If the Uppsala University is planning to issue an official apology, the assistant professor who organized the course describes accusations of propaganda by students as absurd.
“Yes, we organized a summer school here in Uppsala recently that turned out differently than expected,” head of the university’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute Claes Levinsson told Postimees. He added that the institute takes the incident seriously and has launched an investigation.
“We had no prior knowledge of the invited person, and we had no reason to believe that the organizing person here at Uppsala University would frame the summer school into a pro-Assad and pro-Russian event,” Levinsson said.
He agreed with students in that Vanessa Beeley is strongly biased towards Al-Assad and Russia. “It came as a total surprise both for us here at Uppsala, but also for the other coordinators from the partner universities from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” Levinsson said.
The institute’s director admitted that academic standards were not observed and that this will have consequences. “We will formulate an official statement and apology to the summer schools partner universities and we are currently engaged in serious discussions with the person who organized the summer school on the behalf of Uppsala University,” he added.
The news has reached a local Swedish publication. „Pro-Assad lector criticizes Uppsala University. University forced to apologize,” the Uppsala daily wrote on Monday.
The main organizer of the war journalism summer school, assistant professor at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, Gregory Simons, sees no reason to apologize. He regards claims of Kremlin propaganda as ridiculous and believes it was justified to invite Beeley. „Vanessa was invited to the summer school as she provides an alternative point of view to the mainstream one. The event is about war and peace journalism, she is a war correspondent and direct eyewitness to the current war in Syria,” Simons explained.
„The summer school should not be an echo chamber of the dominant discourse in the West, but to provide other viewpoints that exist, yet are marginalized,” he said. He added that while people are not under any obligation to agree with Beeley, it would be useful to listen to her opinion. Simons also claims everyone knew Vanessa Beeley would be speaking at the summer school.
Brit Laak, professor of television journalism who accompanied University of Tartu students on the trip, finds that Simons is either consciously ignoring or fails to understand the core of the conflict.
„Beeley’s presentation would have required a counter-presentation from someone who disagrees; for example, is very critical of Russia’s actions and media. Beeley’s presentation and lack of time for discussion and questions made it look like there was nothing to question,” Laak explained. She added that Beeley attacked students when they tried to ask questions.
„I would never dream of yelling at a student or calling them „just a student” or „a brat” for participating in a discussion and courage to ask critical questions.” Laak said that the organizer was expected to moderate the event while no discussion was ever created.
The professor said that representatives of the University of Tartu, Vilnius University and the Estonian Business School (EBS) sent an official note of concern to Uppsala University.
„It is too early to say how the incident will affect cooperation between the University of Tartu and Uppsala University,” Laak said. „What is for sure is that the UT Institute of Social Studies will not work with Greg Simons again after such a serious breach of academic customs,” the professor added.
Blogger Vanessa Beeley, who refers to herself as a freelance journalist, told Postimees that the aim of her presentation was to „honestly counter the dominant mainstream narrative on the Syrian conflict based upon her own experience”. The woman visited Syria in the summer of 2016 and spent time with President Bashar Al-Assad. She posted a photograph of the meeting on social media she titled „Proudest moment“.
Beeley said that many of the students appeared to comprehend the purpose of her talk and were appreciative.
„The fact that it was interpreted as „propaganda“ by a minority is indicative of an inability to evaluate fact that does not comply with an established geopolitical narrative,“ Beeley said of Estronian youths. She finds that Western media texts are largely aligned with the foreign policies of their respective governments which is why events in Syria misrepresented.
Laak explained that students from the University of Tartu were the only ones who studied journalism which is why there was greater pressure on them. That is also the reason why the Estonians were more vocal in expressing their displeasure. „They had to moderate discussions, help members of their group, analyze and explain matters.“
The summer school is funded through the Nordic Council of Ministers’ educational program Nordplus.