Thursday, 24 October 2013

Legislation by Footnote

It appears that the substance of the Samaras government's intentions is often in the footnotes. The communist party on Wednesday took strong objection to a rider on a public order bill, which criminalises violations of sanctions by international bodies on third countries.

The six month jail sentence it instates might be somewhat understandable if, say, a tanker owner attempts to supply Iran with refined fuel. But the KKE and other opposition parties are worried that the law might one day be used to penalise political expression. "This article could be interpreted to mean that those who demonstrated against the war in Yugoslavia should be jailed for six months," said KKE MP Thanasis Pafilis.

Last Tuesday, the suspension of public funding to parties whose leaders have serious indictments hanging over them was added to a bill about renewable energy. That clause was elected by almost four fifths of parliament. But other, far less popular clauses, were also added. One renders the refusal to be included in a payroll census a "serious disciplinary misdemeanour" for administrative staff in higher education. The government is currently in the process of recording the administrative staff of universities and polytechnics, with a view to dismissing 1,249 of them. This amendment reinforces suspicions that those who refuse to be counted will be the first to go. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Golden Dawn Chained but not Chastened

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

Greece’s parliament voted on Tuesday by a majority of 235 out of 300 to strip the far-right Golden Dawn party of further state funding. “It is absurd for Greek taxpayers to be supporting a party the justice system tells us is engaging in criminal acts,” says Dimitris Papadimoulis, spokesman for the radical left Syriza party. Golden Dawn’s MPs left the debating chamber before the vote.

Syriza, which is in the opposition, came to a compromise resolution with the government, which is conservative-led but includes socialists, to sideline the far right. The resolution suspends state funding to parties “when there is sufficient evidence that under the mantle of a political party, serious crimes are being committed by its leadership,” or by a tenth of its members of parliament.

The only party that currently fits that description is Golden Dawn. On September 28, its leader, Nikos Mihaloliakos, along with two other parliamentary deputies, was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention on charges of heading a criminal organisation. Three more MPs were charged and released.

The law against terrorism and organised crime that Golden Dawn is being prosecuted under was passed in 2001, specifically to enable authorities to more effectively prosecute Greece’s most notorious terrorist organisation, 17 November. It was controversial at the time for the way in which it allowed a secretive three-judge panel, rather than a public prosecutor, to authorise police to eavesdrop and gather evidence. The law helped authorities put 17 November behind bars ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, but it has never been used against political figures before.

The charges stem from the killing ten days earlier of Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing musician, at the hands of a self-confessed Golden Dawn supporter. The government believes that this was the latest in a series of crimes ordered by Golden Dawn’s leadership.

Public order minister Nikos Dendias further instructed the Supreme Court to pursue dozens of indictments over a two-year period as part of a larger case against Golden Dawn. Deputy prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis issued an opinion describing the crimes, which include two murders, an attempted murder and two manslaughters, as “crossing the boundaries of isolated events”.

The parliamentary ruling will deprive Golden Dawn of roughly 550,000 dollars this year and four times as much next year, yet the party is bullish: “Golden Dawn's political activity will continue normally. Nothing will change,” says Ilias Kasidiaris, an indicted MP and party spokesman. “We will have a problem in our social and solidarity work - we won't be able to do the soup kitchens for the poor and homeless.”

Kasidiaris says the party can carry on because it hasn’t spent the $1.6mn it has received so far this year, and because its 18 MPs tithe 20 percent of their salary to the party. An MP’s base salary after tax is $6,392 (4,676 euros) a month, and there are usually additions for attending committees, so the least the party should continue to receive from its MPs is $276,000 a year. There are also undisclosed donations, which the financial crimes squad is currently investigating following a raid on party offices last week. This is the money that used to be spent on the poor. Now it is to go to rent and utilities.

Golden Dawn says it is being ganged up on, not just by the government but by all the parties in parliament, because it is unfashionably patriotic at a time when monetary, fiscal and much economic policy is being dictated by Greece’s creditors in Brussels (European Commission), Washington (International Monetary Fund), Frankfurt (European Central Bank) and Berlin (Angela Merkel’s government).

 “They’re looking for plausible grounds on which to accuse Golden Dawn,” says MP Mihail Arvanitis. “Why? Why are the so-called constitutional parties turning against Golden Dawn? Are they at pains to protect Greece lest it be destroyed by Golden Dawn? No. It’s their own hides they’re worried about. They’re traitors, and true criminals.”

