The magical land of Lilipoupoli [ ? ] : Militia, economic operators and the role of the local media [Part 4]
The magical land of Lilipoupoli [ ? ]
Militia, economic operators and the role of the local media [Part 4]
If we presume that the chapter involving Golden Dawn has closed, there is still much ink to be spilled in the book on the far-right; particularly regarding the groups and networks that appear at convenient times and at different points on the map, featuring similar characteristics in each region of Greece. In Lesvos, although Golden Dawn has never been able to garner a strong presence, various far-right voices from groups of “indignant citizens” often tolerated by the elected, star in a series of violent and racist incidents: including, attacks on refugees, volunteers and NGOs, journalists and hoteliers, instrumentalization of religious symbols, and even pogroms.
Disclaimer: The quotes in this text have been indicatively translated to English by Disinfaux Collective and do not represent a direct quotation by the individual referenced. All Greek direct quotes can be found in the original version, available here.
In the period 2015 – 2020, the economic operators of the island display a gradual change of their attitude on refugee issues. Directly reflected in their public speeches, this attitude seems to depend on whether the current circumstances contribute to the economy of Lesvos.
Economic operators and residents’ associations: Their enabling role in the far-right and the creeping expansion in the local media
The Molyvos Tourism Agency, which belongs to the Municipality of West Lesvos, is one of the “blue” think-tanks on the island. The Agency’s partnership with the Municipality of West Lesvos is well known, as is their disagreement with the government’s demands for a new camp in the area or the hosting of refugees in tourist accommodation.
The small village of Molyvos is one of the main tourist hubs on the island, with hoteliers refusing to host refugees but accepting off-season room rentals to NGO members, with an active presence in Sykamia in previous years. As most stand for the approach of the Molyvos Tourism Agency, only a few remain friendly to the refugees in the area. At the end of 2019, residents from the villages of Petra and Molyvos, attacked a small auxiliary inflatable boat of the NGO “Proactiva Open Arms”, throwing stones to stop NGO members disembarking in Sykamia, Lesvos.
Whilst 2016 is a seemingly distant era, a noteworthy event was the reaction of the citizens of Molyvos against the operation of a hotel, which remained closed for years, and was subsequently rented and repaired by an English family living in Molyvos through sponsorships from Western Europe; in order to act as a shelter for refugees under the name “Hope Centre”. Residents and tour operators argued against NGOs and in favour of “protecting the local economy”, and in effect managed to close the centre.
On an institutional level, the thread unravels with the statements of the current Deputy Mayor of Tourism of the Municipality of West Lesvos, Aphrodite Vati, who has expressed rather controversial opinions on refugees, even referring to the “shadow” role of NGOs on the island. Sometimes she stands for the refugees and the solidarity shown by the citizens, and sometimes against them, as in March 2020, when she requested via a letter to the respective government officials “to preserve the tourist areas, as they are the ‘economic lungs’ of the island, and to exempt from any type of involvement with refugees, activities and NGOs etc”.
The Deputy Mayor of Tourism belongs to the faction of the Mayor of West Lesvos, Taxiarchis Verros, and is known for his controversial posts about the “rumours” that hotels are considering hosting refugees and the indirect threats to the hoteliers that “their businesses will be inspected”. Allegations of assault and vandalism against hoteliers came to light along with threatening messages if the latter eventually host refugees in their hotels. Regarding the “rumours” about hosting refugees in hotels, Verros also sent a letter to the Ministers of Tourism, Immigration and Finance: “To exclude, once and for all, the tourist areas of the island and the country from all kinds of accommodation of immigrants”. Prior to this letter, in April 2020, the Lesvos Hoteliers Associations refused to host refugees (following a call from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and, after denying any agreement between the two sides, called on the UNHCR to remove the proclamation and stop searching for hotels on Lesvos and all the islands of the North-Eastern Aegean.
In fact, the Deputy Mayor has repeatedly adopted the position that tourism is heavily affected by the refugee issue, a stance also reflected in another of her letters to government officials requesting measures to enhance the island’s tourism industry. Among other things, she mentions that “Lesvos has lifted and is lifting a weight that exceeds it “and that” she CANNOT bear it anymore socially, culturally, or financially “. She also notes that “without your support, we, the locals of the island, are led, sooner or later, to a new, peculiar migration, if the island’s tourism and economy are left to collapse” which will lead to the (sic) “deforestation of the population in the national borders” (September 29, 2020).
