Posts Tagged 'Greece'

Outsiders looking in

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By Harry van Versendaal

It’s late winter 2016, at a makeshift cemetery for Muslim migrants on Lesvos, less than 10 nautical miles off the Turkish coast. An imam in a white hazmat suit reads a prayer as a 3-year-old girl who died of meningitis shortly after landing on the eastern Aegean island is laid to rest. A red excavator is on standby to cover her grave after the end of the short ritual.

“Logic has disappeared from this world,” says Dimitris, a local man, as he prunes the olive trees in his property right next to the burial site.

Europe’s refugee crisis has produced a rich, if uneven, crop of documentaries that promise to go beyond the voluminous albeit often superficial media coverage. “Citizen Xenos,” an independent full feature shot by promising 28-year-old Athens-based director Lucas Paleocrassas, may be short on data or sweeping revelations, but is big in directness and unprocessed emotion.

“We wanted to veer off the cliche themes that have recurred in so many other films about the issue,” Paleocrassas told Kathimerini English Edition about his movie which will screen at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Whether it’s the refugee family trying to put down roots on the island, the elderly woman and her granddaughter seeking family reunification in Germany, the Syrian-born activist catering for vulnerable newcomers, the teenage victim of jihadi persecution, or even the globe-trotting Dutch mercenary working as a security manager at a migrant facility, the existential condition remains the same: All feel unwanted outsiders, “xenoi.”

“The refugee crisis is the setting, but I want to focus on the characters. I am interested in the alienation of these people, in what they are going through, in how they grapple with the challenges of relocation and social integration,” Paleocrassas said.

Apart from exposing the refugee drama, the director hopes that such intimate, first-hand testimonies have the power to challenge people’s ingrained misconceptions about the situation.

“The testimonies are just too direct. It’s just not possible to stick to your sweet little narrative,” Paleocrassas said.

An estimated 1 million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries wrecked by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have poured into Greece in recent years in hope of moving to Northern Europe. More than 50,000 migrants and refugees remain stranded on the Aegean islands after the Europeans took action to halt the flow.

While shooting on Lesvos, the main entry point to Europe for migrants, the filmmaker spent considerable time at the notorious reception and processing center at Moria.

“Moria-by-night was a dystopian spectacle,” he says of the so-called hotspot which has reportedly degenerated into a breeding ground for criminal activity including human smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Paleocrassas witnessed the limitations of a dysfunctional state apparatus but also the commitment and generosity of small humanitarian groups and volunteers seeking to fill in the gaps. With the official structures of debt-wracked Greece bursting at the seams, refugees have often relied on the kindness of strangers.

With time, he also saw compassion fatigue set in. “In the beginning, people were handing out food, clothes and medical aid. They housed people in spare bedrooms. But as the problems remain unsolved, their patience is wearing thin. These days, you can see people guarding their chicken coops with rifles,” he said.

Produced by Valia Charalampidou, the film was made with help from Wemakeit, a Swiss-based crowdfunding platform. Shot mostly over 2015 and 2016, it ends with footage of trapped refugees at the now-defunct camp near the village of Idomeni on Greece’s northern border following the shutdown of the so-called Balkan route. The sprawling tent city became a symbol of human suffering and policy failure.

“How can you imagine they will smile when they see the white man in Europe?” asks the Dutch security officer struggling to impose some order on the chaos. “The wolf will come one time, and he will bite you.”

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Rekindling family history can trigger empathy for refugees, study shows

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By Harry van Versendaal

Descendants of refugees are more likely to back measures in support of incoming asylum-seekers if they are reminded of their forefathers’ experience, according to a new study which suggests that leveraging past experience can be an effective way of increasing empathy and reducing out-group discrimination.

“Our study shows that perspective-taking, in other words making someone see the world through the eyes of an out-group, actually does work and that it works better – and more cheaply – when we are able to harness history and family background,” said Elias Dinas, political scientist at the European University Institute (EUI) currently on leave from Oxford University, who conducted the survey with Vasiliki Fouka of Stanford University.

