Whistle-what? Debate on Snowden and NSA takes place without Greece

Article published on Oct. 21, 2014
Article published on Oct. 21, 2014

The revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden bear the potential to throw a new light on the crisis in GreeceBut neither the highly controlled media, nor the people on the street show much interest for this matter.

“Whistle-what??” , a friend of mine in his late twenties, university graduate, solid middleclass, replies when I ask him about Edward Snowden. He is no rare case in Greece. Problems like Internet privacy, bugging scandals and extensive spying seem to pale in comparison to the desolate situation the country is facing. Many Greeks are beyond their limits. No savings, no perspectives to find a job, no health insurance and, until today a corrupt administration that has failed to conduct structural changes most of all in places, where it would really matter.

Corruption paralyzes the country

All that, however, is not only due to the immobility of the political officials, who, under the influence of a few rich families, appear more or less helpless, but also because corruption is a solid element of every day life. Favors against money, bribes as a cultural institution and a well-developed inclination to nepotism reign the country. While in Germany the United State’s unreasonable reaction towards Snowden’s revelations has led to a genuine breach of trust with their own government, people in Greece have been living for a long time with the certainty concerning the opaque activities of their elected officials.

Only a handful of people seem to have realized that a public confrontation with Snowden’s case could bear the potential to break with these habits; and it is usually people who are interested in such issues anyways: Internet specialists, bloggers, democracy activists. Most people though remain in crisis mode.

Privacy is no luxury

I meet Christina Sereti, 45, founding member of the Greek Pirate Party and one of the first Internet activists around. For her, the little interest in Snowden’s case can also be traced back to a lack of skills: “In a way we are in a country of computer Illiterates. When you talk to older people they understand why rules, that apply to paper, have to be valid online as well, as soon as you compare the situation to postal secrecy in times of the military Junta in Greece. Younger people don’t have these experiences with dictatorship and the average Greek thinks: ‘Let them spy on me.’ People finally have to understand that Internet privacy is as important as privacy in real life.”

Eleanna Ioannidou is a lawyer, specialized on civil rights and one of the few Green Party members of Thessaloniki’s city council. “People here are currently busy with other things and sometimes use that as an excuse to focus on their own lives. But this is how the system works. In this situation, Greeks invest too much time in everyday survival, sometimes without success. And this is why so many don’t want to face challenges on a community level.” 

Leading media don’t care about civil rights

The media play an important part in all of this. The news focus the negative outcomes of the crisis and therefore favor the single-sided pessimistic mood among the people. Topics like war in Gaza, the conflict in Ukraine or Edward Snowden and the NSA are briefly mentioned, but get lost in a flood of information on the country’s current state that is high in quantity, but superficial in quality. Eleanna, former press spokeswoman of the Green Party in Greece offers a downright explanation for this: “The leading media in Greece are starkly controlled. Nothing that the Green Party has brought to public attention has been covered by the media.”

Greek people have every reason though, to worry about their privacy. In 2013 alone, more than 4000 phone lines were tapped. And also in other areas, the state does not show great concern for data protection. This became obvious just recently in Halkidiki in Northern Greece, where the police collects DNA samples from citizens, who demonstrate against the environmental destruction due the re-opening of a gold mine. TAIPED, a state owned enterprise designed to distribute state assets, sold the gold mine for a ridiculously low price to a Canadian company. Experts predict devastating outcomes for the region, in which Aristotle was born and for which tourism and agriculture are the most important sources of income.

After an incident, in which a handful of extremists dragged an employee out of his guardhouse, tied him up and set the house on fire, Athens attempts to declare the entire protest movement a terrorist organization. In this spirit, the local police has started to systematically collect DNA samples not only on the crime scene, but also in the surrounding villages. This way, protesters are supposed to be convicted as potential terrorists – a clear violation of civil rights.

No transparency without privacy

“The state of Greece does not trust its citizens. Pretty much everybody is treated like a criminal” , Christina explains. “Things like freedom and privacy have been very important in our past. We fought for them in the revolution. But now people are so focused on money that they have forgotten all about it.” Exactly this could turn out to be a partial cause for the critical situation of the country, since there is money around in Greece. But it is nearly impossible to find where the billions of Euros go, even for members of the parliament.

“There is an essential connection between transparency and privacy” , Christina points out. “Privacy is a fundamental civil right, while transparency has to do with the government. In Greece, the latter is close to zero. If we had more transparency, we could see where money has been wasted. We should be spying on the government and not the other was around.”

What is being underestimated in the debate on Snowden’s revelations is mainly one thing: The confrontation with the crisis could finally deal with the causes, not just the symptoms. Snowden’s case and the way how the US treat their partners also offer a tremendous opportunity to open a trans-European dialogue on the basic values of the state alliance, values that up to now remain undefinded.