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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue