Friday, 27 February 2009

Should newspapers publish terrorist proclamations?

Terrorist activity has shown a new impetus since last December's riots. In the space of just two months this year, Greece has acquired a second active urban guerrilla group, possibly more, and seen the existing one become more aggressive.

Revolutionary Sect made its first appearance this month with an agenda against police and journalists, among others. Revolutionary Struggle came closer than ever before to claiming Greece's first terrorist fatality in a decade on January 5, when they shot and wounded a policeman outside the culture ministry.

Most worrying of all is the movement away from the targeted killings of November 17 and towards acts of mass terror using enormously powerful bombs built from commercially available materials. A bomb made from fertiliser and fuel that would have razed the Citibank building in Kifisia was defused on February 18.

We may even be seeing the beginning of racist terrorism in this country. On February 24 a migrant support group meeting in Athens was attacked with a grenade, narrowly avoiding fatalities.

It is pure chance that no one has been killed so far this year. It seems inevitable that, given current trends of rising lawlessness, and New Democracy's poor track record in tracking and reining it in, sooner or later somebody will be.

Terrorists now present the media with a renewed dilemma over the extent to which paramilitary groups should be given free space to run their proclamations. Revolutionary Sect, in particular, sharpens this dilemma because of the way in which it targets the media themselves. To ignore the group is editorially impossible, but to feed it publicity is potentially to be complicit in one's own demise.

The reasons in favour of running proclamations after the junta years were mostly historical and commercial. Editors claimed press freedom, but in reality all of November 17's proclamations went to left wing papers such as Eleftherotypia, Ethnos, To Pontiki and, on one or two occasions, Ta Nea.

November 17 didn't get the press coverage it craved until after its second hit, against police officer Evangelos Mallios. Even then no one in Greece would touch the proclamation until Liberation ran it in French. It was Eleftherotypia that broke the ice thanks to the anarchist credentials of its publisher and political correspondent.

The latter, Yiorgos Votsis, a self-professed Trotskyite, in December 1976 published an article in which he supported November 17's claim to be a homegrown revolutionary organisation. Votsis found a sympathetic ear in his publisher, Christos Tegopoulos, who had taken part in the Paris riots of 1968 as part of a Marxist group.

There was an unquestionable mystique attached to publishing such tracts. Apart from raising sales and newspapers' profiles in the marketplace, they gave the leftwing press a notoriety of which it was sneakingly proud.

Attempts were made to curtail the levels of publicity November 17 was achieving. The Mitsotakis government, when it came to power in 1990, made the reprinting of proclamations illegal following fatalities. The move was understandable if extreme - Konstantine Mitsotakis' own son in law had been gunned down by November 17 the year before. Pasok repealed the law as soon as it returned to power in 1993. The mistake was to frame the debate in terms of whether the press ought to be free to publish, rather than whether it ought to publish.

There are plenty of reasons why it shouldn't. Serially publishing proclamations from politically motivated killers is bound to give the carrier an air of collaboration in the eyes of many, and to eventually control a newspaper's image to a great extent. The decades of careful journalism that go into building a reputation for independent reporting can quickly be squandered.

Eleftherotypia realised, at some point, that it was being hijacked and made an attempt to leverage some influence with November 17. In March 1988, Votsis wrote an open letter to the group entitled 'Ακου με ένοπλε σύντροφε (Heed me, armed comrade), which ended, "Your path is the wrong one." It was too late. The group verbally rebuffed him. Eleftherotypia looked even more pusillanimous in July 1992, when it published only excerpts of a 13,000-word diatribe following the attempt on then finance minister Ioannis Palaiokrassas. The group reacted by sending the proclamation to Avriani and Ethnos.

There are other dangers. News outlets can never check the provenance of a proclamation, allowing spurious claimants to humiliate them. And there is always the nagging unfairness of offering free space to opinionated killers, while opinionated non-killers pay thousands of euros a page.

Perhaps the most important reason not to publish a terrorist proclamation is that terrorism ultimately offers nothing with which to replace the democracy it eats away at. It is an inarticulate violence that is becoming ever more indiscriminate.

November 17 sent its proclamations to chosen newspapers as a way of showing favour and making sure that publishers would be flattered enough to run them. That is because when November 17 assassinated CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975, the press reacted with complete apostrophe towards a proclamation that, initially, seems to have forgotten to mention the group's name.

November 17 was apoplectic. "Although from the first moment we claimed political responsibility for this just act as "November 17", newspapers printed everything except the truth: That it was the act of foreign agents; that it was an act of provocation; that it was done by dark-skinned Arabs with foreign accents... Is this the vaunted truth in whose service the press toils?"

