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Chinese president stirs up wave of patriotism while Greek government spies on press

10-8-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico: How Greece became Europe’s worst place for press freedom

In late July, a team of German and French journalists landed a thunderous scoop: A classified report showing the EU’s border agency working with Greek authorities to turn away asylum seekers struggling to get ashore.

Reporters across Europe raced to follow up on the piece, which provided evidence of possible criminal behavior. Interview requests poured into Germany's Der Spiegel, one of the outlets behind the story.

One country, however, was noticeably quiet on the matter: Greece.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any reference to it in the pro-government press, which dominates, especially the airwaves,” said Giorgos Christides, a reporter at Der Spiegel. “In Greece, there’s two parallel media universes.”

The moment illustrated what journalists, media analysts, civil rights groups and EU investigators have been warning about for years. Greece, they say, is now seeing the troubling, violent and oppressive results of a years-long erosion of press freedom in the country.

It’s a problem, they say, born during the Greek financial crisis, which destabilized the country, polarized its politics and sapped media outlets of the profits that helped them stay independent. News organizations became increasingly partisan. Threats, attacks and surveillance targeting journalists rose.

The pandemic only made things worse. Press conferences were halted and essentially never came back. Questions arose over whether the government was favoring friendly outlets with taxpayer funds.

A new law claimed to curb misinformation but is fueling concerns that journalists could be tossed in jail for critical reporting. And just last week, the spying web that had ensnared journalists blossomed into a full-blown scandal that forced two top officials to resign.

“Due to the financial situation, media owners have handed over the keys of their businesses to the government,” said Tasos Telloglou, an investigative reporter in Greece. “This, combined with a government that believes that it does nothing wrong, is an explosive combination.”

The situation reflects a broader trend across Europe. Demonstrators going after reporters. Demonization from officials. Public funds withheld. Countries from Germany to Luxembourg to Slovenia, Poland and Hungary have all slipped in annual press freedom rankings. But Greece fell to the bottom of all European countries on the latest list.

The Greek government insists the fears are vastly overblown. Press freedom is enshrined in the country’s constitution and there is no press censorship, officials note, correctly.

“Greece is a country where everyone can write and publish whatever they want about anyone, without any censorship and no government control,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the European Parliament in a recent debate, holding up two newspaper front pages featuring negative articles about the government.

However, the annual press freedom ratings show a very different picture. Greece this year supplanted Bulgaria as the EU’s lowest-ranked country in Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom list. Greece now ranks 108 out of 180 countries worldwide, down from 70 last year.

The domestic view is similarly bleak. In a Reuters Institute poll of 46 countries, Greece ranked last when citizens were asked whether their local press was free. Only 7 percent said Greek media was free from undue political influence, while a mere 8 percent said it was free from undue business influence.

Last month, the EU detailed its own fears about the Greek media landscape in an annual rule-of-law report, a country-by-country compendium of potential democratic backsliding among members. The report echoed the same concerns journalists and media rights groups have been expressing: rising violence against journalists, a deteriorating professional environment, possible political influence in public media.

In April 2021, veteran crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was shot and killed near his home. His murder remains unsolved and has come to serve as a symbol of the growing problems for Greek media.

Last November, journalist Stavros Malichudis realized from a leaked report that the government had spied on him. The government denied the allegation and the media paid little attention to it.

Then, in April, a network of journalists with Reporters United revealed the government had spied on reporter Thanasis Koukakis, who was working in part as a contributor for the Financial Times investigating money laundering and corruption. The government admitted to the behavior during a closed parliamentary session, according to several lawmakers present in the session, but publicly denied it.

When Koukakis was initially alerted about the spying, he filed a request to the Greek authorities for information about his case. Yet shortly after that, the government passed a new law barring people from finding out if they had been under surveillance for national security reasons.

“By changing the law, the government tried to hide the traces of a surveillance that was already happening,” said Nikolas Leontopoulos, an investigative reporter with Reporters United.

Late last week, the dam finally broke. The scandal that a senior opposition leader had been bugged forced the resignation of the country's No. 2 official, Grigoris Dimitriadis, and the national spy chief.

But in a sign that the landscape is still perilous for reporters, the journalists who reported on the Predator spyware scandal were swiftly hit by numerous lawsuits on the day of the resignations.

