Did the press comply with an HIV witch-hunt in Greece?

State and private television networks went ahead and published women’s mugshots and personal details, labelling them “HIV-infected prostitutes”.

When hundreds of women were rounded up in a police sweep in central Athens days before the May 2012 parliamentary elections, the move had all the hallmarks of a politically orchestrated campaign. The arrests preceded the release of figures showing a 57 per cent increase in HIV infections between 2010 and 2011, and the women were forced to take HIV tests.

Despite a lack of evidence, those who tested positive were imprisoned and charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm. When state and private television networks went ahead and published the women’s mugshots and personal details, labelling them “HIV-infected prostitutes”, many saw it as evidence of a compliant press.

The mainstream media soon lost interest in the story, staying silent when most of the women were gradually released or had the charges against them reduced, but now Zoe Mavroudi, a Greek filmmaker, has directed a film on the subject – Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt.

When I spoke to her on Skype shortly after the Greek premiere of Ruins, she told me how she had noticed that the case was still being discussed widely on social media. “People seemed to be harking back to it to express disgust for state and police arbitrariness. I sensed that the incident had become one of the most recognisable low points of the crisis,” she said. “I wanted to create a chronicle, a kind of reference point that would help people to understand and not forget.”

Made with the support of the Unite union and Union Solidarity International, the film includes interviews with two of the women who were imprisoned, along with their mothers, as well as academics and activists.

The interviews are intercut with footage that shows journalists and commentators referring to the women as “Aids prostitutes” who “spread death”.

The women’s case has now been taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30 per cent of Greek women are unemployed, compared to 24.6 per cent of men, and more than 65 per cent of young women are out of work. They are also affected by falling standards in maternity care and cuts to services for the sick and elderly. More and more young people are returning to live in the family home.

 “Greece is a very traditional society,” Mavroudi said, “and when you have the dismantling of social services . . . the burden falls on women even more than usual.

 “The feminist movement in Greece has been caught off guard by the crisis,” she added.

The arrests were condemned by some female MPs and several protests were held outside one courthouse and the ministry of health in Athens.

Mavroudi hopes that next time women will be better prepared. “This case in particular was unprecedented, targeted state aggression against women,” she said.

 “Without a strong and well-organised feminist movement, we cannot deal with this new reality.”

Feminist protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Greek parliament in Athens. Has feminism been caught off guard by the recent crisis? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem