Amidst a very challenging third wave of the pandemic, Greece is going through a politically turbulent period. Primarily, socio-political polarisation peaked, with it being greatly ignited by a series of events related to police arbitrariness in early March.
The events of March 2021:
On the 7th of March, three police officers beat a man with metallic batons (weapons they were not entitled to possess) in Nea Smyrni, an otherwise peaceful residential neighbourhood in Athens. The officers suggested that 30 people attacked them prior to beating the young man, while witnesses' testimonies contradicted this claim. Instead, they argued that the man approached the police officers to question their decision to fine a family for not respecting Covid-19 regulations. The vast majority of mainstream media outlets published the police officers' version of the story until social media got flooded with videos and testimonies which indicated otherwise.
The following day, Nea Smyrni turned into a warzone as people protested against the arbitrariness of policing in the area. The neighbourhood residents posted footage of people being beaten in the streets, being run over by motorcycles, and being threatened with flare guns. This came on top of recent incidents of brutal beatings of students following new legislation that grants police access to universities. Notably, during the violent protests, one law enforcement officer was severely injured by a group of 11 men. The prime minister remained silent on police brutality that has been taking place in Greece during the past month but made a public statement to express his support for the policeman who got severely brutalized. Two days after the incident, a member of the parliament (New Democracy) revealed on live TV the name of the man who got beaten by the police (defying the journalist's objections). He claimed that he was a member of an anti-establishment group, selling the timelessly effective narrative that would bait people into justifying the incident.
The Government's response
Arguably, the prime minister's stance precisely reflects the root cause of abuse of authority in Greece - the lack of repercussions. Several experiments have indicated that systemic impunity leads to abuse of authority; it gives people entitlement and the confidence that powerful entities will stand behind them no matter their actions. It is undeniable that protesters' violence should also be condemned. However, by acknowledging the victimisation of state agents, the prime minister discriminated against citizens. He condemned the protesters for choosing violence but not the authorities operating under his governance.
Therefore, this leads to the following question: when law enforcement, the authorities who are assumed to lead by example, engage in unpunished and unlawful behaviour, how can one be surprised when chaos and mayhem prevail?
In a democracy (the rule of the people), the state has a duty to protect the citizens, and the citizens' duty is to keep the state's power in check. When nobody holds accountable those who abuse their authority for their crimes, then it is expected that a collective feeling of injustice and frustration will grow. Undoubtedly, vigilante justice has no place in a functional democracy, but what is less obvious is who is responsible for this turn of events. Would the people grow a desire to take justice in their own hands if the state succeeded in ensuring it? Are violent protests a common phenomenon in countries with exemplary governance? When the government, the media, and a considerable portion of the public overlook or justify violence exercised by agents of the state, isn't this doomed to trigger a response of the same kind? The fact that the masses are prone to formulations of mob mentality and emotional reactions has long been established. If that was not the case, we could all happily live in an anarchist utopia, where every individual would be capable of self-governance and peaceful co-existence with their surroundings. The notion that violence breeds violence is also by now a widely accepted truth. In the wise words of Henry Miller, 'whatever needs to be maintained through force is doomed. This explains why it is absurd to hold the public up to the same standards that one holds hired professionals who are paid (with taxpayer money) to enforce the law and protect the citizens. To tackle a problem, it makes more sense to target its root cause. That is the principle of good governance — not to stigmatise the people for what they do, but to establish what drives their actions and commit to change the negative cause. So, with greater power comes greater responsibility.
The Media's response
Similarly, the media sphere ought to be held accountable for trying to protect the government from public scrutiny and spreading further societal division. At times like these, the media's role as the fourth estate is more crucial than ever. Under a democratic regime, mainstream media moguls should exercise a positive and responsible form of power, acting as the watchdog of the state and using their influence to protect democracy and the public interest. Unfortunately, in Greece, this seems like a dream long lost.
As far as the Nea Smyrni events are concerned, the media published the police's version of the story until the footage circulating online forced them to revise the initial coverage. Nevertheless, no comment was made about the asymmetry of consequences for the protesters who brutally attacked one police officer (they were charged with an attempt for homicide) in comparison with that of numerous police officers who avoided punishment throughout the past months. Many major media outlets did not report on the beating of the man by the police but proceeded to publish emotionally charged articles on the injured officer. Naturally, none of the footage depicting police brutality made it to mainstream media, except for one video that TV channels edited to frame the police as the victims.
The biased mass media approach considerably fuelled divisions, with people turning to social media to seek information. While citizen journalism has proved to be a significant contributor in challenging dysfunctional democracies or authoritative regimes (see: Arab Spring), it also bears the risk of further polarising already divided groups. According to the phenomenon of confirmation bias, when we see new information, our brain decides whether to believe it or not. If the new information confirms existing beliefs that we hold, we are more likely to buy into it (and, hence, circulate and repost it). Simultaneously, if it contrasts our preconceived knowledge, we are more likely to discard it to maintain cognitive consistency. In the anonymous digital ecosystem where insular, self-affirming communities thrive, people tend to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs and further fanaticise one another.
Established media outlets failed to gain the trust of the people by choosing to prioritise their partisan relations over their role as accurate information disseminators. They are, therefore, to a large extent responsible for leaving people with no choice but to resort to alternative, less reliable sources of information. According to research conducted by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, Greek broadcasters and private media outlets score very low in political independence and media ownership. There is practically no editorial autonomy apart from a few independent news sources. Simultaneously, the public sector media is very dependent on government funding, with the incumbent government being able to appoint and dismiss board members at its own discretion. The fact that Greek news media outlets are affiliated with parties is no secret to Greeks, who are the only population in the world that trusts social media more than their country's legacy media (Reuters Institute, 2017). If the Greek established media adhered to journalistic deontology and committed to providing objective and impartial information, social media would not be the go-to source of information for so many people - as is the case in countries that rank high in the Press Freedom Index.
To understand the underlying factors of today's situation, one must first look at the historical reality of Greek society. According to Transparency International, Greece ranks 59th in the Corruption Perceptions Index, with a score of 50 out of 100. Anti-corruption efforts have been evaluated as ineffective due to the poor enforcement of legislation and the excessive political influence over anti-corruption agencies. Naturally, this has resulted in high political distrust levels in state institutions that are perceived as incapable of fostering growth and development (perhaps this explains why tax evasion is considered a 'national sport'). On top of corruption and favouritism, Greeks have experienced a severe financial crisis, socio-economic inequalities, and tough austerity measures throughout the past decade. Protests getting out of hand are not uncommon, and citizens' clashes with police became part of a routine.
The frustration-aggression displacement theory has often been employed to identify the cause of violence. The theory indicates that any aggressive behaviour is the result of frustration (Dollard et al., 1939). When frustration cannot be tackled (because of the state's historically rooted incompetence), the subjects' aggression gets displaced onto innocent targets. This phenomenon perhaps explains the rise of hate crimes on behalf of the far-right and the increase of violent protests targeting public and civilians' properties on behalf of anti-establishment groups. Acknowledging that the source of violence is frustration can perhaps provide a better understanding of the government's responsibility for the chaos that prevails in Greek society.
In a country rich in a history of arbitrariness and abuse of authority, law enforcement is no exception. Greek police officers have been accused of overt and unpunished brutality, sexual harassment, attacks against immigrants, and attempts to criminalise innocents. 2006 was a landmark year for anti-police sentiments when a police officer shot a 16-year-old boy dead. The police force is also infamously affiliated with the far-right, with more than half of police officers supporting the neo-nazi organisation Golden Dawn (Labropoulos, 2012). Amnesty International has issued a detailed report on police violence in Greece concerning its practices in patrolling demonstrations and the treatment of illegal immigrants. The Human Rights Watch has criticised the organisation for its attitudes against immigrants and allegations of torture of detainees, while the Reporters Without Borders have accused the police of deliberately targeting journalists.
While extremist groups from both sides of the political spectrum are but two sides of the same coin, the conservative right is arguably in a more advantageous position in Greece. With a right-wing government and the media environment being subject to political influence and conservative public opinion, the established discourse tends to favour the idea of a demonised left. When it comes to clashes with the police, the mainstream media presents law enforcement as a heroic force that tries to purge the streets from outlaws. This works to exploit peoples' pre-existing, anti-protesting sentiments; they portray those inclined to question the authority of powerful institutions as violent rebels who pose a threat to the public order. Due to the media's sensationalist narratives and misleading framing, challenging arbitrary state action is understood as an attitude exclusively associated with the far-left. Hence, people perceive such criticism as leftist propaganda.
Due to their biased media consumption, people become so fanatic that they justify injustices such as police brutality, convinced that the victims are their ideological opponents who are always 'asking for it'. Greeks tend to identify so intensely with their political positions that they continuously produce and consume divisive narratives, fuelling the fire of a long-lasting rivalry (see: Greek Civil War). Left-leaning citizens are non-negotiably labelled as violent anarchists, right-leaning citizens are identified as fascists, while the moderate non-extremists seem to be a silent minority. The people's hatred is so blinding that it prevents them from acknowledging the threat and danger brought about by tolerating an abuse of authority. As a result, the repulsion towards the perceived enemy becomes the measure by which social life and justice are assessed.
During times like these, it is essential to remember that in a democracy, to govern the people is not to rule them but to serve them.
Written by Joanna Pamoukoglou, Master student of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam and Anna Nagy, member of Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.