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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage