Blow to free speech as Greek tragedy goes on

Down and out: A homeless man in the once-thriving port of Piraeus, near Athens © Getty Images

Athens is facing furious protests following the forced closure of Greece’s state broadcaster ERT. Demonstrators fear the end of free speech. Greek democracy is in crisis.

These are hard times to be a journalist in Greece. Already, reporters working in the private sector had seen jobs cut and wages slashed as the Greek economy crumbled. Then, this week, came the final bombshell: Greece’s official public broadcaster ERT, a national service similar to Britain’s BBC, was suddenly completely shut down. After seven decades of service, one of the country’s last journalistic strongholds has been silenced.

For ordinary Greeks, this is one of many signs of painful national decline. Ten years ago, Athens was preparing to host an Olympic Games. The city was shining and wealthy. The country was doing well, an EU member in good standing. People had jobs and money, and although life was not always easy, at least things seemed to be on the right track.

Today, things are sadly different. The gleaming airport that welcomed Olympic visitors is almost empty. Abandoned stadiums have become haunts for drug users. Thousands of Greeks, with no jobs or benefits, now live on the streets. The economy will soon have shrunk by a shocking 25% from pre-crisis levels. Some of the worst affected are children, who turn up to school too hungry to learn. In some areas whole families scavenge in dustbins to survive. In a developed European country, in the 21st Century, people are on the edge of starvation.

Politicians, trying to pay off Greece’s huge national debt, can do little to help. But many Greeks doubt whether they even want to. Power in Greece is concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy families, oligarchs who control key industries like shipping and banking. On the streets of Athens, many believe politicians are in the oligarchs’ pockets – more interested in serving their masters’ interests than in helping ordinary citizens. There is at least some truth in this: the latest Transparency International report says that Greece is the most corrupt country in Europe.

Corruption, in fact, was one of the accusations that led to ERT being shut down. Critics say the broadcaster was opaque, badly run, wasteful and nepotistic and will soon be replaced by something better. Even so, ERT was one of the traditional pillars of Greek democracy. Now it has been toppled, many Greeks fear that democracy itself will be the next thing to collapse.

Greek drama

Are these fears unfounded? For a hundred years, Europe has moved steadily from despotism to democracy. Surely, optimists will say, a century of positive momentum cannot be so easily reversed.

But most Greeks are not so cheerful. The journalist Kostas Vaxevanis said: ‘Democracy is like a bicycle. If you don’t keep pedalling, you fall.’ Greece is no longer pedalling.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to live in a rich country getting poorer or a poor country getting richer? Why?
  2. Is democracy the best possible form of government?

Activities

  1. Transparency International says Greece is the most corrupt country in Europe. Guess what the least corrupt country is. Then use the link in Become an Expert to find the answer. How many people got it right?
  2. Research and write a historical essay about one of the two famous democracies of the ancient world: democratic Athens and republican Rome. The question: is democracy always doomed to fail?

Some People Say...

“Democracy always decays into tyranny.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How bad will it be for me if Greece collapses?
It certainly would not be great. Financial failures in Greece could knock out banks in Europe, and financial failures in Europe would ripple round the world. Social disintegration in Greece would be bad too.
Why’s that?
Social breakdown in Greece could allow fascist or neo-Nazi parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn to take power. Fascist success in Greece would be a huge morale boost for fascist parties elsewhere.
Why so?
Social collapse in Greece would prove the emptiness of the European dream. The EU is based on the idea that the different peoples of Europe can work together and support each other in crises. Fascism is a form of nationalism: each country looks after itself. If Europe lets Greece fall, the fascists will be proved right.

Word Watch

Athens
Athens is the capital of Greece. It can also claim to be the birthplace of democracy. Two and a half thousand years ago, the Athenians kicked out their aristocratic rulers and instituted the rule of the demos – ‘the people’. Adult male citizens (there were no rights for women in those days) were allowed to vote on all issues confronting the Athenian state.
Oligarchs
Oligarchy is another form of government from ancient Greece, named from the word oligoi, meaning ‘the few’. Oligarchy – the rule of the few rather than the many – was the preferred form of government in Sparta, a tough Greek city-state which destroyed the Athenian empire at the beginning of the 4th Century BC.
Transparency International
Transparency International is a charity which works to fight corruption around the world. Corruption is a huge drain on developing economies, allowing those in power to extract bribes from ordinary people. The parasitic few can grow rich off the hard work of the many.
Nepotistic
From the Latin nepos, meaning ‘nephew’, nepotism is the practice of using your influence to give family members unfair advancement in their careers. The word came into common use in the 15th Century to describe the behaviour of popes, who regularly used to make their young nephews bishops or cardinals, despite their lack of experience.

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