Desperate to keep the police on side, is the Greek government overlooking violent abuses?

Golden Dawn is having a field day while MPs from other parties are assaulted.

Desperate to keep the police on side, is the Greek government overlooking violent abuses?

On Monday night, Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Public Order, was a guest on New Folders, a well known Greek TV show, presented by journalist Alexis Papachelas. A relaxed and slightly ironic Dendias, seemed to be having a good time deflecting all the serious questions D Tsoukalas, the SYRIZA MP who was also a guest on the show, threw at him. By carefully avoiding  answering  any and all questions, Dendias only looked anxious for two things: To not allow Tsoukalas to sidetrack him from his  immigrant-bashing  agenda , and to not displease the very same police force that stood by while a man was attacked outside a theatre, and , according to the Guardian, allegedly tortured 15 detainees after an anti-fascist demonstration a few weeks ago.

Dendias defended the police in every turn, going as far as to say that the detainees were lying and the truth would shine once the coroner’s report was out. That he was in fact in possession of that knowledge. “Why haven’t they filed for lawsuits if they are telling the truth? These are lies and I will bring the Guardian to justice for slandering the Police force and our country. The police is there to protect our citizens and is loyal to the state. Isolated cases of violence might exist, but they will be brought to justice”. He repeated the same claims in the Parliament the next day.

Little did he know:  on  Friday  afternoon, the coroner’s report was made available to the lawyers of the victims according to Avgi newspaper. Heavy bodily harm, extensive abuse, injury by pointed object (allegedly one of the detainees was “stubbed” with a taser, electrocuted to submission and then brutally beaten while still on the ground). The 15 people arrested two weeks ago stated that they were simply waiting for these reports, and of course they will file a lawsuit against the Greek Police.

A silence has befallen Dendias since. Trying to appear sympathetic towards the Greek police is not working well for him since they hang him out to dry  at every opportunity . By declaring that he will establish  a new task forces to “confront heavily armed criminals” (translating to extra pay for anyone who joins) and that he will try to deal with the fact that “their wages are stuck in the 60s”, he is trying to show that he and PM Samaras are there for them. He knows he has to, as  police officers' support is fast shifting from the government to the  far-right movement Golden Dawn. But the police is by now well beyond his control.

“50, maybe 60% of the police are with us now” Illias Panagiotaros (an MP with the Golden Dawn who participated in the attacks outside Corpus Cristi last week) admitted to Newsnight’s Paul Mason last Wednesday. Dendias, desperately trying to outflank the neo-nazi party from the right and win over the police at the same time, is failing miserably. His empty anti-immigrant rhetoric and his sucking up to the police, leads nowhere but to the complete loss of his ministry’s status.

There is no better indication of this than what happened this Sunday in Skouries Halkidikis. A  demonstration was called  to oppose the opening of a gold mine that would destroy much of the ancient forest the area currently enjoys, permanently gut the mountain and pollute the area extensively, essentially ending any hope of sustainable tourism growth, ended up being violently attacked and dispersed by riot police. The demonstrators were no hooded “anarchists” and “far left elements”, but concerned locals, who don’t want to see the natural environment around their houses destroyed. 

Reports started coming in late in the evening: Police had blocked the road cars carrying demonstrators up the mountain used. Passing between the cars, they started breaking windshields with their batons, and in some cases shooting chemicals inside cars. If this sounds like an exaggeration, this “isolated incident” should serve as an example: An elderly man was arrested (after being driven to the hospital with heart issues) and charged with attempted manslaughter. The reasoning behind this charge? When the tear-gas canister was shot in his car, the man lost control of his vehicle and rammed a tree, thus endangering other drivers. In another “isolated incident” confirmed by multiple eye-witnesses, a 55 year old woman was forced out of her car, made to kneel and then kicked to the point where she had to be driven to the hospital by other demonstrators as her knee had sustained severe injury.

Later that night, when people tried to help those detained at Polygyros police station, a police officer in plain clothes attacked Katerina Igglezi, an MP with SYRIZA, pushed her and hit her with his baton. When she told him she was an MP he shouted his name with defiance and asked her what does she think she can do about it, as can be seen in the video of the incident. She went on to state that she will in fact sue him.

But he, like every police officer willing to go the extra mile, knows very well that probably nothing will happen to him. Dendias will not seek punishment, as in other similar cases.  The police now operate well above the “laws of men”. The fact that Golden Dawn supporters reportedly attempted to intimidate locals  during an earlier set of demonstrations, is telling. Their excuse the fact that SYRIZA and other left wing factions support the locals, is of no significance. That they were present to defend capitalist interests once again, is.

El Dorado, the Canadian mining company, might be strangers to such controversy, but Greece certainly isn’t. For months Keratea resisted the opening of a dumping field next to their houses and the ancient monuments that populate the area. For months, riot police intimidated them, attacked them, brutalized them and made their lives a living hell. In one of the worst incidents, a pregnant woman lost her baby when tear-gas was used right outside her house and caused her to pass out.

In the meantime, Golden Dawn is having a field day while MPs from other parties are assaulted and common citizens are charged with extraordinary charges after being attacked themselves. Their own MPs enjoy impunity, never heard of before in a functional democratic state. Mr Dendias will speak again about “isolated incidents” if you put this question to him. But the reality of the situation leaves no doubt, and our government looks comfortable with what’s happening. Their unwillingness to reform the police is now more than obvious.

In the past few days, there have been rumours of a Greek cabinet reshuffle. In a decent, functional government, there would be no place for Mr Dendias. But in our current state as a country and as a people, Dendias will remain where he is. If he doesn’t, I am really afraid of who might take his place, and what  they would do.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist writing on finance, politics and pop culture

Members of the Greek extreme-right party Golden Dawn sing the national anthem out of the party's office in Thessaloniki. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder