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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.