Witnessing the Crisis

Like any media event, the Greek debt “crisis” has proved a watershed moment in the transformation of media practices and ideologies. Indeed, the crisis constitutes as much a crisis of representation, political and discursive, as anything else.

The financial crisis exposed the shaky ground—more like quicksand—of loans, government monies, tax breaks and kickbacks on which the bloated media system had been resting, as well as the abominable working conditions of journalists, photographers, cameramen and other employees in the mass media who have lost their jobs in great numbers since the crisis began. Most glaringly, though, the bankruptcy of political culture has become synonymous with the bankruptcy of the media system. Concentrated in the hands of a few powerful ship owners, construction magnates and other businessmen who can afford to take on these loss-making enterprises in order to influence public opinion, the Greek media it has been charged do not so much “work” for the government, as the other way around (i.e., by consistently bestowing government contracts on the economic elite controlling the media, promoting neoliberal policies in their interest, etc.). Thus, a 2006 cable from the American Embassy on “How to Read the Greek Press: A Guide for the Uninitiated” recently made available on WikiLeaks, despite its patronizing Orientalist “humor” and, of course, the fact that it testifies to blatant U.S. meddling in local affairs, was received as a kind of outside confirmation of the situation. Things have gotten to the point that the familiar protest slogan Cops, Pigs, Murderers (Batsoi, Gourounia, Dolofonoi) has been twinned with Bums, Rats, Journalists (Alites, Roufianoi, Dimosiografoi), an old anarchist slogan, which became a favorite among the more populist, “patriotic” Aganaktismenoi(Indignants) of the “upper” part of Athens’ Syntagma Square at rallies in the early summer of 2011.

At the same time that Greek mass media is undergoing this scathing critique by large segments of Greek society, a new media landscape has been establishing itself on the internet, providing many options for following breaking news, whether live streaming of people’s assemblies in the squares, independent web-based news media outlets, blogged updates in English and other languages that expose state violence to an international audience, or twitter feeds (during the crisis, certain“twitterers” have emerged as on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute commentators). Given that transmission technologies are also recording technologies, the internet inevitably has become an ever-growing, open-access archive of documentary images and videos from particular incidents, such as the vicious police crackdown of the June 29th protests against the passage of the midterm austerity program.

Resonant counter-images, such as those of Athenian “riot dogs,” which have circulated virally on YouTube, have also been inscribed into this sprawling archive. A just slightly after-the-fact aggregatingstorifyingchirpstory procedure enables the ephemeral tweets and blog posts of the day to be composed into multi-perspective news briefs, while new media, open-access internet-only “press projects” have attempted to assemble multi-media sources: from critical blog posts and documentaries to live feeds.

A notable media phenomenon that emerged in this context is the 2011 Debtocracy, “the first Greek documentary produced by the audience.” Filmed on a shoestring budget, the documentary was (re)paid through post factum contributions from viewers, thus, circumventing reliance on funders and the various forms of (self-) censorship such relationships so often entail. The film, which was directed by journalists Aris Hatzistefanou—who was fired from his job at one of Greece’s major (ship owner-controlled) radio stations for political reasons just two days before the film was aired—and Katerina Kitidi, challenges dominant explanations of the causes of the debt crisis, as well as the legitimacy of the debt itself (through the notion of “odious debt”). Made freely available as a download via the film’s website and YouTube, the documentary (in Greek but with subtitles in six other languages including English), reached a half million views within a few days. Contrary to the idea that high-tech media forms are inaccessible to the broader public, the documentary, in addition to being watched on computer via broadband, was viewed in any number of more “conventional” ways: screened throughout Greece and abroad in public squares during protests, at universities and in local cultural centers, but also burned onto DVDs and watched on home television sets in remote villages.

Another genre that has been assaulting the hegemonic media narrative is that of political satire, which has been thriving in the crisis. Prominent and central to this form is the media remix: the incessant, entirely irreverent re-take on news footage, which is “augmented” and overlaid with other voices and images, brazenly spoken over with ironic counter-commentary, and insistently re-membered, as notorious “promises” and “red lines” (in terms of cuts and concessions) are replayed via “time machine.” While these practices are rampant on the web, actor Lakis Lazopoulos’ television show Al Tsadiri News (a not-so-politically-correct play on Al-Jazeera and the “shack” (tsadiri) of the gypsy) has developed a tremendous following (as well as many critics of his populism and didacticism) for relentlessly ripping through and remediating the whole televisual media flow from celebrity gossip to global news, often opening an extra “window” (parathiro) in re-run news footage to talk back to the “box” (on the box).

