Tuesday, December 08, 2009

PR and punishment - Greek police's new zero tolerance policy

6.12.2009, originally uploaded by e_vra.

The Greek media has been full of praise of the way in which the recently elected PASOK government as handled the disturbances over the last few days. The new zero - tolerance policing policy announced by the minister for the protection of the citizen, Mihalis Chrisoidis has been credited with limiting the extent of violence, especially in Athens.

On the other hand the TV channels have gleefully lapped up images of young protesters throwing rocks and stones at the riot police and have been flooding the airways with stories of anarchist plots and police discoveries of caches of petrol bombs and other rioting paraphenalia. In addition the record numbers of detentions and arrests have been presented in a positive light, sign that the police have got serious about cracking down on trouble makers.

In a sense this is a repeat of the media coverage of last years uprising when the media spent at least a week blaming Greece's worst civil disturbances ina generation on hooilgans and looters, as if the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in protests across the nation were nothing more than rampaging football fans looking for a fight.

Once again the media coverage has almost completely ignored the thousands who demonstrated peacefully this year and focused on the scenes of violence which are presented simply as acts of mindless vandalism. Indeed the channels have been falling over each other to see who can condemn the protests most, blindly accepting any figure or statement issued by the police, ignoring the opinions of anyone not in a position of authority.

On the other hand the Greek language blogosphere and elsewhere on the internet there is growing resentment of the way of this and especially the way in which the violence of the police has either been played down or completely overlooked. Reporters, who should know better have simply decided to report the official version events and leave out any loose ends such as eyewitness accounts of those actually present.

I personally witnessed what happened during the march on Sunday here in Thessaloniki when the police went into action almost immediately after it started. Just moments after the demonstraters moved off the people from the anarchist block started attacking shops selling religious goods, a supermarket and banks, quickly prompting the riot police and motorcycle units to intervene. The sight of police officers on motorbikes mounting pavements and driving through crowds of people running in panic through clouds of tear gas is not one I'll forget soon.

In the general mayhem the marchers, who are nearly always organised in blocks according to political affiliation, soon scattered and mixed and that is how I ended up with about two hundred others just below the ex-ministry of Macedonia and Thrace surrounded by riot squads who fired tear gas rounds into the group and beat anyone who tried to move away from the area.

Even after it was clear that they had control of the area, officers continued to club and kick those on the ground and refused medical help to the injured, instead shouting insults and threats at anyone who looked at them.

I cannot vouch for the character of each and everyone there but from my knowledge of the groups that regularly take part in marches the vast majority of these people were not trouble makers or bomb throwers. They belonged to student/political groups that abhor such tactics and believe that those who commit such acts damage their cause.

They, like me just happened to be in swept up with a tide of people desperately running away from police with clubs firing tear gas. Like me, they did not break away from the main group knowing full well that in such a situation small groups or individuals are easy prey for police units with a grudge and a truncheon.

The media however, reported that the authorities had isolated and captured a group of anarchists and had confiscated a large number of petrol bombs, gas masks and clubs and that 88 people had been taken in for qustioning and 20 arrested. Despite the presence of a number of TV camera crews for over an hour I saw no footage of those inside the police cordon being asked their opinion or saying what had happened, instead just fleeting glances of people on the floor followed by pictures of the weapons supposedly confiscated.

If their had indeed been such a cache present the density of the crowd and the fact that nobody was searched till hours later would have meant that those carrying such things would have had ample opportunity to get dump them out of their bags or pockets.

What we had instead was PR and punishment, the police knew that whatever version of the truth they put out would be accepted without question and that the sight of them with so many prisoners would vandicate their new get tough policy, irrespctive of whether they'd actually captured anyone who'd broken the law. On the other hand those caught up in this farce would have to endure a night in the cells, possibly weeks in court explaining their case.

The same approach was also true of the events in Athens when motorcycle cops also rode their machines into crowds of demonstrators, seriously injuring a 55 year old teacher, while the footage was shown it was presented as an unfortunate accident. No mention however was made at all of the officer who after gunning his bike into people was pulled off and in a fit of rage drew his pistol and chased them.

I'm not sure what exactly lies behind the new media landscape and why so few reporters have been critical of the present situation but with the Greek media feeling the effects of the country's economic crisis those who own the private media outlets are unlikely to antagonise a government which is in the position to provide a steady revenue stream in the form of ads and contracts.

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