Earlier this month, members of the Neo-Nazi organisation Nordfront (which is active in several Scandinavian countries) marched in the city of Gothenburg in Sweden. Among the signs they carried was one sporting an image of Alexandra Pascalidou. The Greek-Swedish journalist is used to being targeted by racists and far right extremists. Throughout her career she has been subject to every kind of hate speech and discrimination there is. But she won’t have any of it: she writes books, she gives keynote speeches, she shoots documentaries, she does whatever it takes to have her voice heard louder than hate speech.
How did you become aware of the Nordfront march?
People sent me pictures on social media. It was terrible to see my face, my name and the word ‘traitor’. They [The extremists] exploit freedom of speech to spread fear and hate, while we see our freedom of speech being limited. Imagine that speaking about human rights has become so provocative and controversial that dark forces want to kill you. I don’t get it.
Did you go to the authorities?
The police were hard to reach. It took me a couple of days before I got to speak with someone and unfortunately they don’t do anything. I complained but don’t expect much.
Others that were also targeted – journalists and publicists – have private security guards through their media houses. As a freelance journalist I have nothing, not even a guaranteed job. And the scary thing is that there are employers that fear racists so much they don’t dare commission you.
How does it feel seeing your face targeted this way?
It’s a daily struggle not to surrender and withdraw. You never get used to threats. My Greek heritage helps me. I remind myself that my grandfathers fought the Nazis during the Second World War. They stood up, sacrificing their lives for democracy, freedom, and human rights – and they lost everything. I’m standing on their shoulders. They give me courage. This is not only about me. It’s not a personal battle – this is about protecting human decency. So it’s our duty as citizens and human beings.
Nordfront claims, in their media, that the Saturday demonstration was ‘the largest nationalist gathering in Gothenburg in modern times’; what are your thoughts on that?
I’m happy they couldn’t gather more than 500 men all dressed in black. But I think they are growing around the world thanks to populism giving simplistic answers on complex questions.
With Nordfront and other far right parties such as the Sweden Democrats doubling their influence in the latest elections, why is an advanced, developed country such as Sweden so susceptible to racism and xenophobia?
It sounds like a paradox: racism, far right extremism, Nazism in Sweden, a nation that used to be a welfare country and role model for the rest of the world, a generous nation that showed solidarity to so many migrants and refugees. But things have changed radically and rapidly. Racism has been normalised and nurtured.
In the early 90s we had a Nazi terrorist killing migrants on the streets with laser guns; we had a racist party accusing migrants of everything. So this is not really new to us. What is new and probably not widely known is that the welfare system is not the same. Privatised schools and healthcare and growing gaps is a reality even in Sweden. We have social and economic inequalities, segregation and discrimination that have not been addressed by politicians. Globalisation changes the scene and leaves people behind. Some of them need a scapegoat who always happens to be the ‘other’. It may be the lazy and corrupt Greeks in Europe, the Muslims seen as terrorists, the Jews, the LGBTQI groups or whoever is beyond their norm.
What is your outlook on Europe at the moment?
With the chronic crisis in Greece over the last seven years, with people suffering and seeing their lives being torn apart, with the brain-drain having talent and young people leave the country to find prosperous soil to build their lives abroad – and the EU without other solutions than cuts, we see the crisis deepening and becoming a multiple political, democratic, cultural crisis, where citizens [have] lost faith in everything. How will the political system be able to restore that loss of faith and trust?
Voters not only in Greece but around Europe punish politicians – and I understand them. Even I, highly educated and privileged in many ways lost faith in parties and politicians. So we need something new.
When I recently received an award from the EU Commission and parliament handed out by Jean-Claude Juncker, I took the chance to talk about these challenges. Also, when I was awarded European of the Year I talked about the other Europe that is left behind. We need to keep talking and awakening.
Your experience with racism has been well-documented, what has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face?
I lost my job after I was threatened by Nazis. Then they came to my home with weapons. The photo was sold and published in the biggest newspaper in Sweden and I lost my job because my colleagues were afraid. I lost opportunities, I see less merited and educated colleagues get jobs. I’m still seen as ‘the other’ and even if media managers talk about the need for inclusion and diversity they mostly appoint their clones and friends out of anxiety. I get to do what they don’t dare [such as] following Roma beggars and sleeping with them under bridges. And then I get awarded and nominated and praised. But I don’t want their awards. I want justice.
On the other hand, every single day and everywhere, people stop [me] on the streets to say something kind and empowering. On Instagram, Twitter, [and other] social media, I receive so much support and solidarity that I feel this is a mission I have to follow.
Do you feel an obligation, as a public figure, to stand up and speak up for the sake of those who do not have the chance to enter the spotlight the way you do?
I feel an obligation as a human being. We’re here for a short time and we need to make the best out of life for us and for others.
I’m privileged. Remember where I come from – a poor, uneducated Greek migrant family. We moved to Sweden when I was six and since then I’ve been struggling. I grew up far from books, theatres and privileges, not in my wildest dreams could I imagine the life I live today: I’ve done TV – in Greece I presented the Olympics and the 2005 Eurovision song contest the only year we won; I’ve been awarded as a journalist, author, TV presenter and producer. I’m travelling the world speaking, empowering people to fight for justice and equality. I share my stories – it’s my duty to help others, to open doors, to make society a meritocracy where you can win if you struggle. Where everybody counts the same, here human value is guaranteed.
Media is a gift that you need to open up the world, act for understanding and solidarity. We can give the voiceless a voice, turn the spotlight to the shadows and thereby make this world a better place. I want to plant seeds in people that can grow. I want them to think. I want to inspire people.
What is the aftertaste of your professional involvement with the Greek media?
Oh my God! This is a book I should write. I thought I was smart and then I came to Greece. A jungle. My view of my homeland was deeply glorified. Nostalgia is the best beautifying filter you can get!
What does being Greek mean to you?
It means all. It means being crazy enough to think you’re the alpha and omega and everything in between and the ability to make fun of yourself and all the terrible things happening around you. Being Greek means talking to everybody any time without any reason, opening random conversations with strangers. Being Greek means being proud and courageous and carrying that naïve conviction inside that history has appointed you with the responsibility to teach the world and humanity how to live and prosper, to teach the world the meaning of ethos, filoxenia, democracy and all the important words and ideas we once gave the world.