Opposition parties are now pushing the government to roll back its move to make state surveillance less transparent. But the authorities show no sign that they are ready to repeal the recent laws or abandon illegal surveillance of people.

The Guardian: ‘This is about striking fear’: China’s Taiwan drills the new normal, analysts say

China’s military drills targeting Taiwan have set a new normal, and are likely to “regularise” similar armed exercises off the coast or even more aggressive action much closer to the island, analysts have said.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been conducting live-fire exercises and other drills in the seas around Taiwan’s main island for almost a week, in a purported response to the controversial visit to Taipei by the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Beijing claims Taiwan as a province. It has not ruled out taking it by force and objects to any and all foreign shows of support for its sovereignty. Taiwan has accused Beijing of using Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to prepare for an invasion.

While some drills are continuing, the big show put on last week has ended, and observers are now trying to assess how the dynamics of the region have changed, and what the future holds for cross-strait relations.

“This is about striking fear and a sense of inevitability in Taiwanese hearts and minds,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London. “There is, in the political messaging delivered through military means, a real risk that these more overtly aggressive steps might be normalised.”

Whether Beijing felt it achieved anything with its drills was unclear, some analysts said. A US Pentagon official said this week there was no change to their assessment that China would not try to retake Taiwan militarily in the next two years.

According to a Guardian analysis of public data from Taiwan, China and Japan, the PLA sent at least 140 planes into Taiwan’s air defence zone during the week, including 100 over the median line, an unofficial maritime line that crosses the middle of the Taiwan strait. The planes included fighter jets, reconnaissance planes, H-6 bombers and a refuelling aircraft.

The PLA navy claims it came within Taiwan’s territorial waters, which Taiwan disputes. At least 41 Chinese ships also crossed the median line. Ten PLA navy ships played “cat and mouse” around the line with 10 Taiwan ships on Sunday, according to Taipei. At least seven “batches” of one or more drones were detected over Taiwan’s outlying islands, Kinmen and Matsu, with Taiwan’s defence ministry saying flares were fired in response. Aerial drones were also seen near Japan.

“It’s impossible to do an accurate assessment of how well the PLA performed in conducting joint operations,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.

“It’s not clear who was doing command and control … They rehearsed imposing a blockade and carrying out strikes on the island, but the exercises didn’t contain all the elements that would be needed to invade the island,” said expert.

For now, most of the focus for observers is on the median line crossings, which until last week were a rare event. After largely respecting the line for decades, Beijing has changed its stance, denied its existence, sent its planes and ships over it at times of heightened tensions, and claimed wholesale sovereignty over the entire strait.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said there was concern the PLA would “routinise” such crossings. He urged the international community to push back, saying Beijing clearly aimed to control the strait.

John Culver, a retired CIA analyst and former east Asia intelligence officer, said it was also important to note what the PLA had not done during its drills. This included crossing into Taiwan’s territorial or contiguous seas, flying warplanes over the island, or mobilising coastguard or marine militias, “which would be key for an actual blockade”.

“This could be viewed as restraint on China’s part, but also are escalation steps they’ve reserved to show even greater threat/seriousness next time,” Culver said on Twitter.

The drills fed a growing nationalism in China, particularly online, as well as anti-US and anti-Japan sentiment. Dr Ying-yu Lin, of Tamkang University’s graduate institute of international affairs and strategic studies, says it would not have mattered if Pelosi arrived or not – he expected a “big show” before the Chinese Communist party congress later this year, when China’s president, Xi Jinping, will seek his third term.

Photo: Todd Benson, CC BY-ND 2.0

“[Xi] wants to show his power, to let Taiwan and America know that the PRC is not like 25 years ago … and the PLA is rising,” Lin says. “He also wants to show his power to mainland people.”

AP: Explosions in Crimea - it is clear that nothing is clear

Powerful explosions rocked a Russian air base in Crimea and sent towering clouds of smoke over the landscape Tuesday in what may mark an escalation of the war in Ukraine. At least one person was killed and several others were wounded, authorities said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the Saki base on the Black Sea had been shelled and said instead that munitions had blown up there. But Ukrainian social networks were abuzz with speculation that it was hit by Ukrainian-fired long-range missiles.

