Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten ran into trouble when it once again organized a reader poll of who should be the Norwegian capital’s “Citizen of the Year.” The honor went to a man named Mohsan Raja, who had helped spearhead efforts to aid asylum seekers arriving in Oslo, but then his past came back to haunt him.
Raja, now age 30, was among those nominated to be Årets Osloborger and he received the most votes for his volunteer work on behalf of newly arrived asylum seekers in Oslo. Many were forced to sleep outdoors while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, and Raja reportedly worked almost around the clock to help feed and shelter them outside the overburdened police station in Oslo where they needed to register.
The annual prize has earlier gone to top local officials and well-known personalities, like the donor of the sculpture park at Ekeberg, real estate magnate Christian Ringnes, or the driving force behind the annual international Norway Cup football tournament, Frode Kyvåg.
Raga was largely unknown, but after the prize was awarded, there were no small amount of protests directed at Aftenposten’s choice. Raja was found to have made highly provocative anti-gay comments in online debates and advocated “death to Israel” in another debate. He had published photos of himself on Facebook brandishing a gun and he was said to be quarrelsome and authoritarian with other volunteer workers, especially women. It also emerged that Raja had a record of convictions for narcotics-related crimes and violence.
Apologies all around
Aftenposten was accused of not having properly researched his background and admitted as much, with its editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, admitting on Wednesday that while readers had nominated him, it was Aftenposten’s responsibility that he came to be evaluated as a public person. The paper should also have done much more, Hansen wrote, to reveal how Raga has expressed himself in the past.
Raja himself has since admitted that he “has a past of which I’m not proud.” He claims he grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Oslo, with “gangsters as mentors.” His most recent criminal conviction came as late as four years ago but Raja claims he was “young, stupid and did things I regret today.” He said the photo with a pistol was taken in 2010 when he was on a trip to Pakistan and he thought it as “cool” at the time.
He also claims he was only trying to be provocative when he wrote offensive remarks about gays and Israel and supported Islam’s harsh sharia law. “I can’t remember writing that,” he told Aftenposten on Tuesday, and claimed that “those who know me know that I am not a person who hates homosexuals.” As for the “death to Israel” comment he wrote, “I support Palestinians in that conflict.”
A high-profile Member of Parliament who’s also a Muslim with Pakistani background called on Aftenposten to withdraw it prize. “It’s not enough to do some good deeds if you also have such opinions that imply anything but,” MP Abid Raja (no relation) told Aftenposten.
Editor Hansen, who’s openly gay himself, said he needed to some time to evaluate the “difficult situation” around the newspaper’s prize. He ultimately concluded, and told Mohsan Raja, that he “deeply disagreed” with much of what Raja has written and done, but would not retract the prize.
“I have under doubt concluded that would be wrong,” Hansen wrote on Wednesday. Raja, he decided, still deserved credit for his efforts to help people in need, and Raja himself has promised he’s changed his ways. He has apologized for his offensive remarks and noted that he most recently arranged a torchlight parade against terrorism “and will continue to work for refugees when the need arises.” An embarrassed Aftenposten will likely put more work into next year’s prize process as well.