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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Freedom of the press in Greece: an interview with Leon Willems

The following post is a transcript of this interview with Leon Willems, the director of Free Press Unlimited. It was translated by @iptamenos33

- Mister Willems, good morning!
- Good morning?
- In which European holiday-countries are journalists facing difficulties?
- Ah, well, it's very interesting to see that in a couple of Southern European countries, things are getting worse constantly, for instance in Greece.

- And why is that?
- Due to the economic crisis a lot of newspapers had to shut down, so a lot of papers had to fire people; things aren't going well for TV stations either and one can also see that, due to the pressure on the economy, the government gets panicky when things are being said about tax evasion. There is for instance the Lagarde list, which contains the biggest tax evaders in Greece, and the journalist who published that list is being threatened with a big lawsuit.
- So in Greece this is obviously connected to the crisis, but to what extend is it an exception? I mean..
- Well, no.. You can see for instance in Spain, which is really close, that the public broadcasting company fired people who were criticizing the fiscal plans of the Spanish government. So one can see that, especially when it comes to the problems of the Euro and the economic decline, pressure is put on journalists not to publish about things like that.
- But what is the use for governments to respond like that?
- Yeah.. What is the use of repressing freedom of the press? Well, in our opinion there is no use whatsoever, but obviously there are always people in power who have the feeling that they have to act against it, so that can stay in power longer. That in general the most important reason. But I am a press freedom lawyer, so it is hard for me to get into the mind of someone who is not doing so.
- But then what is, for instance, the response of the chief editors of those journalists being fired?
- There is very little solidarity. Which also has to do with the fact that a lot of media, for instance in Greece again, are in the hands of very important business tycoons, who themselves are also mentioned in those tax evasion lists. So also a lot of people in media have been fired because they don't want them to publish about their doings.
- But then you are referring to the commercial media?
- Commercial media, but in Spain for instance the same happened in the public media, which is something quite shocking in my opinion.
- But is there a counter-movement in those countries, of people who protest against this?
- You can see in Greece that people are so fed up with the fact that they are not being informed properly, that a lot of people started radio blogs, which are being collected on an Internet platform. In that way people make their own radio to report on events in various cities. So you see the rise of of a kind of new counter media.
- But what do you do about this? Does Free Press Unlimited make appeals to governments?
- Well, traditionally we never were very involved with (western) Europe,  because the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and violence against journalists in Latin America were always more important to us. But we are really worried now and in fact people from Greece have approached us if we can help them, at least by making it known that things are going bad there. Because that is something we actually never hear, isn't it? We are concerned about the question whether the Greeks will be able to pay back, but whether they can still express their opinions freely is something which we seem to have forgotten last couple of years.
- So all of a sudden, the problem is in our backyard. Mister Willems, thank you very much.

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