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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.