It won’t just be Greek journalists who suffer from free speech crackdown

There is nothing pro-European about a government sworn on suppressing freedom of speech.

It seems that the Greek government has embarked on a crusade to silence dissident voices. In a story making headlines all over the world by now, the Greek investigative journalist and publisher Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested for publishing the now infamous “Lagarde List” containing the names of more than 2,000 Greeks who hold accounts with HSBC in Switzerland. The list, given by Christine Lagarde in 2010 to then Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou, remained unused. It subsequently became the focus of much anti-government scrutiny when, after being asked why the list wasn’t used in the same way it had been by France and Germany to bring in much-needed funds for Greece, ministers simply claimed “I lost it”.

After being toyed with for two years, Vaxevanis saw fit to publish the list in his magazine Hot Doc last week, to “end this insult against the Greek people”. Greece appears to be losing more than 20 billion euros to tax dodging every year while austerity measures, that would otherwise be unnecessary, bite hard. The unwillingness of the last three elected governments to clash with the Greek tax-dodging elite prompted the journalist to force the government’s hand. For his actions in the pursuit of justice, he is now facing up to a year in prison.

What strikes observers as particularly strange is what followed the publication. Despite the fact other newspapers and magazines had published such lists before, this was the first time the order was given for a journalist to be arrested over it. The charges are breach of private data and mishandling confidential documents.

The number of policemen mobilised was also shocking. Reports speak of officers posted outside bars and friendly houses that the journalist often visits. “They are after me instead of the truth,” Vaxevanis stated in a video he posted the night before his arrest. Also noteworthy is the fact that after the Golden Dawn MP Illias Kasidiaris attacked two left wing MPs on live television, the police “couldn’t locate him” for days. He turned himself in the next morning, and his trial was finally postponed for 1 November. Evidence of a very selective, almost vengeful, prosecution of Vaxevanis still lingers.

Before the dust settled, another incident of unabashed censorship took place, this time at NET, one of the country’s national TV stations. Journalists Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Kasimi were informed that their morning news show was being axed after a direct order from Emilios Liatsos, one of the managers of the station (whose appointment by the governing New Democracy party a few months ago was the source of much controversy itself). The reason? The journalists dared to mention how the Greek minister for public order Nikos Dendias didn’t follow through on his threats to sue the Guardian for defamation of the Greek police force after their report on torture allegations by 15 detainees a month ago, and how the coroner’s report didn’t support his statements. Liatsos justified his decision by saying “allegations of unacceptable nature were made against a minister of the government”. Speaking to the New Statesman, Kostas Arvanitis had this to say:

The decision made today by the News Department Manager of ERT, is clearly political in nature and based on false excuses that expose the management of the station politically and journalistically. Our answer will be the unanimous decision of journalists and technicians through our unions [to strike till the decision is recalled]. This is not the first time the show comes under scrutiny. Top ministers both from Papademos's government [2011-2012] and the one under Papandreou [2009-2011] targeted the show for axing. The reduction of our airtime from 4 to 2 hours this season, should serve as an indication, especially as it was announced on the station’s twitter account after a direct intervention from the manager of the PM’s office Giorgos Mouroutis, while the leader of the opposition Alexis Tsipras was on air, interviewed in the studio.

This unfortunately is not a  case exclusive to Greece, as a few months back the government of Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy was accused of silencing (read: firing) voices critical of his austerity policies, at the state-funded broadcaster RTVE. How long before other governments follow their example?

Unfortunately for the country that gave birth to democracy, this is not the end of it, and the attack on free speech is not limited to high profile journalists. On Monday afternoon, a 35-year-old man was arrested for posting pictures on his Facebook page that show policemen hanging out with Golden Dawn supporters in Kerkyra during a demonstration. Reports mention that the man was in fact sued by the police officers themselves for spreading false allegations and defamation of the country. These are the same charges Dendias threatened against the Guardian. A pattern starts to emerge as a clear set of instructions seems to be coming into play.

It should be plain to see by now that there is nothing pro-European about this government that was heavily backed by Greece’s lenders in the June elections. If anything, it appears that in order for the painful, harsh and ultimately ineffective measures included in the Third Memorandum of Understanding between Greece and the Troika to be passed, silencing dissident voices was a must. Since they can’t justify things like the fact that Greece will have to bring its health budget down to 6 per cent of the GDP when the European average was 8.3 per cent in 2008 with most countries (including France and Germany) spending well over 10 per cent, the information flow must be controlled. Since they can’t control the police, some of whom appear to be in cahoots with a neo-Nazi organisation, bloggers must be jailed for daring to share evidence and journalists sued for pointing it out.

As long as European leaders treat what is happening in Greece as a national problem, they’re simply holding the door open for their countries to go down the same path. When freedom of speech is under such pressure in an EU state, with the instigator being a party openly supported by Merkel and co as the pro-European choice, this has to be dealt with at a European level. Otherwise, I fail to see much point in holding the future of European citizens hostage under such odious terms.

The fact that the Greek people were terrorised by the country’s lenders with threats of imminent bankruptcy and forceful exit from the eurozone into voting for this government makes the EU complicit. By standing by in silence, the EU is allowing a government that grows more oppressive and authoritarian every day to silence us.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist writing on finance, politics and pop culture. Follow him on twitter @yiannisbab

A protestor and a member of the riot police in Athens during the recent general strike. 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.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.