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Police brutality and censorship: Greeks criticising government suppressed online and on the streets
Politician calls to "protect democracy" after citizens attacked by police and Facebook deactivates profiles
A Greek politician is calling for joint action to “protect democracy and citizens” after citizens suffer from months of escalating police brutality and online censorship. What began as protests for a prisoner has become a battle of the state against its people, with police acting with impunity on the streets while Facebook conducted a mass campaign of deleting criticisms of the right-wing government.
The stark reality of this dangerous combination is that journalists and press organisations discovered their accounts had been deactivated or deleted on Facebook even as videos showing police beating defenceless citizens in broad daylight circulated on Twitter.
In a statement released last night, Secretary of left-wing party MeRa25, Yanis Varoufakis, called for support “to protect the Republic and citizens from the Mitsotakis-Chrysochoidis government”.
“In the face of escalating state repression that now threatens Democracy and leaves citizens unprotected by Mr. Praetorians. Mitsotakis-Chrysochoidis, MeRa25 invites KKE and SYRIZA to joint action to protect Democracy and citizens. I cannot imagine that at such a turning point, we are unable to coordinate our actions in favour of democratic legitimacy.”
Protests raged against the mistreatment of infamous prisoner Dimitris Koufodinas, who is in critical condition after a prolonged hunger strike of 59 days. Koufodinas began the hunger strike when his request for a prison transfer was denied. The decision to deny his request sent Greeks out into the streets in support of the Marxist who is responsible for 13 assassinations. Even for those who do not sympathise with Koufodinas’ politics, the matter has become a question of human rights, of democracy, and of justice. But when citizens marched to show their solidarity they were met with police brutality. Journalists risked their own safety to document the violence, uploading photos, videos and statements onto Facebook. Then, shockingly, Facebook began deleting these posts.
Personal profiles of journalists were deactivated, press outlets saw their Facebook pages deleted, and citizens’—doctors, lawyers, activists, teachers—who wrote messages questioning the violation of Koufodinas’ human rights had their posts deleted by the Silicon Valley company. Posts deemed to question the government’s handling of either the prisoner or the protests were deleted in what seems like a mass campaign to suppress criticism and dissenters.
Greek investigative journalism network, Reporters United, demanded answers from Facebook after the press was targeted by the censorship campaign. Facebook highlighted its Dangerous Persons and Organizations policy, stating: “We prohibit members of terrorist organizations, such as Mr. Koufontinas, from using our platforms, and we also exclude posts that endorse or support these individuals and their actions whenever we receive them. However, we do allow our users to talk neutrally about these individuals and to post news about their actions.”
Bafflingly, the company went on to claim that its censorship of the press was an error: “Although much progress has been made in our systems, they continue to be imperfect, resulting in occasional errors, as has been the case here. The content that was accidentally removed was restored when it was found.”
Facebook deleted two posts written by journalist, Maria Louku: “I wrote about Koufodinas’ human rights, that prisoners have rights and that the state should apply the law. It would be terrible for a man to die like this.” Maria complained both times: “I emailed Facebook with a copy of my press card and explained that I am a journalist and that my posts should not be deleted.” Both posts were restored after a one and three days, respectively. But for Maria, this is an attack on an already fragile democracy.
“The biggest problem in Greece is the mainstream media who are under the control of the government—we can’t say anything against what the government says. But now we’re living this censorship on social media, too. This is dangerous for freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”
The above photos were deleted by Facebook.
Koufodinas spent most of his 11 times life plus 25 year sentence at Korydallos prison, where he wishes to be transferred, in order to be near his family. He was transferred to Domokos in central Greece in December. Koufodinas argues that his transfer to the high-security prison of Domokos was illegal. His lawyer, Ioanna Kourtovik, told AFP: “In today's Europe, it's unheard of to have a prisoner led to death or irreparable harm for asking to be transferred to another prison.”
