Since I started covering Greece from the ground in autumn 2014, the country’s image in the international media has gone through several phases. While a worthwhile task that perhaps should be undertaken at some point, analysing the whole timeline would take too long and would derail from the point of this article.
What I want to talk about here is a strange phenomenon that I’ve been noticing more and more. With most ‘permanent’ correspondents moved out of Greece after 2016, I’ve seen with great astonishment what I can only call an ‘orientalisation’ of coverage. Outrageous claims are made by a very narrow pool of commentators, they are then reported verbatim in the international press, and while they might be shot down in Greece by the affected parties, the correction never makes it to the original article because of the obvious language barrier and what appears to be simple indifference, to be frank.
A highlight of this attitude took place in July, when an editor from the Financial Times labelled an anonymous twitter account “Consistently the best Greece commentator,” for a tweet that disparaged colleagues who write under their names and are judged for it. That this account tweets extremely partial and often hysterical things in Greek obviously never reaches those who only read the English timeline – let alone the obvious issues regarding anonymous accounts, that is who runs them and for what reason (that tweet was also RTed by Oxford Professor Stathis Kalyvas and liked by the leader of the Greek opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which I find odd, so I include it here.)
I don’t think it’s unfair to ask for which other country would this be acceptable to say? Would anyone ever claim that the best commentator in the UK is an anonymous account and not be derided? What makes it acceptable to do this for Greece? Orientalism is the only answer that pops to mind.
Of course the issue is not limited there, and frankly I hold no grudges towards people who hit the language barrier. This is pretty natural. But in that case, despite many people highlighting the issue (including a Wall Street Journal editor), no correction was forthcoming.
FAKE NEWS PUSHING THE OPPOSITION NARRATIVE
Last week, the FT struck again, this time by publishing a piece by its correspondent, Kerin Hope, that basically suggests that because Michalis Kalogirou, a lawyer who was just appointed Minister of Justice, had anarchist clients at some point, that makes him a suspect himself, tying the whole thing to a fairly groundless narrative that wants Syriza set to destroy institutions like the independent judiciary etc.
This is just one of the hysterical fantasies promoted by the opposition and propagated by foreign journalists who are missing the obvious: the Greek justice system is largely pro-opposition, with certain factions attempting to win favour with politicians by following their agenda, sensing where the wind is going. Of course, the Greek justice system does need urgent reform but unfortunately, none is forthcoming.
The article was found within minutes to contain factual errors and omissions. Labelling a lawyer guilty by association is preposterous enough, but Hope states that he was the lawyer of Kostas Sakas (an anarchist and former fugitive convicted as a member of the radical anarchist organisation Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei), which he wasn’t. The other case she mentions involves indeed someone who was accused of terrorism but was found innocent in 2009. Despite all this, no quote was sought from a source that isn’t opposition affiliated. Even when this info became available, no correction was made to the article (at least that was the case by Wednesday night).
Unfortunately, the case points towards my second conclusion: people simply don’t care. Opposition politicians from New Democracy have figured this out. They have no hesitation to push fake stories and lie to journalists, who will then print those lies and likely never see the rebuttals published in Greece. But in the meantime, the opposition uses the clout that comes with brands like the FT to spread the story in the Greek media (which they control almost in their entirety). Then anonymous accounts, like the aforementioned, further reenforce the narrative by pushing it to other international journalists.
Now, I’ve had my issues with the government too. Last spring, a pro-government TV presenter attempted a character assassination against me that lasted 40 minutes, on prime time TV. As funny as that was, it shows that there’s no lack of viciousness against journalists on the other side of the spectrum. But the way the opposition dupes foreign journalists time and time again is astounding.
Not that long ago, Anne Applebaum published an op-ed in the Washington Post that suggested “it’s cool to call yourself neoliberal now” in Greece. I won’t talk about this at length, because it was frankly hilarious, but unsurprisingly Applebaum only quoted opposition voices. The result was a piece that bordered on science fiction and which left everybody who knows the first thing about the country entirely baffled.
HARD-RIGHT SETTING THE NATIONAL AGENDA
I’m afraid that the issue here is systemic. The more sustained coverage retreats (I too am leaving the country soon), the easier it is for this kind of thing to happen. All it takes is an instance of carelessness or of maliciousness from a source, and you end up propagating fake news. And this is not a time for any of that.
Greece is facing a huge challenge, as it will be called to choose between a delegitimised left and a right which has gone full Orban and which recruited heavily from the radical and far-right, including tactics that bring to mind Steve Bannon’s playbook. The Opposition’s deputy leader was recruited from far-right party LAOS and its minister of interior (also most recently with LAOS) was the founder of the Front National’s sister party in Greece and a far-right activist in his youth. The respected centre-right daily Kathimerini had called these people “hard far-right” a few years ago. Now they are frontline politicians who set the tone of the national conversation.
None of these are contested facts, but are barely ever talked about in the international press, thanks to the cover provided by the ‘Harvard educated’ leader of New Democracy. That he has fully adopted his deputy’s agenda is not an issue for most reporters, because he says the right words; but doesn’t follow with deeds.
It is, for instance, highly problematic that he is not challenged for adopting the nativist agenda on the Macedonia Deal and swears time and time again that he will void the deal if he comes to power. The deal is brokered by the US, NATO and the EU. It’s opposed by Russia. What does that make the Greek opposition? Where does it place them in the “liberal” spectrum?
As for why writers like Applebaum, who would have normally gone straight for the jugular in cases like this one, seem to brush it under the carpet for Greece, the answer remains the same: orientalism and an inability to break through the language barrier. Trust in politicians and sources that what they say is actually true. Misplaced trust I’d say, but that’s just my personal opinion.
Is there a solution to this? I don’t think so, to be honest. But I do believe it is an obligation for all of us and especially journalists, to call out these failings. No one is above making a mistake from time to time. But not listening at all, when someone highlights a very serious problem in your reporting, simply because what you heard seems to confirm your previously held prejudices, is a disservice to journalism and to the public that depends on us to keep them from being bullshitted, from being driven to hysteria and reaching out for the dangerous populists waiting in the corner.
The orientalisation of Greek politics and coverage shows that we haven’t learned much about the way disinformation works and the new tactics adopted by the radical right and nativists. It’s time we up our game.
* Yiannis Βaboulias is a journalist and writer on Greece, Europe, the far right and the refugee crisis. This article was originally published in Medium.