Videos posted on social networks showed sunbathers on nearby beaches fleeing as huge flames and pillars of smoke rose over the horizon from multiple points, accompanied by loud booms.

Crimea Today News said on Telegram that witnesses reported fire on a runway and damage to nearby homes as a result of what it said were dozens of blasts.

Russia’s state news agency Tass quoted an unidentified ministry source as saying the explosions’ primary cause appeared to be a “violation of fire safety requirements.” The ministry said no warplanes were damaged.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said sarcastically on Facebook: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine cannot establish the cause of the fire, but once again recalls the rules of fire safety and the prohibition of smoking in unspecified places.”

A presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said cryptically in his regular online interview that the blasts were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or were the work of partisans operating in Crimea.

During the war, Russia has reported numerous fires and explosions at munitions storage sites on its territory near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian strikes. Ukrainian authorities have mostly remained mum about the incidents.

If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the blasts at the air base, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014. A smaller explosion last month at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.

Russian warplanes have used the Saki base to strike areas in Ukraine’s south on short notice.

Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centers” in Kyiv.

For his part, Ukraine’s president vowed to retake Crimea from Russia.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday in his nightly video address. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”

Earlier Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, stoking international fears of a catastrophe.

The governor of the region where the plant is situated, Oleksandr Starukh, said Tuesday that radiation levels were normal. But he warned that an accident could spread radiation whichever way the wind blows, carrying it to Moscow and other Russian cities.

CNN: German diplomat arrested in Brazil for alleged murder of husband

A Brazilian Judge has ordered that German Consul Uwe Herbert Hahn should be held in custody in connection with the alleged murder of his husband in Rio de Janeiro -- denying defense claims of diplomatic immunity, according to CNN Brasil.

German Consul Uwe Herbert Hahn (right) with his husband
Photo: The Sun

Rio police first took Hahn into custody on Saturday after his husband, Walter Henri Maximilien Biot, 52, was found dead in an apartment in the Ipanema neighborhood, police said. Video showed Hahn being escorted by Brazilian police outside a police station in Rio on Sunday.

Brazilian judge Rafael de Almeida Rezende cited alleged attempts to tamper with evidence among the factors in his decision to keep the diplomat in custody.

According to the decision, obtained by CNN, "the apartment was cleaned before the forensics team carried out its examination, a fact that by itself demonstrates that the release of the suspect in custody could lead to serious encumbrances to the collection of evidence."

The judge's order describes the crime scene and states "several lesions on the victim's body originating from blunt-force trauma, with one of the [lesions] compatible with a foot stomp and the other with the deployment of a cylindrical instrument (supposedly a wooden club)."

The judge's ruling also said that forensics "detected blood splatter on the property, markedly in the couple's bedroom and in the bathroom, compatible with the dynamics of a violent death."

Hahn's defense argued to the court that the diplomat is entitled to diplomatic immunity, and for a writ of habeas corpus, reports CNN Brasil.

Habeas corpus is a legal principle that allows people who believe they are being held unlawfully in prison or detention to challenge it, and successful challenges can lead to a detainee's release.

But the judge ruled that "an arrest due to an intentional crime against life, committed inside the couple's apartment (so outside of the consular environment) has no relation whatsoever to consular duties."

Video released to CNN Brasil shows Hahn explaining to police chief Camila Lourenço that Biot had shown signs of panicking, acting nervously or "strange" in the days leading up to his death.

In the video taped police interview, Hahn described how the couple were sitting on the sofa when Biot stood up suddenly and ran toward the balcony before falling face down on the floor.

He tells the chief that he thinks his husband slipped.

"It was very fast," he said as he walks around the apartment the couple shared.

Hahn said he initially thought Biot was drunk and took a photo of his husband, which he sent to a friend along with the message, "Walter is drunk again."

Hahn said he then tried to pick Biot up to take him to bed when he noticed his husband was bleeding.

CNN has reached out to Hahn's lawyers but they were unavailable for comment.

German Foreign Office sources also confirmed to CNN the "arrest of an employee posted to the Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro."

"Our Embassy in Brasilia and the Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro are in close contact with the Brazilian authorities investigating this case," the foreign office sources said, adding that due to the ongoing investigations and for personal privacy reasons, they could not disclose additional information.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva