Interview with Professor Dimitris Christopoulos: Insights on Censorship and Human Rights

Interview with Professor Dimitris Christopoulos: Insights on Censorship and Human Rights

For our first in a series of interviews and articles on academic freedom and human rights for Independent Turkey, I had the honor of speaking with Dimitris Christopoulos, an Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at the Panteion University of Athens and Vice President of the Hellenic League for Human Rights.

This interview discusses current and major issues found both in Turkey and Greece. Having as a first point of reference the recent conference that he organized in Athens, about censorship in Greece, we start our discussion on the existence of censorship in democratic nations and the forms by which it can be identified; to what extent does censorship still exist in Greece, under which forms, and how it can be related to the Turkish reality. In this regard we discuss the impact of the anti-racist law adopted in 2014 and the impact of the Orthodox clergy on the civil union law which allows same sex couples to get married. Lastly, Mr. Christopoulos gives his insights on the refugee crisis, in which both Greece and Turkey are found in the middle of. We discuss the current situation and he evaluates what more could be done from Turkey, Greece and Europe. We conclude our discussion with the impact of the refugee crisis in Europe and Greece.

Dimitris Christopoulos is an Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at the Panteion University of Athens and the Vice President of the International Federation of Human Rights – after having chaired the board of the Hellenic League for Human Rights from 2003 until 2011. Christopoulos has particularly dedicated his academic works on migration, citizenship, minorities and human rights in comparative perspectives.

Interviewed by Hasan Cerhozi for Independent Turkey

In December you organized the first conference on Censorship in Greece. Could you tell us a few things about it in regards to the situation on censorship in Greece?

In 2007, in the department of Political Science here at the Panteion University, flowing certain events of state censorship, decided to start the course “Art, Freedom and Censorship”. In the context of this course, I invite guest speakers who are experts on this subject or have been subject to censorship themselves: academics, artists, journalists and so on. Given the country’s turbulent era preceding 1974, Greece is historically entirely “familiar” with traditional censorship. However, during this course we realized that the censorship phenomena continued to exist even after 1974 and the establishment of the democratic system.

So, to this end we decided alongside two eminent Greek photographers, Penelope Petsini and Nicos Panagiotopoulos, to organize a conference on the matter. The concept was to hold an interdisciplinary congress removed from the logic that there is no censorship in democracies, whilst at the same time distancing ourselves from a deconstructivist perspective, according to which “censorship is omnipresent”. What is important is to identify the different forms in which censorship can be detected in different historical contexts. This was the first time that such a conference was held in Greece and as all things when they happen for the first time, it was very interesting and attracted a lot of interest. The work is in Greek, but hopefully we will manage to get a sample of it translated it to English.

According to the World Press Freedom index, Greece is ranked #91 (out of 180), falling 56 places in the index from 2009 to 2014. So has the crisis had an impact on freedom of the press as well? What do you believe could explain this drop?

Greece went in free fall in this ranking after the public broadcasting corporation (ERT) was shut down in June 2013. The crisis has an important role as due to this, life has become very difficult for journalists in Greece who more systematically avoid “dangerous” statements so as not to lose their jobs.

“The crisis extended this pathogenic symptom: dependence of media on specific “interests”, as we call them here. The media belong to a handful of Greek oligarchs.”

As I always say, the problem here is not freedom of speech in its traditional form. The problem is media independence. That’s why I believe that Greece is so low in this ranking. Greece followed the Italian model: a more-less bad copy of a bad model.

According to a report published by the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) “Turkey’s average unemployment rate in the press doubled, 500 journalists were fired and 70 others were physically attacked in 2015” while “there are currently 30 journalists who have been imprisoned.” Turks were sent to elections twice and “process was hindered by challenging security environment, incidents of violence and restrictions against media”. Such kinds of incidents have not occurred in Greece but during the last years, Greeks were also sent twice a year at the polls; how have the media dealt with the rise of Syriza?

The opponents of Turkey’s admission to the EU are happy to see journalists in Turkish prisons: this helps a lot to consolidate the view that Turkey is not and could not be part of ‘Europe’. Greece has problems of completely different magnitude and level compared to Turkey. It is inconceivable for journalists to get arrested.

“Turkey in the last years is suffering a systematic continuous decline towards state authoritarianism with symptoms of totalitarianism of the executive.”

The combination of political direction, moral manipulation and control of the media coupled with the emergence of a presidential type of polity makes Turkey resemble something inbetween Russia and Iran.

Now, as it concerns the Greek media and the rise of Syriza, yes indeed there has been an anti-Syriza agenda in the mainstream media resulting from the initial fear Syriza’s first government caused to a part of the Greek oligarchy. Today, a year after, not very much is at stake on the matter, given the new circumstances.

The Samaras government introduced an anti-racist law in 2014, the Hellenic League for Human Rights has asked for the removal of the second article of this law which prosecutes the denial of genocide and crimes against humanity. What is your opinion on this law?

This law has two articles, the first one foresees prosecution towards those who incite to violence under racist motives and the second foresees prosecution towards those who deny crimes against humanity, genocides etc.

We believe that the second article foresees an illicit violation of the freedom of expression for prosecuting someone for denying genocide. I remind you that in October 2015, the European Court of Human rights in the case of an extreme right wing Turkish nationalist (Mr. Perincek) condemned Switzerland for arresting and jailing him for denying the Armenian genocide. The court said that when Dogu Perincek said the “Armenian genocide is a great international lie”, he should not have been found guilty of racial discrimination in Switzerland.

“It is simple: You can disapprove, you can criticize historical beliefs, you can even find them disgusting but you cannot put someone in jail for having them.”

