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.

Photo: Getty
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What are Len McCluskey's chances of re-election at Unite?

The union boss's re-election bid will have far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. 

Len McCluskey has stepped down early as general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, in order to stand again for a third term. The contest has potentially far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. McCluskey was elected in 2013 to serve a five-year term; but his supporters hope that the move will allow him to stay in post until the next general election. 

Unite, as well as being Britain’s biggest trade union, is the largest affiliate to the Labour party. That makes it a power player in the party’s internal politics, although their reach and influence is often overstated. It is the GMB, a trade union from the party’s centre, which has dominated parliamentary selections so far in this parliament. “It’s easier for people who’ve met Lisa Johnson [the GMB’s political officer in charge of selection] once in the pub to get selected than it is for Len to get his favourites in,” jokes one trade union official.

That McCluskey is going now and not in 2018 is itself the result of events beyond his control. Assistant general secretary Steve Turner, long spoken of as McCluskey’s chosen successor, is judged not to have  the credibility with Unite’s left flank to win. McCluskey, who is 66, had been trying to overturn a rule barring him from standing again in 2018 due to his age. However, that plan has been mothballed after it became apparent that he does not have the necessary votes among the executive committee.

McCluskey has been dogged by the widespread perception – one that Unite’s press officers strongly deny – that his preference in the 2015 Labour leadership election was Andy Burnham, not Jeremy Corbyn. (In the end, Unite backed Corbyn.)  That matters because in 2013, McCluskey’s strongest opposition came from the left, in the shape of Jerry Hicks, a member of the Respect party who has tried for the top job three times. Since then, McCluskey has been a vocal supporter of Corbyn’s leadership and Unite underwrote much of the Islington MP's second leadership bid. But the perception that he is a fairweather friend of the Corbyn project still lingers in some circles.

However, McCluskey is unlikely to face a well-organised challenge from the left, which would potentially be fatal. 

Who might face him? Hicks is believed to be highly unlikely to mount a fourth bid for the job, while Sharon Graham, the director of organising, is “ambitious but will sit this one out”, say insiders. It is expected that someone from Unite Scotland will likely make a bid. The great hope for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is Gerard Coyne, the regional secretary in the west Midlands. Allies of McCluskey hoped he could be bought off with a parliamentary seat, but he is now all-but-certain to challenge McCluskey for the post.

McCluskey is well-prepared for his bid. Jennie Formby, a close aide and former political director, now serves as regional secretary in the South-East, in preparation for the crucial task of getting the vote out for her boss. He starts as the frontrunner, albeit a vulnerable one. Coyne, for his part, has the advantage of coming from the West Midlands, where the old Labour right – once the backbone of Amicus and its predecessor unions, now merged into Unite – is still strong and relatively well-organised.

But here's the question. Has McCluskey's friendliness with the Corbynite left alienated his members with high-paying industrial jobs, who are not enamoured with the current Labour leader? McCluskey’s allies hope that he has done enough in defending Labour’s policy commitment to Trident to offset his support for Corbyn, who is opposed to the nuclear deterrent. His opponents believe they can successfully link him to the Labour leadership’s opposition to fracking, pharmaceuticals and defence, all of which are industries whose members are represented by Unite.

This election matters within the Labour party because Unite has multiples votes on its ruling national executive committee, and on the conference floor. It is also keen to put forward Unite-backed parliamentary candidates. So whether Len McCluskey serves another term could change the direction of British politics. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.