Free Speech Ghetto

Not gentle: a riot policeman shoves a woman out of the way during an anti-austerity protest in Athens. Greece’s riot units have experienced a rapid expansion in new personnel over the past two years but without the corresponding training

It is a country whose security services are poorly-trained, underpaid, violence-prone and increasingly infiltrated by religious and fascist currents. It invented euphemism and perpetuates it: the feared riot cops are called Units for the Rehabilitation of Order; their Orwellian-sounding directorate is the Ministry for Protection of the Citizen. Nevertheless, they regularly beat up demonstrators, journalists and civil society actors alike, refuse to investigate documented allegations of misconduct and intimidate photographers who share incriminating images of police brutality with victims’ lawyers.

This country’s ministries have established slush funds for buying off journalists. The government turns off the Internet when it wants to impose an information blackout while clearing protesters occupying a central Athens square. Its journalists are known to hold down two jobs: one as a civil servant working in a ministry public relations office in the morning and another as a journalist in the afternoon covering that same ministry for a newspaper or TV station. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the capital’s public buildings are smothered in posters inciting violence against journalists and describing them as ‘traitors of the people’. In 2010, one journalist was assassinated in a contract killing. News and sports photographers alike wear helmets and gas-masks when covering street demonstrations and football matches in which they are as much the targets as the politicians or sports teams.

Which Third World dictatorship is this? The Islamic Republic of Iran at the apogee of the 2009 post-electoral repression? Egypt’s police state in the last days of Mubarak? Or Tunisia shortly before its president fled the country?

Actually, it’s Greece. Despite belonging to the European Union member and being known as the cradle of Western civilization and birthplace of democracy, Greece today is one of the worst countries in the world for practicing the essential democratic act of information-gathering.

A shocking new report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) takes a long, hard stare at a media sector that is as corrupt as its host society, as drained of capital as Greece’s Central Bank. The small Mediterranean country better known for its scenic islands and pleasure-loving culture now ranks below countries like Togo, Macedonia and the Central African Republic in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

The report paints a disturbing image of a media sector overpopulated by newspapers, television and radio stations that act as the private fiefdoms of industrial and shipping magnates seeking to curry favour with the government while bypassing scrutiny of their own shady dealings.

“We live in a system where you can take out ‘media insurance’,” one editor told RSF. “You pay the price and the media will cover you, at best supporting you, at worst not criticizing you. The media is totally mired in corruption that we’ve allowed to grow. Political parties have used and abused slush funds to buy off shareholders but also management-level journalists in the (media) groups.”

As a journalist, I had the luxury of being able to opt out of working for the Greek media. But I got my first taste of police brutality as a teenager at a protest outside the neighbourhood church when a riot officer dished out a wild swing. At football stadiums I watched in awe as hundreds of fans ripped up plastic seats and set fire to the stands before clashing with the police.

Covering Greece for foreign media, I witnessed many instances of police brutality but also of extraordinary provocation by small groups of radicals who pelted policemen with coins, water bottles and petrol bombs until they elicited a reaction. Many demonstrators believe that these youths are paid government provocateurs planted there to legitimize successively violent police responses paving the way for Greece’s return to a dictatorship similar to the CIA-backed Colonels regime.

Still, I had never expected to witness the behavior of Iran’s motorcycle-mounted Bassiji thugs in Tehran in the streets of my own birthplace. The RSF report documents how colleague Manolis Kypraios, an experienced photographer who emerged unscathed from several warzones, was beaten so violently during one Athens demonstration that he lost hearing in both ears. He described being “surrounded by motorcycle police, two on each bike, one hitting out as the other drove. It was terrible. I saw one terrified boy no older than 15 and I threw myself on him to protect him. The police beat me on the back, chest and in the kidneys and then kicked me.”

The Greece that emerges is of a free speech ghetto where crooked private capital battles calcified unions and vigilante bloggers and leftists target the overpaid journalists acting as handmaidens to the status quo. Journalists are so hated, the report notes, that “in recent months some have changed their daily habits, taking different routes and looking under their cars for home-made bombs, some have had their cars vandalized… a dozen journalists now have bodyguards paid for by their employers.”

The RSF report fights the media workers’ corner. But after reading it, the reality of the corruption permeating every facet of Greek public life is inescapable.

“The problem of media freedom in Greece is like the issue of the country’s debt – everyone knows about it but nobody talks about it,” the report quotes a Greek columnist as saying. “We’re all guilty, including journalists. Our society is based on a tacit agreement to keep quiet about things. It’s a bit like the mafia vow of silence. It’s in everyone’s interest and in this way we avoid trouble. We’re going to pay dearly for our silence.”

Perhaps crisis-struck Greece is now starting its penance.