With the growing dissent over austerity measures, state violence has been directed not only toward the bodies of protestors, but also to their cameras. There have been many incidents of physical violence against journalists, including representatives of the mainstream Greek media, but also foreign journalists, which have led in some cases to debilitating injuries.  Reflecting a belated appreciation for the growing credibility and comprehensiveness of citizen journalism and commentary on the web, but also a total ignorance of how it all works, the government has even proposed legislation to ban anonymity on blogs. Justifying this legislation, the justice minister remarkably stated that the internet should cease to host koukouloforoi (literally, the “hooded ones”), thus likening blog posts to Molotov cocktails thrown by masked protestors at rallies and, by using this particular term, extending the old technique of criminalizing and de-politicizing dissent from the streets to the web. A few weeks later, a tongue-in-cheek blog post “reported” on a proposed 0.03 euro tax on comments to blogs (except anonymous ones!), along the lines of the highly disputed property tax linked to electricity (bills): those who do not pay the blog comment tax can expect to lose their internet connection.

This new digital news mediascape I’ve been describing did not emerge fully formed in response to the debt crisis, but has been some years in the making—one could say it’s been maturing since December 2008. Less often discussed as a media event, the 2008 revolt has at its core a classic case of citizen counter-surveillance. On December 6, 2008, a woman on her balcony in the politicized Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia happened to witness the gunning down of 15-year old Alexis Grigoropoulos by the police, capturing it on a video that was quickly uploaded to the independent news portal Athens Indymedia. Later, this video would enter the televisual flow, but first in a doctored form.

Specifically, MEGA channel broadcast a video in which sounds of conflict were layered into the soundtrack making it seem that the policeman were reacting in defense, rather than initiating the violence. The significant thing to note is that this tampering was criticized heavily in the blogosphere and ultimately did not succeed in convincing the public that “Alexis” was a delinquent youth who got what was coming to him. Minutes after the murder, information began to be shared on twitter and a new social-political collectivity was called into being by way of the address to a yet unknown “you”: “Come down (to the streets)” (Kateveite kato). The networks formed through the use of thehashtag #griots (g[reek]riots), not to mention the countless Facebook memorial pages, YouTube videos, Indymedia posts, uploads to Flickr, blogs, SMS and pirate radio, played an unprecedented role in the actualization, but also the narration, of the revolt. (In retrospect, a notable precursor, which did not however have a direct continuation, was the 2007 protest in Syntagma Square after the devastating fires on Mt. Parnitha, organized via signature-less SMS.) As is so often the case in media events, the actual referent of these messages and images is less significant than the lines of connection forged. Instead of seeking after the meaning of the revolt in a manifesto (though there have been many analyses), one might look at what this decentralized, non-hierarchical, flexible, self-conscious, non-dogmatic net-working and news-filtering is saying about the possibilities of another mode of representation. Turning to the current debt crisis, one finds that many people active in blogging or digital news-gathering collectives point to the formative days of December 2008, or even self-identify as members of the “Generation of December,” when they speak of their practice.  

In thinking about digital media reporting in the context of the debt crisis, perhaps the most important thing to note is not that we can discover in it a counter-narrative to events (not that this isn’t also the case), but that the very notion of the event and our relation to it has been transformed. If the representation of events doesn’t really have to do with what is depicted on the screen (actually look at the video of Grigoropoulos’s murder): what is at stake is the gesture of witnessing—the burden and the responsibility: which is to say, the redefinition of citizenship.

Thus, it is quite misleading to think about the newsfeeds coursing through twitter hashtags—such as #m15gr (the “Greek” response to the May 15th Spanish Indignados), #25mgr (the beginning of the Greek Aganaktismenoi), #greekrevolution, #19ogr/#20ogr (for the October 19th-20th 48-hour national strike) or #rbnews (the citizen journalism feed of the Internet “radiobubble” collective)—as simply alternative, leftist news sources based on amateur, but independent, reporting. Certainly, these reports expose much that is hidden in mass media discourse. It is also fascinating how through the collective mind of the wiki false information (or disinformation) is culled out very efficiently. What is crucial though is a fundamental shift in perspective—from the hotel balcony to the streets—that implies not just a “closer” and “realer” (though “untrained”) view on events, but also a fundamentally different commitment. This is not just a matter of hierarchies of journalistic truth and quality. What is happening is that reporting—looking (not watching), recording, re-viewing, re-membering, critiquing, commenting, empathizing and generally caring about what is going on around you—has become a profound act of engaged citizenship.

Penelope Papailias teaches anthropology at the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology at the University of Thessaly in Greece. She has written an ethnography of historical production in Greece, entitled Genres of Recollection: Archival Poetics and Modern Greece. She currently is working on an ethnography of the media event, as well as on digital citizenship and social media networks in crisis Greece.