Is the prosecution of Golden Dawn a persecution, as the party claims? The Supreme Court says it has powerful evidence against Mihaloliakos, yet much of this could be circumstantial. Vourliotis’ indictment cites the party’s “military structure, its absolute hierarchy… the blind obedience to orders from superiors, the conspiratorial action”. Golden Dawn doesn’t deny such a hierarchy, but it doesn’t amount to a crime.  

More damning, perhaps, are dozens of phone calls made on the night of the killing between Mihaloliakos, the killer and the local Golden Dawn organiser. Their content is not known but their timing is, and if leaked records are correct, they take place in the form of a continuous cascade around the time of the killing.

Finally, there is the as yet undisclosed deposition of a few Golden Dawn informants, which could include at least two police officers arrested for alleged collaboration with the party. Golden Dawn says that, like the killer himself, these informants are provocateurs planted by the authorities.

“I have the feeling that [chain of command] can be proven,” says Yiorgos Katrougalos, a public law professor at the University of Thessaloniki, “because in the past we had a constant presence of Golden Dawn in different neighbourhoods where they have acted against immigrants, against homosexuals, against leftists, against trade unionists – so the permanence exists in this kind of continuity in the criminal action.”

Nonetheless, the government has adopted a high-risk strategy. Golden Dawn is trying to turn the funding resolution into a broader discussion about party and campaign financing, a potentially inflammable topic in Greece’s present liquidity drought.

Greek parties are allowed to accept donations, but the lion's share of their money comes from the state. A 2002 law allows them to claim 0.137 percent of public income. This year that gave them 95 million dollars, divided according to parties’ share of the popular vote. Golden Dawn, whose share was just over two million dollars, believes that money is too much.

“We got quite a shock when we saw how much is spent on parties in parliament,” says Ilias Kasidiaris, one of the six indicted Godlen Dawn MPs. “A year ago we proposed a bill to scrap state financing, but we were told that is unconstitutional. Well now they're doing it anyway to put a lid on Golden Dawn's political activity.”

Golden Dawn is small enough and isolated enough that its legislative proposals in parliament can easily be quashed; but it could conceivably win public opinion over to the idea of radically lowering public funding of the political system. Such a move would do little damage to Golden Dawn now, but it would torpedo the finances of the ruling conservatives and socialists, who have borrowed heavily against future electoral victories. Together they owe banks more than $350 million. For that sort of money, private donors could create several new parties.

Now that it has broached the topic, the government is also being reminded of its pre-election promise to instil transparency. “[Interior minister] Mr. Mihelakis had committed to lowering party financing and toughening the requirements,” said Democratic Left MP Maria Yiannakaki. “Authority to check political funding would be taken from parliament and handed to an independent authority. We would have expected today’s resolution to be couched in a broader context that included all that.”

Parties are governed by the mildest of accountability regimes, being obliged to publish only a minimal balance sheet at the beginning of each year. Their accounts are submitted confidentially to parliament’s audit committee, composed mostly of parliamentarians, which does not make its minutes or its findings public. The committee is also weak. It may only check the internal consistency of what it is given. It lacks prosecutorial power to raid party offices or demand documents, as, for instance, the financial crimes squad may do with corporations. Unsurprisingly, the audit committee has never exposed any major misdemeanours. “We hope that the other parties undergo the same [audit] process,” says Kasidiaris. “If that happens it's certain that some of their top people will go to jail.

Such blatant opacity has fuelled public indignation and helped weaken the authority of institutions in recent years. “Golden Dawn is trying to exploit this diffuse anger of the electorate against the party system to transform that into a kind of legitimacy problem of democracy itself,” says Professor Katrougalos. He worries that Prime Minister Antonis’ Samaras’ strategy of treating Golden Dawn and the main opposition party, Syriza, as two equally dangerous extremes will also weaken democracy. “He wants to present himself as the guarantor of stability against not only the sort of instability represented by Golden Dawn, but also the basic leftist party of the opposition, Syriza. So Samaras tries to make the equation that everyone that contests his policy is a risk to the stability of the regime.” Katrougalos believes this amounts to “a very short-sighted interest to polarize the electorate.”