On the same wavelength, Pericles Antoniou, member of the Board of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels and President of the Lesvos Hoteliers Association, sent a letter to the Prime Minister in March 2020, asking for the closure of all accommodation – hotels of annual operation (not just the seasonal ones). Among other things, he cites that Lesvos “is a potential sanitary bomb, extremely dangerous, because of the refugee/immigration issue and the coronavirus, threatening… everyone and everything”.
Foreshadows of the past
In the winter of 2017, with refugees confronting extreme weather phenomena only protected by tents provided by the UN, the Lesvos Hoteliers Association urged its members not to rent out their units to the UNHCR, while the at the time president of the Association, Pericles Antoniou, spoke of a moral commitment to this decision. “We understand the humanitarian part, especially in these cold days, but we are morally committed to this recommendation, we can not provide the solution,” he said, dropping hints to the UNHCR’s mismanagement, for delaying action despite the fact they already knew bad weather was approaching.
In fact, this decision resulted in a conflict between the hoteliers and the SYRIZA MP from Lesvos, George Pallis. Furthermore, the situation remained particularly critical, as the island’s tourism industry produced a strong backlash, regarding the government’s announcements for the requisition of hotel units to accommodate refugees and immigrants; through the Alternate Minister of Immigration Policy, Ioannis Mouzalas.
The creation of the Coordinating Body of Lesvos Entities in 2016, has been, and still is, the umbrella under which the majority of the island’s bodies express a systematic anti-refugee sentiment stating that they want the “disengagement of NGOs and immigrants” and their simultaneous restriction “so that they do not pass through points of tourist and cultural interest or from areas with hotel units” and damage the tourism sector on the island. In its Facebook post, the Agency goes so far as to request the creation of a “floating platform in the area of Megala Therma to avoid the disembarkation of refugees – immigrants in the port of Molyvos”. The Agency also uses divisive speech referring to the “value of human existence” and putting “persecuted refugees or wealthy vacationers” in the same basket.
The role of the local media and the “coincidences”
Local and national media carry great responsibility for the rise of the far-right on the island, providing public space for far-right voices and, at other times, reproducing or creating fake news in order to target refugees, solidarians and NGOs, without any evidence.
Regarding the mobilizations of the Lesvos entities at the end of January 2020, the Alpha channel TV station covered the islands of Lesvos and Chios. In the report by the journalist, George Stefanou, from LesvosPost.com, already known for its far-right rhetoric, Nikos Papagiannidis appears as an “indignant citizen”. The latter was elected, with a significant majority, in the “Free Citizens” faction in the City Council of Mytilene and is the protagonist of many far-right actions on the island.
In the reportage of Alpha channel, right after Papagiannidis’ statements, appears Leonidas Vorrias, the well-known Golden Dawn member. Vorrias is once again portrayed as an “indignant citizen” from the island of Chios (the interview was re-broadcasted by Star TV channel).
Vorrias has previously appeared in Greek media such as the Proto Thema, with a tribute-whitewash to the “Volunteer firefighter and athlete who put the Cross in Mytilene”, ignoring their political affiliations with the Golden Dawn. Similarly, there is much photographic evidence proving Vorrias’ relationship with both Regional Governor, Moutzouris, and the criminal organization, Golden Dawn.
The occasional spread of fake news, and the reproduction of press releases by far-right groups such as the “Free Citizens”, is a tactic for local news websites and self-appointed citizen-journalists of/on the island. The website LesvosPost.com is an illustrative example of this type of “journalism” as it has reproduced, among other things, articles like: “MIT organized the episodes made by Afghans in Moria! The role of the 70 ISIS fighters“, referring to the incidents of February 2020 which target refugees and immigrants. For this specific publication, LesvosPost cites newsbreak.gr as the source, a website that has many times reproduced fake news and expressed far-right views. The original source of the article, however, is the populist, right-wing newspaper “Democracy”, as cited by newsbreak.gr.
