It’s been one of the ugliest legal battles of the past couple of years in Greece – and one of the most public, involving the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, and the publishers of a monthly literary magazine, Athens Review of Books, which is now seeing its bank accounts frozen.
The dispute started in 2010, when the magazine published a letter, commenting on a book launch event taking place at the Old Parliament edifices. The book was Kotzias’ essay Greek Foreign Policy on the 21st Century. For a New, Active, Democratic Strategy in the Era of Globalisation.
The letter claimed that the place was not appropriate to host the book of someone who was well-known as ‘the most extreme, the most fanatical, brutal and ruthless communist of his/our generation, a veritable Gauleiter of Stalinism’.
At the time, Kotzias, a political theory professor who has taught at Harvard and Oxford universities, among others, was a foreign policy advisor for the Greek Prime Minister Yorgos Papandreou and sued the magazine for defamation on the grounds that the article’s claim that he had studied in East Germany, under a sponsorship of ‘butcher’ Erich Honecker, was a deliberate attempt to dismiss his academic credentials.
With the legal battle pending, the Athens Review of Books escalated its attacks on Kotzias, especially since he was appointed Foreign Minister in the Syriza government, publishing a series of articles recalling the minister’s past as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (KKE), responsible for Propaganda (Kotzias left KKE in 1989, when the party sidelined with the right-wing Nea Dimokratia, to impeach Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou).
By the time Kotzias was made minister, he was vindicated in court for his claim that the article was libellous. The Appeals Court ruling, which ordered the magazine pay the minister €10,000 (which is augmented by legal fees, reaching €28,000 – still well below the €250,000 Kotzias was asking), included statements such as: “Even though it was proven that the plaintiff (i.e. Kotzias) was a founding member of the Greek Communist Party” (ed. note KKE was founded in 1924 whereas Kotzias was born in 1950), “is it [not] proven from the documents that the defendants have submitted to the court that he admired the stated absolutist regime nor that he advertised it.”
This, despite the fact that the Athens Review of Books had presented as evidence a propagandist book, Der Autonome Intellekt (Independent Mind), co-authored by Kotzias under the supervision of the Head of Ideological Propaganda of Honecker’s regime and high-ranking Stazi agent, Manfrend Buhr known by the code name ‘Rehbein’ – ‘Deerfoot’, which was published by the East German State-Communist Party publishing house Akademie Verlag in 1976.
All this didn’t matter – nor did the public outrage of academics and journalists, from all parts of the political spectrum, urging the minister to drop the charges, as this legal battle was effectively attacking freedom of speech and press in Greece.
In a letter to the leftist montly Unfollow the minister’s representatives argued that conceding would mean that the minister accepted that the magazine’s claims were correct. He was determined not to validate the characterisations.
The latest act of the ongoing legal drama was played out on 24 July, when the Greek Foreign Minister asked for the court’s decision to be implemented – that is asking for the publisher’s bank accounts to be frozen and for the proceeds of the magazine’s sales to be impounded. The publishers, Maria and Manolis Vasilakis, claim that this will effectively lead them to shut down operations.
The next step for the Athens Review of Books is taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which in the past has twice ruled in favour of Manolis Vasilakis (an ardent opponent of Greek nationalism) in similar cases concerning the freedom of speech.