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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.