Faithful to its far-right rhetoric, LesvosPost.com has also targeted the “Bineio” squat, talking about shadowy relations between refugees and anarchists, with the hindmost, according to the website, “inciting them to take action against the locals and the authorities”. In particular, with regard to anarchists and NGOs, the website, which was supported by the government’s dubious Covid-19 media funding campaign, has reproduced fake news about alleged tensions between anarchists and NGOs, on the one hand, and MAT police on the other, in a demonstration in early April 2020. At the same time, it seconds the “indignant citizens” of the island when they take illegal actions. It is worth mentioning that specific local media continuously portray the locals as either victims or “indignant citizens”, whilst ignoring the far-right disposition of their actions. This portrayal causes a deplorable situation on the island, with the implicit contribution of the local media.
With regard to Lesvos and the fake news that is circulating, it is noteworthy that the topics, with a few exceptions, revolve mainly around the news of robberies, vandalisms, arsons, all supposedly made by refugees. What is worth paying attention to, is not the events themselves, but their depiction, which both consolidates and endorses the far-right presence on the island; thus normalizing an extreme political group associated with violent action. In some cases, the facts are indeed real, but their presentation is exaggerated and often entangled with racist generalizations; and propels the intersection of these acts with the systematic marginalisation of refugees across Greece.
As such, many of the island’s media organisations continuously violate journalism ethics and standards. Instead of preserving a level of professional integrity, they usually prefer to quote in their articles residents’ testimonies or simplistic generalizations like “all refugees are Afghans”. These patterns of “logical errors”, however, carry great consequences. Indicatively, a video published by lesvosnews.gr and the site’s administrator and journalist, Giannis Sinanis, in March 2018, was reposted on Greek websites of dubious quality, because it supposedly depicted a stock-breeder near the Moria RIC who caught immigrants slaughtering his animals. Eventually, ellinikahoaxes.gr proved that neither the man was a stock-breeder nor were the animals slaughtered and stolen. In fact, Ellinika Hoaxes reached out to Giannis Sinanis, who “admitted that the video was uploaded without checking prior. The police refuted the animal theft”.
LesvosPost.com is run by journalist George Stefanou (the journalist who interviewed Papagiannidis for the Alpha channel). To this day, it has hosted articles about church vandalisms, such as in Moria’s St. George, with unevidenced allegations that the perpetrators were immigrants. Self-appointed journalists-residents of the island are usually the ones who cover stories of church vandalisms by refugees (?). In this regard, in June 2015, another fake post, this time with the title of “Muslim illegal immigrants defecated inside a church and then smeared our Icons with their feces!” was published in various religious and right-wing blogs.
The Hungarian government has also shown interest in the church vandalisms, as proven by a governmental press release on 15 May 2020, announcing that 10 million Hungarian forints (28,275 euros) will be offered to Greece “to repair the churches vandalized by immigrants in Lesvos”.
⛪️ As part of the @HungaryHelps Program, we’re contributing USD 30000 to the refurbishment of churches vandalized by immigrants on the Greek island of Lesbos. I hope our messages about protecting Christian heritage & about illegal migration get through. https://t.co/7Lno3LRmnG pic.twitter.com/1edg8mJOsk— Tristan Azbej ن (@tristan_azbej) May 15, 2020
In the same vein, LesvosPost has reproduced fake news from ANT1 TV station and “Orthodoxia Online”, according to which an immigrant made “obscene gestures in a holy icon of Taxiarchis at a kiosk in Mytilene”. The incident was once again refuted and the website was forced to amend the post.
Apart from the reportage of Alpha and Star channel, quite provoking is the appearance of the North Aegean Regional Governor, Moutzouris, in the same TV show with the resident, businessman and former Μunicipal Counsellor candidate, Dimitris Vasilakakis. The two appeared on the TV show “Good Morning Greece” by G. Papadakis on ANT1 station on February 7, 2020. At this point, it is worth mentioning that D. Vasilakakis had run for Municipal Counsellor with the faction of the current Mayor of Mytilene, Stratis Kytelis.
The reason behind their appearance seems to have been a video on the show depicting a robbery under the following caption: “Frame-by-frame immigrants are looting a business in Mytilene – Businessmen are outraged by the repeated burglaries”. Following up on this video, both Moutzouris and Vasilakakis were asked to describe the situation on the island. Having been present at the 2018 pogrom, the DEI and Moria-Panagiouda blocks, the OHF attack and the lawsuit against journalist Th. Abraham (for more info see part 3 of the Lillipoupoli series), Vasilakakis was called to speak about the incidents of theft on the island.
The small groups and the civilian “militias”
In the microcosm of Lesvos, we should not omit the local committees and groups who actively participated or called for events characterized by pervasive far-right elements.
The events that took place on the island in July – August 2020, revealed the role and the political position of small groups on the island, regarding the plans of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum to “rent” and then forcibly “occupy” areas around the Moria RIC with the aim of expanding the camp. At that time, sources provided information about Ministry officials who visited Moria looking for the owners of the area’s olive groves, to offer them 180 euros per acre forging land leasing agreements, thus paving the way for the expansion. Simultaneously, the Ministry was promoting the creation of a permanent Health Centre in Moria, funded by the Dutch Government, thus inciting new xenophobic reactions from the locals. The issue was put on the agenda of the “Free Citizens” and the “Dihala” Hiking Club of Moria – Lesvos, which is said to have led the calls for the cancellation of the government’s plans. Indicatively, on August 1, “Dihala” called “against the requisition and expansion” using the slogan “all together for our island, for the future of our children”.
On the same issue, the Hiking Club republished a text of the Municipal Counselors of the Municipality of Mytilene (Erifili Giannaka and Panagiotis Valesis), referring to the “Islamization of Lesvos” and the creation of a “Muslim city”. Another text, this time from the Club itself, finds the opportunity to hurl racial hatred by claiming that the Greek Orthodox Church has fallen victim to the “savagery of immigrants”.
In the end, the camp expansion did not proceed in opposition to the inauguration of the Health Centre, which was attended by the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, and the President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou. On the same day (August 20, 2020), clashes between Moria residents and the MAT police took place at the olive groves near the Moria RIC. According to the audiovisual material we have at our disposal, members of the “Free Citizens” were also present. Particular attention should be drawn to a video in which an unidentified person appears to shout “Set it on fire”. The call for the gathering was made, among others, by the “Dihala” Hiking Club.
The ND MP, Charalambos Athanasiou, was also present at the rally, with the police proceeding with arrests of the residents gathered. A few hours later, the latter was released with the intervention of the Region’s Legal Staff, following an order from the Regional Governor, K. Moutzouris as proved in the pictures below:
The tensions on the island are steadily incubated and maintained by small groups that operate within the framework of “self-appointed militia” aiming at “defending and helping to prevent theft.” Evidently, two shooting incidents in April and July 2020 respectively, highlight how some citizens have chosen to take matters, related to the long term presence of refugees and immigrants on the island, into their own hands; in order to redirect proceedings related to the refugees. In particular, in April 2020, a 55-year-old resident of Mytilene shot 2 refugees near the village of Afalonas. Testimony from the incident states that the refugees were chased by “cars” before the shooting took place, while the perpetrator was arrested by the Police of Mytilene.
In July 2020, another incident confirming the residents’ organized actions took place. A 44-year-old and a 33-year-old man were found overnight at the olive groves in Afalonas for “unknown reasons”. There, the 44-year-old man was shot by a fellow villager who, also for unexplained reasons, was also in the olive groves, near a sheepfold, he argues that he perceived the 44-year-old as a threat and shot him. Considering the above, we can conclude that residents of the area (as proven by both of these cases), make patrols to prevent any theft attempts which they attribute to refugees from the Moria RIC.
The above posts suggest that the residents’ reflexes and their attacks against refugees continued without interruption in recent months. The screenshots prove the attacks against refugees in the area between Afalonas and Thermi and contextualize a situation where groups of locals are coming after refugees, often by lying in ambush.
“Edo Lilipoupoli” was a children’s radio series that was broadcasting on the Third Program of the Greek Radio from 1976 to 1980, under the direction of Manos Hadjidakis. It was described as a bold initiative and was highly praised for its musical compositions and vivid lyrical content. Due to its underlying political metaphors and daring commentaries of the current affairs of that period, the then government along with popular media outlets accused Lilipoupoli of communist propaganda.