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?

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here