Beginning on Tuesday, social networks have been abuzz with the latest bad news from Greece: the arrest of a 27-year old "Geron Pastitsios" (a play on the name of Paisios, using the name of a Greek pasta dish) on charges of blasphemy, resulting from a satirical page he maintained on Facebook targeted at Elder Paisios, a deceased monk who is revered by many and known for performing miracles.
At a time where most news coming out of Greece is negative, this arrest has added fuel to the fire and has resulted in more bad publicity. Beyond the country's international image, however, the arrest is an affront to free speech. It has been said that the arrest was prompted by demands from Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party. Whether or not this is the case, the arrest is a desperate and clueless act from an unpopular, illegitimate coalition government that is not representative of the will of most Greeks.
It is this last point which should stand out, and the arrest should be placed in this context. The three governing coalition partners did not receive even a combined 50% of the vote in the June elections, and likely received many votes based on promises which have since been broken.
What does one issue have to do with the other? While the arrest was unwarranted, so has been the response to the arrest on the part of many Greeks in the social media world. Their comments reflect more than opposition to the arrest: they reflect a deep-seated negativity towards Greece as a whole, a disillusioned mentality that goes to the other extreme, magnifying every negative attribute about Greece as if those attributes were limited only to Greece among "Western" countries. To illustrate, here are a few of the tweets which appeared under the Twitter hashtag #FreeGeronPastitsios:
"Foreign tweeps pls do NOT regard #Greece as a developed country. Amorality, bigotry and corruption reign supreme #FreeGeronPastitsios"
"Sorry, but the sunny weather and the beautiful beaches cannot compensate any more. Really sorry. #Greece. #freeGeronpastitsios"
"@VivianeRedingEU Plz tell us if you will support an Iranian application for EU membership. Thank you. #freegeronpastitsios #Greece"
"Life in #Greece gets more depressing by the day. A theocratic, fascist, racist country. Really ASHAMED to be Greek #FreeGeronPastitsios"
These tweets are a classic example of losing the forest through the trees, but they are also unsurprising. Many Greeks view the country as inferior to the "developed" and "civilized" countries of the "West." What is conveniently forgotten is that the entire world is facing a crisis of democracy and freedom. The examples are endless. For instance, in the United States, where the First Amendment supposedly exists, police arrested 26-year old Marine Corps veteran Brandon Raub and transported him to a psychiatric ward, where he was detained for one week. His arrest was prompted by postings he made on Facebook which were considered "terroristic."
Then there are the examples of preemptive arrests of protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement prior to major protests, often on flimsy pretexts, such as outstanding traffic tickets, while in other cases, protesters were arrested after possible entrapment by embedded police officers posing as supporters of the movement. Similarly, journalists covering the protests have often been arrested or barred from reporting.
There are also the well-known examples of the indefinite detention and solitary confinement of Bradley Manning, the passage of the National Defense Authorizations Act and legalization of the warrantless arrest and indefinite imprisonment of American citizens, and the Julian Assange/Wikileaks saga and the British government's threat to invade a sovereign embassy in order to arrest and deport Assange. Going back to 2000, a student by the name of Julie-Ann Davies was arrested under Britain's Official Secrets Act for reading e-mails sent by former MI5 agent David Shayler which made allegations against Britain's security forces.
These are just some examples which indicate that freedom of speech is threatened worldwide, not just Greece. And the irony here is that the right to free speech seems to be selectively applied even from those who claim to champion it. For instance, prior to the London Olympics, a Greek athlete, Voula Papachristou, was banned from participating as the result of a "racist" tweet she posted. The very same people who are now decrying the arrest of Geron Pastitsios supported the disqualification of Papachristou, without any due process. Never mind that in 2008, when the Spanish national basketball team took a racist team photo, mocking the "slanted eyes" of the Chinese people prior to the Beijing Olympics, there was no disqualification or much of an outcry. Meanwhile, when racist remarks have been published about the Greek people in the international media, calling Greeks lazy, crooked, and corrupt, the Greek activist community has been silent--perhaps because they, in a confirmation of the self-loathing which is remarkably prevalent in Greece, agree with these assessments!
One final thought: the Facebook page of Geron Pastitsios has been removed. Who is responsible for the removal of his page? Last I checked, the Greek government, and Hellenic police don't control Facebook. While complaints were surely lodged with Facebook, it is Facebook that makes the decision to remove content. Such censorship on the part of social networking websites is nothing new. Twitter generated controversy during the London Olympics for censoring tweets made by a journalist who was highly critical of NBC's televised coverage. Earlier this year, Twitter proudly announced its capability to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis, while during the London riots of 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated his intention to ban Twitter in the UK. And finally, the official Facebook page created by the Greek indignants during the protests of 2011 repeatedly disappeared and reappeared, before going offline for good.
Such examples reflect the chilling reality that there exists a huge democratic deficit throughout the world. Claiming that Greece is some sort of outlier, a "fascist" and "theocratic" regime, is not just unfair, but it glosses over the fact that similar and even worse offenses take place every day in other supposedly free and democratic countries. While arresting a Facebook user for his satirical postings is extreme, responding in a hyperbolic and selective manner is not the answer.