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Greek crackdown on Macedonian journalists draws international condemnation, new questions

October 15, 2008

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BalkanalysisThe tense ordeal of four Macedonian journalists detained by police in a northern Greek village on Monday is gaining wider attention, and has caused an international outcry against the perceived heavy-handedness of Greek authorities- and what their apparent contempt for the free press may be covering for.

For their part, the Greeks are claiming that the Macedonian government is trying to stir up trouble; Greek Foreign Ministry Spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos accused Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of engaging in “a provocative effort to blatantly distort the truth,” reported Kathimerini. By daring to speak out against the crackdown, the Macedonian leader is, according to Koumoutsakos, making “a new, unacceptable attempt to intervene in Greek domestic affairs.”

However, the Greek version of ‘the truth,’ which states that the journalists were somehow blocking military movements, and in the end left Greece of their own free will, is wildly at variance with what the journalists themselves experienced, as we will see below. It also ignores what local witnesses claim is a recent legacy of violence against civilians, and broken promises by the army in this normally quiet border region.

The journalists, from A1 Television and the Nova Makedonija newspaper, were detained by police near the Florina-area village of Lofi (Za’brdeni in Macedonian) and interrogated, after they had sought to interview ethnically Macedonian villagers involved with protests against a Greek Army military operation in the region (a newspaper report cites the villagers as being opposed to the operation because “the army’s use of live ammunition interferes with their farming.”

The journalists, who were consistently barked at in Greek by police despite not knowing the language particularly well, were threatened with having their equipment confiscated and ordered to leave the country. It is uncertain as to whether they will ever be allowed to return.

On Wednesday, the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO, an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), released a sharp critique of the Greek authorities’ actions. In a press release, the organization said the arrests left it “…alarmed at recent restrictions on reporters’ ability to freely carry out their work in Greece,” with SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic condemning it as a “…clear infringement of the free movement and freedom of expression of journalists.”

The Macedonian Foreign Ministry also cried foul, saying that the journalists’ detention “breaches Article 10 of the European Convention for Human Rights and OSCE documents on freedom of speech and expression,” reported the Sofia Echo. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was quoted in the same report as saying, “…when [military exercises] are practically taking place in front of the yards of citizens and are not relocated after numerous demands of the population, it becomes obvious that some other motive is in question. We are talking about a demonstration of power and attempt at spreading fear among the population, which is a far from democratic move by an EU member country.”

Clearly, Greek officials were eager to prevent any on-the-ground interviews that could further prove this speculation. “Despite carrying valid press cards and visas for Greece,” the SEEMO summary added, “the [Macedonian] media representatives were detained because they did not have a special filming license and requested to hand over the material they had gathered at the demonstration. After their release, a police escort strongly advised them not to talk to eye witnesses of the protest and eventually escorted them to the border.”

The irony of it all is that one of the journalists detained, Goran Momirovski of A1 TV, has attained such a reputation for objectivity that he is frequently quoted in major Greek media. And he has often helped his Greek journalistic colleagues on their visits to Macedonia, in some cases personally intervening to get them access to facilities such as Parliament for which they had not obtained correct accreditation in advance. Most recently, Momirovski took part in a special ‘excellence in journalism’ training program at the headquarters of the prestigious Christian Science Monitor newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts last month, in his role as a collaborator with the only English-language daily newspaper in Macedonia, the Macedonian Daily News.

According to Momirovski, who shared his experiences today with Balkanalysis.com, his team’s recent experiences in Greece were quite a departure from the norm. He states that he has visited Greece around 50 times in the past three years, and “never had any problems” before, even when filming in ethnically Macedonian areas.

What was so different, then, about the latest visit? The timing – just after the unveiling of another unpopular name ‘compromise’ solution from UN Mediator Matthew Nimitz – was not incidental. The story that drew the attention of the Macedonian journalists was a popular protest held by locals in Lofi against Greek military exercises in the area. According to Momirovski, the military had entered the area two weeks ago but left after locals protested- as had been the case in areas of the Peloponnese and Thessaly. “However, it was only in this area [of Greek Macedonia] that the army actually returned,” he says. The resulting protests against the army’s comeback attempt resulted in injuries and arrests, and thus drew the attention of the Macedonian media.

Stating that his team had arrived around 11am on Monday morning, after having faithfully told the Greek border guards where they would be going, Momirovski adds that “we were not able to speak with any of the protesters, because we were told by locals that they had just gone to bed two hours before- they had been held by the police up until that time.”

Instead, the local villagers suggested the journalists go to two nearby villages where they could perhaps find more information.

After driving out of the village on a secondary road, however, the television team was followed by military vehicles and stopped by police who barked at them in Greek and detained them. While he notes that the police acted “very correctly with us” (i.e., no threats or beatings), Momirovski questions the reasonableness of their demands. “They told us that we cannot take photos or videos, because it is a border area, but could stay as ‘tourists,’” he states, noting however that when he inquired repeatedly three years ago with officials in Athens about obtaining permissions, with no response, the Greek Press Office in Skopje informed him that “no one will bother you” for filming in the area.

Later, at the border between Florina and Bitola, the journalists were then told they had to surrender all of their cameras and equipment. Of course, they refused. Greek officials tried to claim that the Macedonians were illegally filming military installations. When asked about this, Momirovski gives a pained look. “Would I be stupid enough to try and film a military installation? Besides, there were not any such installations near enough for us to film!”

Indeed, reminds one nationalist commentary website, MINA, “…the journalist crews did not take photographs in the restricted area, as claimed by Greek authorities. Zero photographs were found during the check up of the journalists’ equipment.”

The frustrated police told the television crew that they could only return to the village under police escort. But when they returned to Lofi, they were then suddenly informed by the police that they had somehow “disturbed the locals” with their presence and, says Momirovski, “we were ordered to leave the country at once, and the police escorted us to the border.”

Why, in his opinion, were the Greek authorities so eager to prevent contact between the Macedonian film crew and the local villagers? The journalist gives a wry smile. “They didn’t want us talking to these Macedonians, as it would be very obvious [to all viewers] that there really are Macedonians in their country.”

On the other hand, Greek journalists visiting Macedonia face no such hassles, and regularly take extraordinary liberties- as was the case when Greek reporters burst into a secondary school near Strumica to see if the students were learning about Alexander the Great, etc. in their history books, so as to fabricate yet another international “scandal” in place of sound journalism.

The political chill between the two countries and frequent miscommunications have made media cooperation very difficult, even for well-meaning sorts like Momirovski. In April, when Greece infamously blocked Macedonia’s NATO membership at the alliance’s Bucharest Summit, Greek journalists flocked to Skopje, eager to ‘take the pulse’ of the population.

As this author can recall, it proved very difficult to arrange interviews for them, however, because numerous local and foreign officials and public figures expressed misgivings over how any potential quotes or footage of themselves would be presented back in Greece. “We’ve been burned too many times by the Greeks,” was a typical answer, given by a diplomat who ruefully recalled having spoken for the Greek media in the past and then felt wrongly depicted in the end.

Through it all, Macedonian government officials are sanguine, believing that ugly incidents such as Monday’s journalist crackdown will ultimately play into their hands. A senior diplomat told Balkanalysis.com that “the Greeks continue with this kind of bad behavior, and the world is starting to see it… world opinion is now steadily moving towards our side.”

There is a silver lining in all this, at least for fans of black humor. Stung by the US government’s recent refusal to lift visa requirements for Greek citizens, the fastidiously hypocritical Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyiannis stated, “Greece has never accepted the logic of the exertion of pressure between allies.”

Or, as a forthright Greek intellectual told this author not long ago: “our government compensates for its inferiority complex vis-a-vis Turkey by intimidating its small and weak northern neighbor… that’s this ‘name issue’ for you!”

 
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