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Friday 7 June 2013

Greece : Freedom of the press in free fall

On the occasion of the upcoming trial of Kostas Vaxevanis, who will be facing an appeals court on 10 June for publishing the Lagarde list, a list of 2000+ bank account holders in the HSBC branch of Geneva, of which some at least are suspected of tax evasion, the radiobubblenews team is launching a series of shows and posts about the issue of freedom of the press in Greece.

Since the start of the Greek crisis in 2009, and the subsequent adoption of unprecedented austerity policies, there has been a constant erosion of human rights in Greece. Stories of people who cannot make ends meet, who can’t afford to pay their utility bills and who are dumpster-diving for food abound in international media, as do images of riots during demonstrations and horror tales of the racist discourse and the acts of violence perpetrated by neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. What is far less covered however, with the exception of the first Vaxevanis trial in November 2012, is the dramatic impact of recent developments in Greece on freedom of the press. According to Reporters Without Borders, Greece, which ranked at number 35 in the freedom of the press index in 2009, now ranks at number 84 – behind virtually every other European country but also but also behind countries that are not famous for their healthy democratic regimes, such as Burkina Faso, Haiti, Central African Republic, Kenya or Kuwait. Similarly, the US-based think tank Freedom House demoted Greece this year from “free” to “partly free,” while Amnesty International noted serious concerns with regard to freedom of the press, both in a special 2012 report on police brutality in Greece and in its global annual report for 2013.

Major issues of concern with regard to freedom of the press include:

Deliberate intervention by the State in media affairs, including blatant cases of censorship.
In addition to the arrest of Vaxevanis on charges that were flimsy at best, there have been other cases that are cause for concern. In November 2012, Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi, who were hosting an early morning TV talk show, were suspended after criticizing the Minister of Public Order. In October in Thessaloniki, a journalist from State TV channel ET 3 was replaced after reporting on air that, during celebrations to commemorate the city's independence, the Church of Saint Dimitri was surrounded by police to keep people out while government officials were inside. In December 2011, citizen journalist @menacius from the OmniaTV team was arrested in the Exarchia neighbourhood of Athens, where he was covering clashes that were taking place, and charged with "disturbing the peace, attempting to cause injuries, violating laws on the possession of weapons" (for allegedly throwing stones and being part of a team throwing Molotov cocktails).

Police brutality against journalists, in particular against photojournalists, during public rallies and demonstrations. 
The list of cases in this category is endless. There was Manolis Kypraios, who totally lost his hearing in both ears after a riot policeman threw a stun grenade next to him in Syntagma square on 15 June 2011. There was Giorgos Avgeropoulos on 29 June. There was Dimitris Trimis, the chairman of the Union of Athens Daily Newspaper Editors, whose hand was broken by a riot policeman on the same day. There was Tatiana Bolari on 05 October, who was deliberately punched in the face by a riot policeman. There was Marios Lolos, who sustained head trauma after being hit by riot police on 05 April 2012. The list goes on and on.

Violence against journalists by non-State actors, in particular by Golden Dawn. 
There have been incidents of aggression against journalists by protesters, in particular during the large demonstrations of 2011, mainly due to the public's mistrust in the media. The situation however became considerably worse since neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn entered parliament following the 2012 general election. Reporters Without Borders announced this week that it is close to including Golden Dawn on its "predators" list.

The very structure of corporate media, who are so closely entwined with the circles of political and economic power that, in many ways, they are the power. 
This was brilliantly exposed to international audiences in a Reuters report dated December 2012 with the title: "Greece: the triangle of power", which explains the links between the media, big business and politics, resulting in an unhealthy, undemocratic public sphere which played no small role in bringing the country to this situation of extreme crisis. This means, for example, that protests against the Skouries gold mine project, whose Greek stakeholder, Giorgos Bobolas, also owns the largest private TV station in the country, fail to receive adequate coverage. What is more, important facts are oftentimes not discussed in Greek media until foreign media discuss them. This was for example the case when 15 anti-fascist activists were savagely tortured by the police in October 2012: the issue was not mentioned in Greek media at all until Maria Margaronis published an extensive article in the Guardian that made international headlines, forcing Greek media to at least address the issue. Sometimes however, and particularly when business interests are at stake, important stories, such as another Reuters piece on banker Michael Sallas, don't make it to the Greek media at all.

The impact of the economic crisis on the media in general, which results in increasing self-censorship among journalists who live in the constant fear of losing their jobs. 
One of Greece's largest newspapers, Eleftherotypia, as well as a TV station, Alter, filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of the crisis and were shut down.  Other media outlets have been downsizing and cutting back wages. The list of unemployed journalists is getting longer in a country where unemployment already exceeds 27%. Self-censorship, which was always an issue in Greek media, is therefore becoming worse. Meanwhile, near-bankrupt media groups are increasingly dependent on bank loans and advertisements by big corporations to keep going, and are thus even less likely to exercise any criticism against a government to whom these corporations have ties.

At the same time, the public’s trust in the media is collapsing. Recent polls have shown that the media is the least trusted institution for the good of the country. A survey conducted in November 2013 for To Vima showed that media has hit rock-bottom, with only 1.8% of respondents answering that they trusted them to promote progress and prosperity in the country, behind even political parties, which garnered 3% of favourable opinions. A Eurostat survey published in December 2012 showed that only 50% of Greek households are connected to the internet, and only 45% with a broadband connection, meaning that seeking alternative sources of information is not a possibility for all.

There are however some hopeful signs in the Greek media scene, with the emergence, during the crisis, of new publications such as Kostas Vaxevanis's bi-weekly magazine HOT DOC, the monthly magazine Unfollow or the daily Editors' Newspaper, which all provide an oasis of independent, investigative journalism in a media landscape that looks increasingly desolate. Furthermore, alternative online media such as ourselves at radiobubble, but also OmniaTV, Dromografos or are flourishing. For all of these, however, the issue is how long their finances will allow them to survive.

We will be discussing these issues on the #rbnews international show tomorrow at 2pm EEST, and will continue analyzing them during the coming week.

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