Public kept in the dark about sexual harassment at youth festival

6:49 min

Gangs of boys and young men have harassed girls at a youth festival in Stockholm for two years in a row, and police dealt with the matter, but stated in external communication that the festival had gone smoothly. Now, the police are self-critical about not communicating what really went on, and the Prime Minister has called what happened a double let-down for young women.

The Stockholm police's head of communications Varg Gyllander says it was wrong not to speak openly about it, and an investigation is underway into how the communication department handled the case. 

"As (the person responsible for communications) in Stockholm, I am self-critical, we should have communicated that. I actually do not know why it did not happen," said Varg Gyllander.

"Police have, as I understand the information I have been given, done a pretty big job there. A number of people have been removed due to harassment of women," he told Swedish Radio News.

"So the problem is probably not the police work as such, but that we have failed to communicate what has been done and what has happened," he said.

Back in August, when Stockholm police summed up the festival We are Sthlm, the press spokes person wrote: "There have been relatively few crimes and few taken into custody considering how many participants there were".

But in internal communication that has been leaked to the daily Dagens Nyheter, a very different picture emerges. Gangs of boys and young men molested girls, a dozen cases were reported to the police, and officers working at the festival managed to identify some 50 suspected perpetrators. During the five days of the festival, approximately 200 young men were removed from the culture festival, which is held outdoors at Kungsträdgården square in central Stockholm every year.

The organizers of the festival tell DN that there are cases of sexual harassment at every festival, but that, beginning in 2014, groups of boys and young men work the crowds together.

"These cases are very particular. There are groups of guys who are deliberately focusing on surrounding and molesting girls. At first we were completely shocked by their actions," said Roger Ticoalu, head of events at Stockholm City council.

Since then, We are Sthlm has done what it can to educate all staff in basic principles and the festival's security has been increased, with guards as well as plain clothes police officers working alongside uniformed police.

According to Peter Ågren, who was heading the police operation this summer, one explanation as to why they did not talk more openly about this may be because the young men who were accused of harassing the girls, were mainly said to have foreign backgrounds. "Some times we do not really say how things are because we believe it may play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats," Ågren told Dagens Nyheter, referring to the anti-immigration party in Parliament.

Talking to Radio Sweden, the head of communications at Stockholm police, Varg Gyllander commented on this.

"These days, the level of discussion is very harsh, and it's very aggressive when it comes to discussing the matter of refugees and foreigners. I think that all of us are very careful how we express ourselves. But it is very important to say that the police authority should not have any thoughts about or comment on the fact that some parties benefit of this discussion, that is not our job. But if a police man said that, it is up to him, it is not the view of the police department," said Gyllander.

There seems to have been a bit of a backlash now. Now the people who say these things are covered up, they feel confirmed in their beliefs, don't they?

"Yes. It is not very good. I really want to point out that this is, of course, not a cover-up. We should have communicated, I don't know exactly why we didn't," said Varg Gyllander.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, the National Police commissioner Dan Eliasson said that he will make sure that the communications side of what happened, gets investigated.

"We have to get to the bottom of this. We will first hand it to the internal investigation to see if any wrongdoing or crime has taken place. If no crime has taken place, it may be a case of disciplinary actions. But I want to investigate that before I draw far-reaching conclusions from this," he said.

As for the harassment that took place, Eliasson called it "completely unacceptable".

"Everybody's physical integrity must be protected. We as police must inform objectively and relevantly about these things and put them into context. But we should not make any political considerations. I would be very disappointed if we are unclear in the information for political reasons," he said.

Anders Ygeman, the Minister for Home Affairs, told news agency TT he welcomed Eliasson's plan to investigate why this happened. 

"Naturally, it's unacceptable if the police conceal information. We must get to the bottom of this and chart out what in fact happened," Ygeman said.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven echoed the home affairs minister's view, adding that what happened had been a double let-down for young women: one that the crimes have not been reported, and two, that police have not been informing the public about it.

"I feel enraged that young women can't go to a music festival without being violated, sexually harassed and attacked. This is a very big problem for those who are affected, and for our country as a whole. We shall not budge an inch and we shall not look the other way," Löfven said.

Meanwhile Roger Ticoalu, head of events at Stockholm City Council, defends the police in an interview with Swedish Radio News.

"There has never been any kind of intention from our side or from the police to cover this up. We even issued a press statement that we would put extra effort into work . . . against sexual harassment, ahead of the 2015 festival," said Roger Ticoalu.

"The police is the authority that has reacted in this. As soon as we mentioned this problem in 2014, they started to work actively and hard on these issues with us. I cannot say that the police in any way have done anything wrong," he said.

According to Roger Ticoalu, the debate has resurfaced because of recent and similar incidents reported from Cologne and Helsinki.

"What I hope is that this will lead to us working even harder to find the perpetrators and to deal with the problem. That is the most important," he said.