Koufodinas was a member of the radical left organisation 17N, an urban guerrilla organisation that targeted the Greek state, banks, businesses, and foreign officials, including Turkish, American and British targets. The group was active in Greece between 1975 and 2002 and conducted 103 assaults including armed robberies, assassinations and bombings. The organisation was designated a terrorist group by Greece, Turkey, the U.S and the U.K.
Following the arrest of several members in 2002, Koufodinas surrendered to police. He claimed responsibility for 13 of the 23 murders committed by the group, including the murders of foreign government officials. He gained respect amongst the Greek people when he decided to neither defend himself nor testify against any of his co-defendants.
With his health deteriorating quickly, his lawyers filed for a commuted sentence last Wednesday on the grounds that Koufodinas is at risk of sustaining irreversible damage to his health unless he is released from custody. The judges of the court unanimously rejected the request, deeming that his case does not fall under the provisions of the law which provides for the suspension of sentences in the case of serious health problems. It also deemed that he placed himself in this situation by his own decisions.
Many Greeks think the refusal to transfer Koufodinas is a violation of his prisoner and human rights, with the government’s refusal to apply the law a direct assault on democracy. But, in another blow to democracy, expressions of outrage on Facebook were swiftly deleted.
Facebook has three monitoring hubs around the world where employees trawl through posts and ads for violations of their community standards. One of these hubs is based in Athens and run by Teleperformance, a French company. Teleperformance has been accused of having ties to the current Greek government, and given the swiftness with which these critical posts and profiles were deleted on a site which does not employ nearly the same efficiency for targeting the millions of images and videos of child pornography, these accusations certainly seem plausible.
The international press has also been silent in the wake of mass suppression in a European state. The incident that inspired Yanis Varoufakis’s call to action was the beating of a lone man by police in broad daylight yesterday afternoon. The police claim they responded to reports of lockdown violations and were attacked by 30 people. The video evidence suggests otherwise.
The 500 people who flooded the streets yesterday evening to protest this violence were met with tear gas and stun grenades.
These aren’t isolated cases. A February protest against a higher education bill also turned violent with a photojournalists’ union stating riot police beat up a member of the union who had been reporting on the protests. An Amnesty International report published in November even warned of the rise of police brutality since right-wing Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power.
The report found that officers often acted with impunity when they became involved in violent incidents. It also observed failures to take testimony from critical witnesses and to have detainees examined by doctors, bias by investigative police bodies and a striking similarity in the statements of officers accused of brutality.
In a telling statement given to News 24/7, witness to yesterday’s “merciless” police brutality said the square looked like “a military-occupied area”. At noon today it was announced that the head of the Prosecutor's Office of First Instance, Sotiria Papageorgakopoulou, ordered a preliminary examination of the police violence.
The censorship and violence relating to the case of Koufoudinas have been cleverly framed within the context of his actions. The former U.S. ambassador to Greece tweeted that the Greek government is “right to refuse to coddle the convicted terrorist”. However, this deliberately reduces the incidents of suppression to mere dialectics.
The reality is Greece is a democracy, and Greek citizens have the right to protest, to speak, to debate, and to oppose. That these citizens should fear for their physical safety when protesting is a travesty in modern Europe. That these citizens should face censorship by a tech monopoly based on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is another attack on democracy.
What has happened in Greece over the past weeks must not be denounced as nothing more than political disagreements. Greek citizens have had their voices and bodies suppressed by a regime that only benefits from the silence of its neighbours. There is no place for suppression online or on the streets in democracy. We all may have laughed at Facebook’s deletion of Donald Trump’s account, but the result is the normalisation of tech giants manipulating narrative and suppressing individuals voices—on a mass scale, that individual suppression is insidious.
The the framing of politics as mere ideological positions on a spectrum whilst citizens are battered by the state’s representative on the street is the height of privilege; centring the debate around who is right or wrong erases the reality of Greek politics occurring right this moment. This is not ideological. This is about the state’s use of force against its own people. This is the politics of safekeeping one’s democracy. That it has become a physical struggle against the state itself is something every democratic citizen should march against.
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