Greece is sliding towards a dangerous path

The current state of democracy and human rights in Greece is alarming

Greece drew international media attention earlier this week, as police brutality protests in Athens turned violent and the Greek PM appeared in a televised statement calling for peace and unity. Images of an injured police officer filled the media, two days after the beating of an innocent citizen by police in the neighborhood of Nea Smyrni, a southern suburb of the capital. This story though is only the tip of the iceberg in a country where democracy and human rights are deeply traumatized.

On November 7, 2020, Greece entered into a nationwide lockdown that is still in effect due to the increased coronavirus cases. Regardless of the dire measures, the evolution of the pandemic is still worrisome as the tourist industry-based country desperately needs to be open by the summer. The ruling conservative party, New Democracy, blames common citizens, especially the youth with no evidence whatsoever, for not abiding with the measures, whereas the government has spent billions in defense and security and almost nothing for primary healthcare, tracking and monitoring cases, or massive testing. Again, this is only the tip of the iceberg in a country that is considered by The Economist as a “flawed democracy”.

The coronavirus pandemic is used as a pretext by the Greek government to crackdown on civil liberties and to justify excessive police violence. As an ultimate alibi for authoritative arbitrariness, it also reflects in the media outlets and the freedom of expression in the country where almost everything is government regulated. Linking the coronavirus pandemic with every ambiguous governmental decision is not only a Greek phenomenon of course. However, the way that the Greek situation is blatantly ignored is quite disturbing, let alone the fact that almost no one is even acknowledging the signs of a country sliding towards illiberalism.  

Police brutality

A longstanding issue regarding Greek police is the impunity among its ranks, especially when reluctance and bias reign on incidents of police brutality. Since Kyriakos Mitsotakis took power in summer 2019, police special forces were heavily strengthened with unskilled officers and equipment, in what his conservative party sees as enforcing a strict “law and order” doctrine. A surge though on police brutality cases was visible way before the coronavirus pandemic. In November 2019, a journalist was injured when riot police attacked bystanders indiscriminately during riots in Athens. A month later, the film director Dimitris Indares and his family suffered in their own apartment handcuffed when police stormed the place without following any legal procedure.

But the coronavirus pandemic acted as a multiplier of such events. In May 2020, after the end of the first coronavirus curfew, police attacked young adults in parks for “spreading the virus through crowding”, when no lockdown measures were in effect. Two months later, in a peaceful anti-racist protest, stand-up comedian Alexandros Titkov was savagely beaten and got charged for crimes he never committed. During the demonstration outside Athens’ Court of Appeal that convicted the neo-nazi criminal organization, Golden Dawn, in October 2020, riot police attacked the large crowd after the announcement of the decision. There were also reports that some policemen were bearing neo-nazi symbols. Ιt is widely known that the Greek neo-nazi party enjoyed significant support inside the police. Greek minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, openly lied about the incident, claiming that 150 petrol bombs were fired towards police after the announcement when footage suggests otherwise.

The second lockdown in November 2020, brought a series of incidents, all in the name of measures against the pandemic. A policeman in Karditsa violently arrested a 15-year old girl sitting in the local park, left-wing activists were arrested for handing out leaflets (!) in Thessaloniki, and a whole family was terrorized outside their apartment in Sepolia neighborhood, Athens (the father had a stroke after the incident). Later, in December, special police units trying to suppress protesters threw a flash bomb inside an apartment in Exarchia neighborhood, Athens. In February 2021, riot police attacked random bystanders during anti-government protests and later the same month they sprayed chemicals on an arrested man, dragging him throughout the incident.

There are countless other cases of police brutality that are not mentioned here, but the most prominent one that enraged Greek society was a few days ago in Nea Smyrni which triggered violent riots. During the riots where an officer was brutally assaulted, policemen were caught on camera shouting “let’s go to screw them, we are going to kill them”, referring to the ones who did it. All of the above cases, except for the last one, were not met with the proper consequences. The officers that took part are still active and in most cases the government wholeheartedly supported their acts, even justifying them by suggesting that there is some kind of communist danger that needs to be dealt with.

Freedom of assembly

In July 2020, Greek lawmakers passed an ambiguous act that gave police excessive authority on the issue of whether or not a demonstration endangers public safety.  A common argument used by the ruling conservative party while defending the law is that assembly rights infringe with other rights, noting the disruption of economic activity within the country as the most prominent one. Unfortunately, this case of restriction on freedom of assembly was the least important to come.