Even so do you believe that this anti hate-speech law has a positive impact?

Yes, it can have a positive impact from the moment that incitement to violence and discrimination is criminalized. Remember that in the case of racist crime not only does the individual have to deal with the hurt and isolation but everyone who shares that person’s identity becomes a potential target.

“Especially in the case that such claims come from state officials, then the punishment should be even harsher.”

On December 24th 2015, the Greek Parliament approved a law on civil union for same sex couples, and a number of Orthodox priests reacted with homophobic remarks calling the people to “spit on them” and so on. In this case, I regret not to witness any reaction from any Greek prosecutor. On the other hand, H. Richter, a German historian who wrote a book about the battle of Crete in WWII minimizing atrocities caused by the Germans back then is prosecuted. This is shameful indeed.

You mentioned that some Orthodox priests made homophobic remarks concerning the adoption of the law on the civil union for same sex couples. Should priests be able to say whatever they want?

The clergy in Greece are civil servants. Civil servants are subjected to further limitations as far as their right to freedom of speech is concerned. Therefore, incitement towards violence from those who possess public power makes the punishment foreseen by the law harsher, and correctly so. It has nothing to do with genocide denial… Hence, while it is unimaginable for a school director to call his students to “spit the gays”, neither can a police director say to the police officers to “spit them” etc. Go home, meet your friends, and then they can say whatever stupidity they want. I won’t like it, but they cannot be jailed for it. But when on duty, things are different.

“If someone uses his public status to say such things, then that should be punishable by the law.”

In the particular case of the priests, they should be more careful because they are part of the state and paid by the state’s budget, i.e. our money.

Now, let’s move to another major issuer; the refugee one. According to President Erdoğan, the Turkish coast guards have rescued over 42,000 refugees in the Aegean Sea in the first five months of 2015, and more than 2000 in the last week alone. Moreover, Turkey has been hosting around 1.8 million Syrian refugees for a considerable time. According to you, is Turkey doing the best it can to help these people? How do you comment on the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, and the deal that the EU Made with Turkey?

It is a “deal” indeed, a deal without any moral principles. The EU restarting accession negotiations with a country which has jailed 30 journalists this year and gave 3bn Euros as a form of rent for keeping the refugees it doesn’t want.

“A fair deal maybe, but highly immoral… This is “realpolitik” fair enough, but I am far from happy about it. Turkey is dealing with the refugee crisis knowing that suddenly it found itself with a big “gift”, a great negotiation card, a diplomatic weapon: two million or more refugees residing in Turkey.”

The problem becomes then an advantage. Knowing the way the European Union thinks, knowing the European allergy vis-à-vis refugees, Turkey is using the refugee crisis as leverage by raising specific demands from Europe. Prior to the European reactions of the autumn 2015, Turkey was not thinking in this way but was trying to figure out what to do with these 2 million refugees. When the Europeans started panicking with the numbers of refuges flowing in to Europe they handed the opportunity to Turkey to turn the tables. To be honest, I am not even optimistic with the outcome of this deal. A lot depends on the political context in Europe and the intensity of the mixed flows in the summer of 2016. With Marine Le Pen running for the presidential elections in France, not much is to be expected from Europe. I think that Turkey tries to grab this chance for gaining the maximum it could get, knowing that, at the end, not much will change. We see this story over the last fifteen years. No?

How do you evaluate the efforts of the Greek authorities in handling the refugee crisis? Do you believe there is more that they can do? Open the borders in north east or mobilize the Army?

I won’t be bringing any news if I tell you the mess my country is in over the last years. As if we did not have had enough with our economic crisis, the refugee crises began. Greece is indeed a transit country that faces the challenge of sea rescuing in the Aegean, but should do more. You know, the idea of resettlement directly from Turkey is a good and a safer option, but as long as Turkey does not seem to be convinced about it, we are obliged to do more in order to create structures for the refugees.

“Greeks believe that it’s our national obligation to save them and salute them when they leave for Western Europe, but this is far from enough.”

In any case, you see that the Schengen space is under threat, which obliges Greece to put its full administrative capacity in the service of the refugee crisis. For example, the Greek army has not been seriously engaged, which in my opinion is scandalous. In a democracy the army should be engaged and assist with the humanitarian crisis. Secondly, I believe that Greece – no matter what is the will of Turkey – should create a hotspot center next to the Greek-Turkish borders. After all, what is at stake is the safe passage of the refugee population and the need to break with smuggling. I do not know why Turkey is not doing its part on that, but the only normal and safe way for refugees to cross the borders is to cross the official borders and not take the rubber boats and face the death.

How do you evaluate the debates on Dublin Regulations? The German Finance Minister Soible has criticized Greece a number of times for violating the Dublin Regulations; what is your opinion on this?

Should Greece be expelled from Schengen? That won’t solve the European problem. The European elites must work with public opinion to produce a long term strategy on the matter and understand that some of these refugees will be part of European societies in the years to come. So, the more we integrate them, the better for us and them. At the end, I hope there won’t be any “us” and “them”. It will be a more comprehensive “us” including refugees. My motivation here is not humanitarianism but simple political and human realism.

Finally, is there an Islamophobia issue in Greece?

Not at the same level as in Western Europe. There is difference because when Greeks hear about Islam what they still think is Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Muslim migrants, nothing else. Now this, due to the refugee crisis and post 9/11 migration, it is clear that the historical legacy is such that Islamophobia is more related to Turkophobia and not to the postcolonial meaning of the term we find in Western Europe. Greece has its own post-Ottoman background which only very recently is interacting with modern Islamophobia.

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