The survey was carried out in Greece’s northern Macedonia region, which received the largest numbers of Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor after the defeat of Greek troops in August 1922 and the compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. About 1.3 million displaced people resettled in Greece at the time, amounting to nearly 25 percent of the country’s 5 million population.

The study was based on a sample of 1,928 people, of whom 927 were found to have a forced relocation background.

The researchers arrived at the conclusion that descendants of Asia Minor refugees were overall more likely to display positive attitudes toward today’s refugees from war-torn Syria, than non-descendants were.

More specifically, when researchers mentioned the parallels between the two historical events, Greek refugee descendants were up to 8 percent more likely than other Greeks to support more binding measures, such as donating money to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) or contacting their local MP to take action to help refugees.

Furthermore, when prompted with the similarity between 1923 and the current situation, Asia Minor descendants were 8 percent more likely to admit that refugees had left their countries to escape war than to claim that they had traveled to Europe in search of economic opportunity or to milk the continent’s welfare states.

The mention of the Asia Minor catastrophe, as it is known in Greece, was found to trigger no measurable effect among respondents without a refugee background.

Another key finding was that out-group bias among people who did not directly have a family background of forced relocation dropped as the share of 1923 refugees in their community increased.

More than 1.5 million refugees have streamed into Europe since 2015 fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Asia. The influx has angered sections of society and galvanized the far-right – Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat Parliament – a trend that has left policy makers scrambling to find remedies.

The findings of the survey suggest that intervention campaigns that highlight Europe’s tormented past could have a significant impact on public opinion, not only regarding descendants of forced migrants, but their neighbors too.

“We know that Europe’s population is already the product of extensive refugee flows. We use this fact to see how a very subtle and cheap intervention could help in fostering perspective-taking,” Fouka said, adding that the study found effects of similar magnitude to those reported by expensive large-scale interventions.

The idea is that governments and other institutions that want to fight xenophobia and promote integration schemes such as the incorporation of refugee children in Greek schools could build on these findings and invest in cultivating perspective-taking by reminding people that their ancestors also experienced similar challenges.

“This, we think, is a cost-effective way of mitigating the problem,” Dinas said, adding that researchers were investigating whether the conclusions could be utilized in communities outside Greece.

“It is possible that we would get the same results if instead of targeting the descendants of 1923 refugees, we targeted those of Finnish refugees from the USSR after the end of the Second World War or Sudeten Germans,” said Dinas in reference to the 3 million ethnic Germans expelled from then-Czechoslovakia after the war.

Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom

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By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.


The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

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By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

Rewinding to the era of analog politics

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October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.

WWF Greece slams government for violations of environmental rulebook

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By Harry van Versendaal

An annual report released by the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shames Greece for systematic violations of the environmental rulebook, while lamenting the waste of a historic opportunity to make the financial crisis a starting point towards a “truly sustainable economy.”

“We are pretty much in the same mess as last year. Despite some progress in certain areas, the overall picture is quite grim,” WWF Greece chief executive Dimitris Karavelas told a press conference Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Athens.

“This is the picture of a country that is paying a hefty price for inaction, a lack of transparency, the ‘tidying up’ of violations and bad legislation,” Karavelas said.

“This is the picture of a country that is killing its own hopes for a truly sustainable economy,” he added.

Among other faults, the annual study, now in its 12th year, criticized the leftist-led government for not doing enough to curb illegal construction, for its plans to build new coal plants and for lax waste management resulting in more European fines.

‘In tatters’

The Environment Ministry is drafting a bill that will make it easier for homeowners to protect illegal buildings from demolition. Under the proposed legislation, the charges for homes at the lower end of the scale in terms of value would be reduced in a bid to encourage owners to come forward and register their property and pay the appropriate penalty.

The draft bill has triggered alarm bells among environmentalists, as it contains provisions widely seen as a precursor to the legalization of illegal residential developments in forests and woodlands.

“Legislation to protect forest areas is in tatters,” said Theodota Nantsou, head of policy for WWF Greece.

The near 150-page report also criticized plans by Public Power Corporation (PPC) to construct two new lignite-powered plants in Ptolemaida and Meliti, in northern Greece.