Golden Dawn has always thrived on the notion that it is an unorthodox political force, not subject to the realpolitik that leads to compromises and the loss of ideological compass. If anything, both the legal and the political prosecutions against it reinforce that image to its supporters. Polls taken since the arraignments of its six MPs show that while it no longer enjoys double-digit approval ratings, it has dropped to a solid base of about seven-to-eight percent. That is more than enough to ensure its continued presence in the Greek parliament, even if it has to contest the next election with one hand tied behind its back. Unless it demonstrates a willingness to rebuild its authority through greater accountability, the ruling coalition could find that its punishment of Golden Dawn will also become its own. 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Greek journalist says media integrity is on trial

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

The trial of Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis broke off without conclusion on Tuesday. It is his second trial for breach of privacy law. Vaxevanis’ alleged offence is to have published a list of 2,059 Greeks holding Swiss bank accounts last October.

The list, says Vaxevanis, is the now infamous Lagarde list, named after International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. As French finance minister in 2010, she sent it to her Greek counterpart, Yiorgos Papakonstantinou, to assist him in tracking down tax evaders.

Vaxevanis now faces a possible sentence of life in prison, but the trial is about more than his personal fate; it is seen by many Greeks as a measurement of the government’s will to silence or encourage investigation of the rich and powerful.

Middle class Greeks have borne the brunt of a $49 billion adjustment of state expenditure, which has allowed Greece to balance its budget. Nonetheless, many feel that the wealthy have not carried their share of the burden. The Lagarde list was a tool handed to the government to enable audits.

Vaxevanis’ lawyers, two of whom are a current and a former opposition member of parliament from the right and the left, respectively, have a major new weapon in their arsenal. Last summer, a parliamentary committee of inquiry voted to indict Papakonstantinou and two former heads of the financial crimes squad, responsible for major audits, for possible criminal negligence in failing to make use of the list. Vaxevanis’ defence is that his publication of the list was instrumental in making that happen. The newfound interest in the list prompted current finance minister Yannis Stournaras to order its prompt analysis, and lends support to Vaxevanis’ view that he acted as a political catalyst.

Whether it provides a legal, to-the-point defence is a different matter, but Vaxevanis has decided that he will put the media on trial in his stead.

He doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Greek journalism. “A big chunk of the press and the broadcast media are constantly held hostage by the political system and the banks,” he told Al Jazeera the night before his retrial for breaching privacy law. Vaxevanis was referring to the mainstream media, large newsgathering organisations with television and radio stations as well as daily newspapers.

“The government gives them state advertising and the banks give them banking ads and loans,” he concludes. “All these people see the media merely as a way to disseminate their view.”

Vaxevanis, who started out in journalism as a cameraman for one of those mainstream networks during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, has now set himself apart.

In April 2012 he launched a fortnightly magazine, Hot Doc, which he says is self-supporting on a circulation of 20,000. It declares that it refuses, on principle, any advertising from banks and the public sector.

“The entire system of corruption is on the list: The economic elite, the political elite, the publishing elite, their offshore companies,” says Vaxevanis. “Silence is the safest course for the political system and those who have something to hide.”

Vaxevanis’ first trial a year ago ended in acquittal, but the prosecutor appealed. Shortly after that acquittal Vaxevanis came home one night to find five men in his small back yard. The police said it was an attempted break-in, but he is convinced that they were government agents.

That event prompted him to move his staff from a bedraggled downtown mall to the basement of his house, which now resembles a fenced-in compound. Visitors enter through a tall steel gate in the garden wall to the sound of three large, hyperactive dogs. The newsroom, painted in Pompeian red and amply proportioned for the magazine’s seven employees, looks out onto a small, empty swimming pool.

Vaxevanis’ journalistic integrity has also come under attack by bloggers and mainstream journalists, who believe he is acting as an agent for Syriza, the radical left-wing opposition party. The timing of his publication of the list, an off-cycle imprint two days before a major austerity bill debate, certainly played into Syriza’s hands. He emerged from his indictment accompanied by a Syriza MP, which also created a certain impression. Vaxevanis insists he is a straight-up-and-down journalist with no party affiliations or secret funding.

Whatever the truth about his influences or lack thereof, Vaxevanis is indisputably adept at planting himself in the middle of the story. “A guilty verdict will make me go to jail to make people understand what is going on in Greece - that there is a question of press freedom in Greece,” he says defiantly.

Vaxevanis sees his own unorthodoxy in the most flattering light: “A year ago we were a bunch of crazies. Now we are a danger to the system.”