In the internet age there is no reason to choose a newspaper other than to show that one is to be taken seriously. Internet publication is, arguably, too easy. The credibility of the press is thus put at the service of killers with pretentions to be acting for the put-upon masses.

How, then, are newspapers to balance a newsworthy story with integrity to the democratic values a free press exists to reinforce? One answer is for newspapers to print a story revealing the main points of the proclamation, but not the full text. That allows them to supply context and analysis, and to temper the rhetoric. It also allows them to reap the commercial benefits of the exclusive without sensationalising.

Another formula might be for newspapers to hold back the full text of the proclamation until the family of a victim had had the chance to pull itself together and offer a rebuttal. The two could then be printed side by side. That would allow readers to see terrorist claims countered where they were factually wrong, and remember that a victim was, beside his or her political attributes, human.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Greece has to re-earn membership in the euro

After seeing Finance Minister Yannis Papathanasiou's revised three-year stability programme, the European Commission is recommending that Greece do more to save money this year.

Its observations, which have gone to the Economic and Finance Ministers Council for adoption next month, are unforgiving: "The medium-term budgetary framework remains weak, characterised by a poor track record. Fiscal developments in Greece reflect insufficient control of public expenditure, while revenue projections have proven to be systematically overoptimistic."

In other words, Greek budgets are prone to underestimating expenses and overestimating revenues.

The commission thinks that Papathanasiou has made "favourable" growth assumptions and not fully explained how he will lower the budget deficit from 3.7 percent of GDP this year to 3.2 percent next year and 2.6 percent the year after.

It is particularly annoyed that 2007, an election year, bucked a trend of falling deficits for no external reason.

The commission is recommending four things: strengthening revenue and curbing expenditure permanently, improving competitiveness and the trade imbalance, planning a longer-term budgetary strategy and monitoring it more transparently, and dealing with the long-term threats of spiralling healthcare and pension costs due to an ageing population.

If these things are not done, says Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, the markets will punish Greece with high rates of interest.

In fairness to Greece, former finance minister Yiorgos Alogoskoufis worked hard to rein in spending. He managed to bring deficits down from a revised 7.5 percent of GDP in 2004 to 3.7 percent last year - still noticeably above the mandated three percent threshold and partly attributable to an upward revision of GDP in 2007, but a reduction nonetheless.

Yet the commission's criticisms are apposite. Greece's competitiveness remains low compared to the developed economies it is politically clubbed with, which means that it cannot easily generate the economic activity to recover. Its exports are horribly low compared to imports.

Corruption, too, plays a role in the inefficiency of public finances. Transparency International's latest survey in Greece estimates that 13.5 percent of households spent three-quarters of a million euros in bribes last year, compared to 12.3 percent of households and 639 million euros the year before.

Papathanasiou announced on February 19 that he would curtail 'elastic' expenses such as overtime, freelance work and out-of-office expenses for the state sector by ten percent. The health ministry's reduced pay rises for doctors and nursing staff last week, in comparison to what he promised last December, was just the beginning of an expected tightening in public spending (see article on page 9). Public pay rises this year are also expected to be parsimonious and the civil servants' union, ADEDY, is planning a one-day pre-emptive strike on February 24.

Papathanasiou is likelier than not to agree to further public spending cuts when he meets his peers on March 10, as the commission has recommended. This seems reasonable. New Democracy has done a rather opaque job of public hiring, resulting in a net increase in civil servants by more than 55,000 in 2004-2008, to reach more than half a million. To put on the brakes now may be a little late, but necessary.

Pasok is highly critical of the government's approach. Fiscal discipline is the last thing to think about in a time of recession, it says. Its economic crisis platform contains some laudable measures. Some of the best would deal with the liberal regime under which banks were offered a 28 billion euro bailout.

Pasok would ask bank underwriters to cough up money to make banks solvent before digging into the public pocket, and would strengthen the state's role on the boards of banks who took public money to make sure it reached the consumer rather than the executive. It would also freeze repossessions this year for individuals and businesses having trouble making ends meet, setting up a refinancing fund for them.

New Democracy has moved closer to Pasok's spirit since the platform was announced. The government last week tabled a legal amendment forcing banks to pay dividends in shares rather than cash, helping to ensure that liquidity won't be squandered. And Papathanasiou's reversal of a tax hike for the self-employed is something Pasok had said it would do, too.

Pasok also has some good suggestions for the labour market. It would subsidise social security contributions for the under-30s, removing a major disincentive to private employers.

But some Pasok measures smack entirely of populism, such as cheaper power (long a socialist obsession) and a series of handouts to the underpaid, farmers, poorer pensioners and those having trouble heating their homes.