Greece has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study commissioned by WWF questioned the economic viability of the PPC projects.

Filthy habits

The WWF report also lambasted delays and omissions in implementing waste management regulations that have repeatedly triggered warnings and fines from European authorities.

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that Greece has violated key EU laws on hazardous waste management and slapped Greece with heavy financial sanctions: a lump sum of 10 million euros, plus a penalty payment of 30,000 for every day of delay in complying with the decision. This came on the back of a 10-million-euro fine last year for flouting European regulations regarding the management of urban wastewater.

Quoting recent data by the European Commission, WWF said Greece is second among the 28-member EU bloc in the number of open legal cases it faces with regard to infringements of EU environmental rules.

The WWF report acknowledged some positive steps, including an initiative to expand the areas in the EU’s Natura 2000 network (up to 1.93 million hectares of marine areas, among them the Gulf of Corinth, the sea around Crete, the coasts of Paxoi, Pylos and Andros, and the sea between Kavala and Thasos) and the introduction of designated marine wildlife parks.

Strong card

WWF officials dismissed skepticism that the environmental rollback is the unavoidable byproduct of a painful financial crisis that has seen the country’s gross domestic product drop by about 25 percent since 2008.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this way. All this does not derive from some bailout commitment, it is not mandated by the financial crisis. What we see is the outcome of intended policy decisions,” Karavelas said.

“We still believe that Greece should use its strongest card, its natural environment, and that this could contribute to a truly sustainable way out of the crisis,” he said.

Thessaloniki doc fest tunes in to refugee crisis

JON BANG CAR

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s all in perfect tune with the darkish zeitgeist. Greece’s biggest documentary festival kicks off next month in the northern port city of Thessaloniki with a tribute to the plight of refugees streaming into Europe.

Syria’s five-year civil war has displaced millions of people, many of whom have sought to reach the safe and more prosperous nations of the European Union. The influx has opened cracks in Europe’s migration policy and triggered political wrangling between national governments. More importantly, the death toll is rising. More than 400 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And nearly 10 times as many migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 than the same period last year.

Between March 11 and 20, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century (TDF) will showcase several films documenting the personal stories often lost behind the devastating statistics.

Filmed by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees” tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to next-door Lebanon. It’s a beautifully crafted film, based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

In “At Home in the World,” filmmaker Andreas Koefoed follows five refugee children attending a Red Cross school in his native Denmark as they try to overcome traumas and build a new life. The movie received the 2015 Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Europe’s most prestigious documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam.

The same Nordic country, which recently enacted controversial legislation allowing police to seize refugees’ assets, is the setting of Michael Graversen’s “Dreaming of Denmark” as he follows Wasiullah, an Afghan minor stuck in the EU country’s asylum process.

TDF organizers have also planned a panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Methods, Objectives, Challenges and Ethics.” The dates, speakers and venues for the event will be announced in the coming days.

Double tribute

Among this year’s highlights are tributes to contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen and Northern Irish filmmaker, writer and curator Mark Cousins.

Known for his radical, cross-genre style, which he lays out in his “How to Invent Reality,” Carlsen, 65, has since the 1970s made more than two dozen films that draw heavily on personal experience. As he puts it: “My films are not the truth, they just express the way I feel the world. That’s all.”

Born in 1965, Scotland-based Cousins is best known for his epic 15-hour 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” an adaptation of his 2004 book “The Story of Film.”

Both directors will be at the festival to discuss their work.

Oscar-nominated works

Also screening this year are two Oscar-nominated films.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is a short documentary film that recounts the making of the landmark 613-minute Holocaust documentary “Shoah.” The film was written, directed and produced by British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine.

Courtney Marsh’s “Chau, Beyond the Lines” is a movie about a teenager disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant sprayed by the US military onto Vietnam’s jungle during the conflict to expose northern communist troops.

Bow out

Now in its 18th year, this will be the last documentary festival directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his appointment in 1992.

“When we started out I didn’t expect that this project would last for so long. However, I persisted because I love documentary films,” Eipidis said in a previous interview.

“I believe that having alternative sources of information is a cornerstone of modern civilization.”


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