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.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.