The truth is that state finances don't have a great deal of leeway for the more populist kind of spending. Pasok is right in forcing bankers to be more accountable about the public handouts that will become increasingly necessary to them after first-quarter results start revealing the extent of their vulnerability next week. But Greece also needs to correct a long track record of overspending for political reasons and over-indebting future generations as a result. The commission is telling us that we have now oversold our future as well as our present, and the markets are proof of that.

The euro shields Greece from money market speculation and IMF supervision, but it is no longer disguising Greece's weak fundamentals in bond markets, meaning high borrowing costs. Some quarters have claimed that under the direst circumstances a European Central Bank bond could be in the offing, which would greatly benefit Greece now that it has reached pre-euro bond spreads with the German bund. Europe's message is clear: If we want the euro to continue to lend us its strength, we have to lend it ours.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Greece's largest untapped resource

The government recently reintroduced its long-debated diaspora vote bill, which would allow Greek nationals abroad to vote from their nearest consulate or embassy. Currently, they must travel to Greece at great expense to the parties or themselves, necessarily limiting their numbers to the tens of thousands.

But the number of eligible Greek voters living overseas could potentially be close to a million. This transpires from the difference between Greece's resident adult population in the 2001 census, of 8.6 million, and the national voter registration list, of about 9.8 million. Even factoring in inaccuracy and unregistered deaths, the bulk of the difference is thought to come from eligible non-resident voters. Since an estimated 5.6 million ethnic Greeks live abroad, it is not a fantastic assumption that up to a fifth of them could have inherited citizenship or emigrated. And given that just over seven million people voted in the last election, the addition of hundreds of thousands more foreign-educated Greeks is potentially momentous.

Unfortunately, that worries many MPs across the spectrum, who fear that they lack the resources to campaign abroad. When the bill was first presented in 2007, Pasok suggested that rather than contributing towards existing constituencies, as is currently the case, diaspora votes should count towards specially created ones.
This is the position Pasok is sticking to now in rejecting New Democracy's amended bill, announced last week, which would channel the diaspora vote towards non-constituency-based, statewide MPs. Twelve such seats are currently awarded to the parties in proportion to their share of the national vote.

The bill is practically dead in the water since it needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to pass. In the absence of Pasok, all 46 remaining opposition MPs aren't enough.

That is a shame, because the effective enfranchisement of a million Greeks has the potential to change this country's unfortunate political character. It could, at a stroke, help marginalise the loony left anachronisms within Pasok, Syriza and the KKE, allowing the more reasonable voices in those parties to prevail. It could help repatriate the brains and investment capital of the diaspora by anteing up the political leverage those brains and money (rightly) will not come without. And it could help export Greek goods and services, if Greeks as far away as Australia and California felt they had a stake in the prosperity of their genetrix. The pride diaspora Greeks amply demonstrate in their heritage and the energy they volunteer for Greek causes even in the absence of such leverage leaves no doubt as to the potential they hold for this country. They are, arguably, our largest untapped resource, far more valuable than the oil puddles under the Aegean we obsess over.

Yet the reaction of both power parties before this national potential has been disappointing. Pasok's constitutional amendment of 2001 specifically called for a bill to include the diaspora vote, but Pasok then did nothing before losing power three years later. Its proposal to create special constituencies will lead to arguments over the consolidation of some existing constituencies, because the constitution forbids more than 300 MPs. But, more importantly, it will marginalise their influence.

ND laudably picked up where Pasok left off and brought a respectable bill in 2007. Even then, however, it did not dare bring up the possibility of a postal ballot, which would truly facilitate widespread overseas voting. Its latest suggestion of keeping the diaspora vote out of constituencies altogether and simply channelling it into the statewide list is arguably unconstitutional and, at any rate, insulting. ND slyly suggests that three of the nominees on each party's list should be Greek nationals who have resided abroad for at least ten years, but it does not specify how high up the list they should be. Typically, only the first seven stand a chance (ND and Pasok presently each have just five statewide MPs in parliament).

Yet even this most watered-down version of the 2007 bill has been knocked out of the field by a singularly partisan opposition, ensuring that Greece will remain politically severed from many Greeks. Why? Greek-Americans, Greek-Canadians and Greek-Australians have all climbed rapidly up the economic and social ladders of these new societies. Many of them look upon Greece as a parallel universe, beautiful but treacherous, plunging into which would be a salto mortale. Could it be that we feel intimidated by the achievements of our diaspora?

