Gloves come off as Greek elections loom

Greek main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, dismissed government accusations of kickbacks allegedly pocketed by his party while in power prior to 2015 as ‘savage propaganda.’ (AFP)
Updated 06 January 2019
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Gloves come off as Greek elections loom

  • Hostility between the ruling leftist Syriza party and the frontrunning New Democracy conservatives has hit fever pitch
  • ‘We know they plan to hold dirty elections’

ATHENS: As Greece enters an election year, the two main political parties are deeply polarized setting the stage for a no-holds-barred campaign.
With the ballot scheduled for October but expected as early as March, hostility between the ruling leftist Syriza party and the frontrunning New Democracy conservatives has hit fever pitch.
“We know they plan to hold dirty elections,” New Democracy head Kyriakos Mitsotakis said of his Syriza rivals in a recent speech, dismissing government accusations of kickbacks allegedly pocketed by his party while in power prior to 2015 as “savage propaganda.”
Both sides accuse each other of marshalling web trolls to spread misinformation. New Democracy says the leftists have liberally dished out well-paid state jobs to a legion of ill-qualified friends and allies.
In turn, the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras points to ongoing investigations targeting years of alleged kickbacks to conservative ex-ministers from Swiss pharma multinational Novartis and German engineering giant Siemens.
The government has identified prominent media group Skai as a key source of what it sees as unfair criticism of its policies. In addition to frequently attacking the station’s broadcasts, Tsipras’ party is boycotting its talk shows.
Relations hit rock bottom last month when a bomb exploded outside Skai’s Athens headquarters, prompting media group owner Yiannis Alafouzos to say Tsipras’ government was “morally” responsible for the attack.
“There is a climate that not only tolerates but often encourages extreme forms of expression in the public space,” Nikos Konstandaras, a veteran columnist for liberal daily Kathimerini that is part of the Skai group, wrote after the bombing.
“Today, the political polarization that breeds such violence is intensifying,” he added.
Brought to power on an anti-austerity ticket in 2015 after decades on the sidelines, Tsipras’ government faced an overwhelmingly hostile media.
His response was to completely overhaul the powerful TV sector and force channel owners — who had played kingmaker between New Democracy and the Pasok socialists for over two decades — to pay millions of euros for new operating licenses.
“In Greece, the dependence of mainstream media on the state is the most extreme in Europe, it is only comparable to Turkey,” George Pleios, head of media studies at the National University of Athens, wrote in a recent article.
With media under the control of businessmen mainly active in construction and shipping, ownership has long been a means of securing state contracts and favorable bank loans, adds Nikos Smyrnaios, a digital media professor at Toulouse university.
“In this way, when the (economic) crisis struck, state (bankruptcy) brought about a similar fate for the media,” he notes.
Alongside the conservative and socialist parties who had ruled the country prior to the crisis, mainstream media were also discredited, argues Stelios Papathanassopoulos, professor of media organization and policy at the University of Athens.
The anti-austerity demonstrations that helped propel Syriza to power also assisted the rise of social media and Twitter in Greece, mainly to the benefit of the left.
“The young, who at the time formed the bulk of Syriza voters, challenged the accuracy of (mainstream) media and turned to alternative networks,” Papathanassopoulos said.
After two years of bitter rivalry between Tsipras and those he labelled “oligarchs,” three major media groups changed hands to avoid bankruptcy, and Greece’s most powerful TV station before the crisis, Mega, went bust.
But the overhaul did little to promote smaller, more independent voices, notes Smyrnaios.
“Media groups are still in the hands of influential businessmen,” he said.
In another sign of the sector’s deep troubles, one of Greece’s two media distribution agencies filed for bankruptcy in 2017.
The one that remains is controlled by a leading media group.
“As in many Latin American countries, Greek media have overstepped ethical boundaries,” argues Smyrnaios. “It’s more about emotion, reviving old hatred between the right-wing and the left that goes back to the (1946-1949) civil war.”


Gangsters attack train passengers in Hong Kong after night of violent protests

Updated 13 min 41 sec ago
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Gangsters attack train passengers in Hong Kong after night of violent protests

  • Groups of men in white were seen by eye-witnesses with poles and bamboo staves at a nearby village
  • The Hospital Authority said 45 people were injured in the Yuen Long attack
HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party is investigating attacks by suspected triad gangsters on train passengers on Sunday, after a night of violence opened new fronts in the political crisis now deepening across the city.
Screams rang out when men, clad in white t-shirts and some armed with poles, flooded into the rural Yuen Long station and stormed a train, attacking passengers, according to footage taken by commuters and Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting.
Some passengers had been at an anti-government march and the attack came after several thousand activists surrounded China’s representative office in the city, later clashing with police.
Lam, who was injured in the attack, said he was angry about a slow police response after he alerted them to the trouble, government-funded broadcaster RTHK reported.
Lam said it took police more than an hour to arrive after he alerted them and they had failed to protect the public, allowing the triads to run rampant. The party is now investigating.
“Is Hong Kong now allowing triads to do what they want, beating up people on the street with weapons?,” he asked reporters.
Police said early on Monday they had not made any arrests at the station or during a follow-up search of a nearby village but were still investigating.
Yau Nai-keung, Yuen Long assistant district police commander, told reporters that an initial police patrol had to wait for more reinforcements given a situation involving more than 100 people.
Groups of men in white were seen by eye-witnesses with poles and bamboo staves at a nearby village but Yau said police saw no weapons when they arrived.
“We can’t say you have a problem because you are dressed in white and we have to arrest you. We will treat them fairly no matter which camp they are in,” Yau said. Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent protests for more than two months in its most serious crisis since Britain handed the Asian financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protesters are demanding the full withdrawal of a bill to allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, fearing it would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
They are also demanding independent inquiries into the use of police force against protesters.
On Sunday police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists on the edge of Hong Kong’s glittering financial district after they had fled China’s Liaison Office.
The Chinese government has condemned the action, which saw signs and a state symbol daubed with graffiti.
The unrest in Hong Kong marks the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
The Hospital Authority said 45 people were injured in the Yuen Long attack, with one in a critical condition. Some 13 people were injured after the clashes on Hong Kong island, one seriously, the authority said.
Some police had been injured in the clashes after protesters hurled bricks, smoke grenades and petrol bombs, said a police statement.