Selective zero-tolerance: is Greece really a democracy anymore?

The abuse suffered by four young anarchists, arrested for a bank robbery, at the hands of the police proves it’s time to call Greece’s coalition government what it is – a far-right authoritarian group.

Earlier this year, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection declared he would take up initiatives to restore law and order in the capital of the crisis-stricken country. Nikos Dendias spearheads an attempt by the coalition government produced in last June’s elections to show that while the public coffers are empty and people are seeing their quality of life reduced to shambles, the state is present and it can still provide them with a sense of safety at the very least. Xenios Zeus was one of those initiatives, a crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, its failure (from 73,100 people arrested, only 4,352 were charged with anything) a big problem for the government. The coalition is also now dealing with accusations of tolerating an increasingly authoritarian police force that is torturing people and colluding with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, alongside the Lagarde list scandal taking its toll and two very difficult parliamentary votes looming. The first is a new tax code that will find many Greeks unable to pay their tax bills in 2013 and the second an investigation into the names included in the Lagarde list (the list of around 2,000 potential Greek tax evaders with undeclared Swiss HSBC accounts passed to the Greek government by Christine Lagarde in 2010), with at least two senior members of the government involved in an attempt to bury the files before they were published three months ago.

Since the crackdown on immigration didn’t work as the ministry had expected, their next move was to attack occupations and spaces associated with the anarchist movement. This should not come as a surprise since it is exactly these political spaces that have moved to organise in many neighborhoods and stand against the neo-Nazi gangs now roaming the streets of Athens, often with very high cost. But the manner in which this agenda is pursued has revealed something more: this government now sees the anarchists, as well as SYRIZA, as its opponent on the political stage. By cracking down on squats like that of Villa Amalias a month ago, the government is doing a favour for the Golden Dawn thugs who attack people openly with no repercussions – it was squats like that which traditionally stood as an obstacle to the ever expanding activities of the neo-Nazis and which as many locals have stated, helped keep the area around it safe. The spin is to baptise anarchists as the tools of SYRIZA, terrorists who enjoy the support they get from the opposition party. They have gone on the record with this many times.

But it’s the arrest of four young anarchists (aged between 20 and 25) this weekend after a failed bank robbery that brings back the political nature of Dendias’ agenda and of the police’s fascist tendencies. Two of them already wanted as suspects in the “conspiracy of the cells of fire” terrorist group, they were arrested in Kozani after trying to flee the bank while chased by the police. Witnesses of the incident claim that when they realised they couldn't get away, they exited the car and surrendered peacefully. However, the pictures published by the police show them to have been extensively abused, their faces swollen to the point where the mother of one didn’t recognise her son when she was allowed to see him. His own testimony leaves no doubt as to what transpired. He claims they were fitted with hoods, tied up and beaten for hours after their arrest. That the police tried to crudely photoshop the bruises “to make them recognisable” as Dendias himself stated points to the extent of the abuse. The use of torture is straightforwardly forbidden by the Greek constitution and violates human rights, while reminding the Greeks of the Colonel’s Junta and their systematic torture of dissidents.

A video showing the four being transferred leaves no doubt as to their political alignment. In front of the cameras, they shouted defiance at a country that has pushed its youth to extremes with the apathy that now runs deep in our lives, making us afraid of losing the few things we have left. “We only lost a battle, not the war” and “Long live anarchy”, they shouted, not to the cameras, but to the faces of those who stand by idle. Dendias didn’t even bother to launch an inquiry into the conditions under which they were tortured despite stating that “there is no desire to cover up anyone or anything”. Prime ministerial advistor Failos Kranidiotis, in an exchange we had on Twitter, sided with the police and spoke of injuries that were caused during the arrest, despite the absence of evidence backing his claims. How could anyone disarm a “terrorist armed like a lobster” with his punches? That is his claim and that of Dendias. He said “the monopoly of violence belongs to the state” and spends more time being sarcastic towards journalists who called him out on his statements than actually providing a factual basis for them. The New Democracy government is trying to condemn an entire ideology and along with it, all righteous outrage.

But this is the sort of policy line the government currently walks. Thin on arguments, strong on propaganda, full of venom and revenge against all those who oppose their totalitarian plans in any way. That the four kids were arrested for armed robbery does not justify torture, because that only brings us one step away from legitimising the torturing of the fifteen anti-fascists last October. All this wears only one colour, and it’s the colour of hate against those who will not stand for members of far-right groups and think-tanks (as Dendias and Kranidiotis were in the Nineties) to crack down on their lives and their dreams.

One of the four arrestees was a friend and present in the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in 2008, which sparked two weeks of unrest in the Greek capital. That we already see a revisionist line in operation in the mainstream media that suggests Grigoropoulos would become a terrorist himself is indicative of the intentions of this government. It is our duty and Europe’s to expose and stop co-operating with those who won’t hesitate to ignore human rights, refuse to reform a clearly fascist police force, and who don’t see racist motives when supporters of the Golden Dawn murder immigrants in the street. It is time to ask for the resignation of Nikos Dendias and any like-minded cabinet members. If we don’t want to see more kids boiling with anger, taking up arms against a system intent on turning them into drones working for scraps, torturing them when they refuse to conform, then it is time to speak out and call this government what it is: a far-right authoritarian group, dressed in a thin-veil of pro-European liberalism. Refusing to recognise them as anything but that is now an obligation for each and every one of us.

 

Members of the Greek ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party wave Greek national flags during a gathering of Greek nationalists in central Athens on 2 February 2013. 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.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.