The irony of the bill's ultimate failure is that it has been brought about by the very national politics it would change. Pasok is in no mood for bipartisanship, seeing it as a crutch for an ailing conservative administration. Polls show that elections would increase its parliamentary representation from the present 102 seats to about 140, mostly because it would come out ahead of New Democracy and win a 40-seat bonus. As far as Pasok is concerned, that presents a more tantalising prospect than a few statewide seats from the diaspora.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Substance, not politics, please

It would take the hardiest spirits to look upon the events of the past week with anything improving upon dismay.

Greece acquired a new terrorist organisation, Revolutionary Sect, which, judging from the unfocused anger, vacuity and poor Greek of its first proclamation, could be the country's first nihilistic group. Previous urban guerrilla groups have hailed from the left and attempted to proselytise the public with lengthy economic and political ramblings. Revolutionary Sect, which left its proclamation on the grave of slain teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos, seems to be out to win only the support of the self-indulgently irate.

In the very same week a Special Guard seems to have taken leave of his senses when he fired upon and seriously wounded a private security guard outside the US ambassador's residence. It was a member of his elite police unit that killed Grigoropoulos on December 6, so the incident was grist to the mill of those who believe that Grigoropoulos was targeted by a psychopath in uniform.

Rounding up a disastrous fourth week on the job for Alternate Interior Minister Christos Markoyannakis, who oversees the police, was the political reaction to his approval of the use of teargas on Cretan farmers who landed their tractors at the port of Peiraieus. Markoyannakis was roasted in parliament for preventing them from driving up Syngrou Avenue and bringing the capital to a standstill, much as their Thessalian comrades had choked off the country's highways.

That the December riots should spawn a new group bent on violence is, perhaps, not terribly surprising. There are enough people in the country with little to offer society except exploitation of its problems.

What is surprising is that the government should do anything as foolish as to float electoral challenges to its opponents, instead of focusing on the crises at hand; or that the opposition should react to a dangerously incompetent administration and back-seat prime minister with a politics-as-usual attitude.

Greece is sailing into dark waters. Surveys consistently point to a prolonged recession and a weakening of our fragile social fabric.

Polling company VPRC's annual poverty survey, released last week, sustains these concerns. It found that a quarter of the population could not do at least three of four things last year - go on holiday for a week, eat meat or fish every other day, face incidental expenses or adequately heat their home - up six points on 2007.

The survey also found a dramatic increase in the number of people who said they had difficulty paying their regular household bills, from 27 to 35 percent; and that roughly a quarter of the nation had trouble paying off loans and credit cards, up by seven points.

These figures are drawn from a year in which most households did not feel the pinch of the international financial meltdown palpably, so the outlook for 2009 must be considerably worse.

How much worse is largely a matter of guesswork. The General Confederation of Greek Workers' Labour Institute (INE-GSEE) estimates that some 80,000 jobs will be lost this year - about 1.7 percent of the people in work. That would reverse a year's worth of progress under New Democracy, bringing Greece back to 2007 employment figures. Employment Minister Fani Palli Petralia evidently has a similar estimate; she wants the prime minister to give her the green light to put 60,000 unemployed people on the public payroll for a fixed term.

Such direct interventions will come at a significantly higher price tag than usual. Finance Minister Yannis Papathanasiou's revised stability pact estimates that Greece will borrow this year at an increased average interest rate of 5.3 percent, up from 5.1 percent last year and 4.9 percent the year before.

Turning from fiscal discipline to politics, however, things are even tighter. Polls show New Democracy still trailing Pasok by at least four points. As the downturn bites deeper into the economy this year, waves of people can be expected to storm the capital for handouts. Construction, tourism, manufacturing and shipping are all expected to suffer significant job losses.

What really tips the scale in favour of borrowing, though, is that public opinion on the whole tends to empathise with the demands of particular groups. As farmers blockaded Greece's highways and border crossings for almost two weeks, polls showed that majorities of more than 50 percent supported their claims even as they disapproved of the sit-ins.

When asked whether the government should err on the side of higher taxation and lower borrowing, on the other hand, only 35 percent of Greeks gave an unequivocal yes.

The political climate suggests unequivocally that the empathetic Greek character will prevail on a 151-seat majority government to borrow now and pay later, simply to keep society from falling apart. Papathanasiou's scope for achievement will be in how much waste he can trim from current spending. Every euro he doesn't have to borrow is an investment in our fiscal future.

This is clearly a time for serious and, if possible, bipartisan action, not politicking, either by the government or by the opposition. New Democracy's MP Katerina Papakosta put it best when she suggested that the next election law should forbid governments from manipulating the timing of elections, and oblige them to serve out their term. Since 2007 New Democracy and Pasok seem to have occupied themselves with little else.