trip. That was the first time the name of Vanessa Beeley was mentioned, her presentation simply titled “War Journalism”.
“Today, you will hear a presentation that is especially critical of Western mainstream media,” event organizer Simons said on the morning of day three. A quick background check showed Vanessa Beeley to be a freelance blogger published by both Sputnik and Russia Today.
Beeley started her presentation slowly and monotonously, as if she had given the speech many times before.
However, the first gasps were heard coming from the audience when she had presented just a few slides. Beeley brought up a proposal by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1953 to ban all manner of war propaganda.
She pointed out how the Soviet Union made a similar proposal at the UN General Assembly in 1957. Western powers allegedly voted down the noble initiative to keep using cruel practices.
Next, Beeley said that the Soviet Union and its legal successor Russia have always tried to promote peace in the world.
We were shocked. One of us, Allan, stood up and walked out of the lecture hall (he would not be the last).
Beeley was unphased and continued. She said she is absolutely convinced there was no chemical attack in Douma this April. “The attack was staged by the White Helmets,” she kept saying.
“Based on what do you claim this?” Henry, a student from the University of Tartu, asked. Beeley said that she was there and saw White Helmets who rushed to the hospital later make it look like there had been a chemical attack.
“No UN investigative committee member could access Douma for two weeks after the attack. How did you get in?” Henry asked.
“Everyone had access, and the Syrian authorities did not hide anything,” Beeley claimed. “According to the report, members of the UN committee who tried to enter the area were fired upon,” Henry said. “I did not see that happen,” Beeley said resolutely. However, it was evident her seeming serenity was coming undone. Her voice became shriller and her manner more aggressive.
Opinion shaped into facts
Beeley said that terrorism in Syria is the fault of the country’s “moderate opposition” that is funded by the West. “Do you not know what the opposition is doing to pregnant women? I’ve seen the opposition tear them in half between cats,” she blurted emotionally.
“I do not favor that; I’m on the side of the Syrian people.” Beeley said she travels to Syria independently. Henry-Laur later read in a Huffington Post article that Beeley was escorted by the Syrian army and members of the government.
Beeley played a video of “Syrian terrorists” blowing up a five-story hotel. “Where is this video from? Who made it?” Uppsala University student Anna Marie asked. “It was taken by a good friend of mine,” Beeley replied.
Anna Marie asked for the friend’s name. “It does not matter. All source identifiers will be given at the end of the presentation,” Beeley said.
When Anna Marie asked about the origin of materials presented by Beeley for the third time, organizer Simons intervened.
He said he would email participants a list of Beeley’s sources. The list arrived the next day but was not exhaustive. After several requests, we were also sent the slides; however, they did not match those presented during the lecture. Beeley deleted the most slogan-like slides (including the one on the photo).
There was a coffee break in the middle of Beeley’s presentation during which we wondered where we were. A propagandist speaking in a top European university! We also discussed how to better put across our questions.
The lecturer called into question all major international organizations. There was no sense in pointing to Human Rights Watch reports as Beeley said it is run by a Jewish organization called the Washington Elite.
“The only major international organization that hasn’t been hit is the UN,” Henry said. The latter’s turn came after the coffee break. Vanessa Beeley claimed the organization is anti-Russian and promotes the interests of three major partners. Citing major publications was also fruitless as Beeley said both public broadcasters and private newspapers, like the Guardian for example, are just government appendages.
To have final confirmation as to Beeley’s allegiances, we asked about Crimea. “For your information, there was a free election over whether to join Russia in Crimea,” she said. That caused the Estonians’ mouths to drop and silence to descend over the lecture hall. To make matters worse, Beeley was given a certificate by the university she proudly demonstrated on social media. With it, the Uppsala University basically credited the lecturer as a serious expert.
Boycott by Tartu students
On day four of the summer school, EBS Professor Mari Kooskora finished her presentation with an assignment where she asked participants to critically analyze what they had heard during the summer school. Kooskora’s choice of topic was conscious as a lot of tension was left hanging in the air after the previous day’s presentation where no discussion was made possible.
Most groups analyzed Beeley’s lecture. The blogger was present for the discussion. As she set about justifying herself, debates quickly became heated. A few of the students went for their voice recorders to have proof of the conversation.
“I’m eagerly awaiting to hear of her references. If she [Beeley] thinks she can present information without references…” Kadri Org from the University of Tartu managed to say. “Can I interrupt you there,” Beeley continued, “I did not invent these things. You will have your references.”
“This is a summer school, an academic environment, you cannot have a presentation with no references here,” Kadri continued. “She pointed to a Supreme Soviet proposal, this is not acceptable!” Kristel, another student from the university, said.
“Yes, not all sources were academic, but some were,” organizer Simons said. “Some are not enough,” said University of Tartu Professor Brit Laak. “Couldn’t you [UT students] put a filter on yourselves? You’re just students,” a Latvian student came to Beeley’s defense.
Brit Laak was eventually forced to come to her students’ defense. “I will not even try to pacify my students because they stand for the fundamental values of journalism. The right to ask questions and be given factual information.”
Simons replied by saying that the question is not one of pacifying students but constructive dialogue. Nevertheless, he had previously asked a group, the arguments of which were presented by two Tartu students, to leave the podium before their presentation was over.
The group remained stubbornly in place. “God damn it, what part of what I just said was unclear,” Simons bellowed.
That evening, we held a crisis meeting with the professors. We decided to boycott the last day of the course as a protest.
The free day gave us time to analyze everything that had happened. Looking back at the course, we found more signs of the summer school’s bias. The agenda, participants and teachers received right before they boarded their flight, was changed constantly over the course of the summer school. Gregory Simons replaced several discussions and group assignments with improvised lectures for lack of time.
Western media paranoia
A certain mentality and a measure of bias was included in Simon’s home assignment we were given before arriving at the summer school. We had to analyze the coverage of the alleged chemical attack in Douma on April 7.
We had to look at the Syrian news agency SANA, one major Western media outlet, a Russian media channel and a domestic publication. Simons asked students to analyze materials prepared at home based on signs of propaganda and give examples of the media getting ahead of developments where applicable.
If the first flashes published by the Western media were based on NATO and U.S. sources, longer articles by Sputnik and Russia Today were set in contrast with the former. That is how a professor of the University of Uppsala tried to demonstrate that the Russian media is more objective.