Greek government makes extraordinary and undemocratic attacks on free speech

While no one is looking, the Greek government goes on a rampage.

There’s no element of surprise in the fact that things move faster when going downhill. In the wake of revelations such as the alleged torture of detained anarchists and the crackdown against activists in Skouries (Northern Greece), the Greek government and especially the largest party in the coalition, New Democracy, has decided to use the "rule of law" in order to tighten its grip of the Greek media while at the same time winning back some of the voters they lost to Golden Dawn.

Following prime minister Antonis Samaras’ own anti-immigrant rhetoric, 85 New Democracy MPs proposed a bill which would see only citizens of “Greek race” hired in police and military. Golden Dawn was of course quick to support it and to claim the proposed bill as a "major victory" for them. "The honourable uniform of the Greek armed officer will not be handed to the Albanians, the Asians and the Africans and the country’s armed forces will not come under the control of foreign spies," said a statement released by the party on Tuesday.

This follows weeks of anti-immigrant and anti-leftist messages released by junior New Democracy MPs on social networks and in interviews, their attempts to outflank the far-right only strengthening the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, which now sees six year-old kids brought in to its HQs for classes on “patriotic awareness”.

But this is only one side of the PR machine the coalition’s ruling party has set in motion: we’ve also seen moves against journalists and newspapers that speak out against their plans. Most striking example is the case of UNFOLLOW magazine, an independent left-wing publication, who saw its writers receive death threats after publishing a report on oil smuggling that appears to implicate Aegean Oil. After the report was published, the magazine was telephoned by a man who identified himself as the oil trader Dimitris Melissanidis and threatened to “blow up” the reporter behind the article. Melissanidis has denied making the phone call; UNFOLLOW says it has traced the call to Aegean Oil’s head office and is suing him. A request for UNFOLLOW to retract their claim was made through Melissanidis's lawyer - who is none other than Failos Kranidiotis, personal friend and advisor to prime minister Antonis Samaras.

This could have been an isolated incident if another hadn't followed just days later. This time, Avgi newspaper (the official newspaper of the radical left party SYRIZA) published a detailed report on how Samaras and New Democracy are moving their chess pieces in order to completely dominate the media landscape. One of the main targets of the report was the owner of Parapolitika newspaper, who then sued Avgi for defamation. The interesting detail here is again the man spearheading this legal attack: Makis Voridis, a New Democracy MP, minister under the Papadimos government and with a background in the far-right. The same man dismissed the threats against UNFOLLOW as "insignificant" when asked about it in parliament. The magazine told the New Statesman:

Obviously, filing a law suit was necessary in order to protect our reporter. But this is a wider issue. Behind the more visible aspects of the crisis, there are hidden opportunities for a number of people, a network of behind the scenes movers and shakers who are not used to having their plans exposed. The pretext is always boosting the economy. But the reality is fast-tracked privatizations and investment deals with little or no benefit for the state and often dangerous to Greek society. The gold mines in Chalkidiki are a case in point. Water privatization is another. OPAP [the Greek lottery company] is yet another. These policies are made possible through a network of politicians and magnates, who control large sectors of the economy, such as construction, shipping, mining, and of course the mainstream media. It is no mystery why they are so annoyed, when their machinations are made transparent. So, even if in Greece most media seem to have abandoned the idea of independent journalism, we believe that our job should remain providing the public with a way to assess what the government is doing. We will continue to do so, threats or no threats.

Today's front page of the newspaper Ethnos (owned by Giorgos Bobolas, the businessman behind the incidents in Skouries and Keratea, and one of the owners of pro-government tv station MEGA) attacks vocal left-wing TV journalists and reporters, trying to implicate them in a financial scandal with zero evidence. These are the people who, in the past, have broken stories exposing corruption in the banking sector and who are out of censorship's reach because of their relationship with the international media.

The magnitude of the attack against independent voices is unprecedented. Since the publication of the Lagarde list by Kostas Vaxevanis, we’ve seen countless attempts by the government and affiliated private interests to attack and intimidate journalists. They're set upon dominating the public discourse, running singularly on immigrant-bashing, ideas of racial purity and demonisation of the left, their efforts thwarted by the rise of independent voices who pick apart the propaganda and speak of what is happening in the background. Because all this is of course a front.

The modus operandi is obviously to attract public opinion away from the odious privatisations program and shameful investment schemes like that of Skouries, where the state saw a $12bn dollars worth of gold and copper mine, sold for $12m with no rights on future revenue apart from a meagre 10 per cent tax. The silencing of “annoying” voices aims to cover up exactly these moves that rob the Greeks of wealth in exchange for nothing but empty promises for future growth. To cover up for a scheming banking sector that only seems able to give out loans to TV stations that perpetuate the government's line. To play things down when a party member the PM himself declared as “honorable” on live TV gets sentenced to life in prison for corruption. And finally, to cover-up for a government that has pushed the Greek society to the brink, in order to see its agenda enacted without resistance.

As the police is used once again as an occupying force in places like Skouries, the Greek government has decided you should not hear about it. If someones silence can’t be bought, other means are also available, and New Democracy’s legal experts can be used to defend private interests. Does this clash with the very idea of a functional democratic state? Absolutely. But nonetheless, this is what’s happening in Greece. If New Democracy gets its way, a fully "Greek" police force will make sure you never hear about it.

UPDATE: Avgi’s editor-in-chief N. Filis gave the New Statesman his take on the case against his paper:

The media in Greece were part of the rulling class's hard core that is now collapsing because of the crisis. Businessmen and construction companies that lived off the state and controlled the media, were also sponsors of parties and politicians personally.

Now the financial and political crisis means they are going bankrupt. The possibility of political overturn signalled by the rise of the radical left from 4 per cent to 27 per cent in June, has forced Samaras's government to create a new media system ready to use every method in its disposal, legitimate or (mostly) illegitimate, to stop the left on its path to power.

In this new generation of corruption, we see names of businessmen who are in the process of taking over profitable public companies like OPAP and the electricity company. Avgi, a historical daily of the Greek left for 60 years (with the sad exception of its closure during the dictatorship in 1967-74), revealed this and attracted their anger. In full co-operation with members of the ruling party New Democracy, they proceeded to sue the paper. This is a purely political persecution and we intend to showcase this in the Greek courts.

Greek pensioners demonstrate outside the Labour Ministry in Athens against pension cuts and the downgrading of the social health services. 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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.