November 17 is commemorated nationally in Greece, usually accompanied by a large demonstration in the capital. On November 17, 1973, a revolt against the ruling military junta took place in Athens that was ended with more than 24 deaths of students and civilians. Right after the events, the military regime imposed a military law and a ban on gatherings of more than five people. On November 17, 2020, there was also a ban on gatherings, this time of more than four people and due to the coronavirus pandemic. This decision was not taken by the health experts of the country that advise the government regarding the control of the pandemic. This decision was taken directly by the leadership of the Greek police, acting informally on behalf of the health experts and expressing the will of the government.

An identical ban on gatherings was taken place on December 6, 2020, where protests are traditionally held commemorating the murder of the 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a police officer back in 2008. Again, the decision was taken by the police directly, without a formal suggestion from the health experts. In late January 2021, the government proposed a significant reform in education, where a new police unit would be established inside universities, cutting expenditures from another education funding. Students that wished to protest against the bill were met by another ban on gatherings from police, this time of more than 100 people.

All of the above decisions are obviously political and have nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. When the government condemned rallies (some MPs even claimed that the protesters are aspiring killers!), at the same time, they were passing ambiguous laws with closed universities.  The practices of the Greek government were labeled as authoritarian, whereas humanitarian organizations, such as Amnesty International, condemned them.

Media and freedom of expression

Before the economic depression of the 2010s ruled the headlines, one of the most significant problems that plagued -and still do- Greece was corruption. A major aspect of the issue is considered to be the corruption between the state, the banks and the mainstream media. The so-called “triangle of corruption” functions like this: Mainstream media were guaranteed loans from the banks by governmental intervention without the required credit. In exchange, they offered the ruling party support, enforcing propaganda and sometimes even fake news. Nowadays, there is a kind of similar situation.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Greek government spent more than €20 million on funding TV channels, newspapers and news websites, supposedly to broadcast the governmental campaign against the spreading of coronavirus. Pro-government media received more money than other media whereas some of them were given to non-existent websites. There were also pro-opposition media that were excluded from the funding. The detailed list regarding the funding was not initially given to the public but only after continuous pressures from opposition parties.

Apparently, the results could not be different: Almost all media are blatantly supporting governmental decisions and are contributing to the narrative that the coronavirus pandemic is on the rise because of irresponsible citizens. Reporters are every day on the streets pointing fingers and constructing stories of chaos and anarchy regarding the coronavirus measures. Needless to mention that all of the above police brutality stories were not even covered, let alone the fact that they are silencing opposition voices that seek to speak about them. Simultaneously, when the Greek PM caught violating lockdown restrictions in Ikaria, a message delivered to the journalists of the state-owned public television stated to not broadcast any video related to the incident.

Naturally, social media became the only haven for Greeks to criticize and question everything that is being imposed on them. But how long can this last? The past two months, the case of the hunger striker Dimitris Koufondinas -he could be the first dead hunger striker in Europe after Bobby Sands 40 years ago- became the reason for Facebook to shut down accounts (among them news websites’ accounts) that mentioned his name due to his terrorist past. At the same time, there are tons of trolling accounts, sponsored by New Democracy, that are attacking almost anyone criticizing the government. And speaking of attacks against critics, there was even an incident where the editorial director of the newspaper To Vima, Dimitra Kroustalli, quitted her 30-year-long job supporting that she had pressures from the government after publishing an article questioning the management of the pandemic. Freedom of expression is constantly threatened by restriction whenever is possible. The latest example is a bill that attempted to restrict photojournalists specifically by giving them “certain limitations for their safety” when covering protests.

A rigged democracy

For the Greek government, everything that goes wrong is either because of the people or because of the main opposition party, Syriza. This attitude is more or less common for ruling parties, especially when they heavily invest in their image and communication tactics. The Mitsotakis government is presented both by itself and by its hardcore supporters as messiahs that are much needed for the country to thrive. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is slowly developing a cult of personality image, using all of the above mechanisms in his favor. His constant televised messages are also contributing towards this direction. Meanwhile, the opposition is getting weaker, being unable to raise awareness for anything of the above, let alone capitalize on his faults.

All of the above issues concerning democracy and human rights in Greece are quite aggravating and provoking. If the inhuman condition in refugee and migrant camps was to be taken into consideration (the last shocking event was when an Afghan woman set herself on fire and she was charged with arson!), then the situation is really depressing. Greece, at the present moment, is a country where messianism flows abundantly in the government, the opposition is unable to inspire reactions, media and police are constantly attacking dissidents and a horrifying recession is threatening the general population due to the coronavirus restrictions. In other words, a rigged democracy that is sliding towards dangerous paths that many other countries have already been following in the past years.

The last series of events and the eruption of violence in the streets daily could be the catalyst for chaos to follow. And usually, this kind of chaos is the one that strong leaders take advantage of in order to establish a much stronger hegemony. This story cannot have a happy ending.