Freedom in the World
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Greece received a downward trend arrow due to countrywide riots in December that posed a serious threat to the general population and to economic activities, as well as the inability of the government and security forces to control the situation.
Violent protests triggered by the police shooting of a 15-year-old caused major disruptions and destroyed businesses in December. The unrest followed a national strike called by civil servants in March to protest against proposed pension reforms, though the changes were eventually passed by Parliament.
The core of modern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The ensuing century brought additional territorial gains at the Ottomans’ expense, as well as domestic political struggles between royalists and republicans. Communist and royalist partisans mounted a strong resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II, but national solidarity broke down in the early postwar period, when royalists won national elections and eventually defeated the Communists in a civil war. In 1967, a group of army officers staged a military coup, suspending elections and arresting hundreds of political activists. A referendum in 1974 rejected the restoration of the monarchy, and a new constitution in 1975 declared Greece a parliamentary republic.
The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) governed the country from 1981 to 2004, except for a brief period from 1990 to 1993, when the conservative New Democracy party held power. New Democracy returned to power in the 2004 elections and won another term in September 2007, though it captured only 152 seats, 13 fewer than in 2004. PASOK also lost support in 2007, securing 102 seats. The Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), a nationalist and xenophobic party, won 10 seats, entering Parliament for the first time. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) took 22 seats, and the Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos) won 14.
Civil servants staged a national strike in March 2008 in an effort to block a pension reform bill. The measure, which was eventually approved, was expected to encourage retiring workers to stay in the workforce and merge pension funds to cut operating costs. The protests significantly disrupted public transportation and led to the closing of schools and some public offices.
The country was shaken again in December, when the police shooting of a 15-year-old triggered violent protests led primarily by university students. The protests, which were the worst in decades and caused considerable damage in Athens and other cities, were believed to have been fueled by latent contempt for the police as well as a sense of social injustice and the long-standing problem of corruption in everyday life.
Also during the year, Greece continued to grapple with Macedonia over the latter country’s name, which was shared by an adjacent region in Greece. At a NATO summit in April, Greece blocked Macedonia’s bid to join the alliance.
Greece is an electoral democracy. All 300 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected by proportional representation. The largely ceremonial president is elected by a supermajority of Parliament for a five-year term. The current president, Karolos Papoulias of PASOK, was elected unopposed in 2005. The prime minister is chosen by the president and is usually the leader of the majority party in Parliament; the current prime minister is Konstandinos Karamanlis of the New Democracy party. Five parties won seats in Parliament in 2007: the center-left PASOK, the conservative New Democracy, the leftist KKE and Synaspismos, and the far-right LAOS.
The country has generally fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, and a system of compulsory voting that is weakly enforced. Some representatives of the Romany community complain that certain municipalities have failed to register Roma who did not fulfill basic residency requirements.
Corruption continues to be a problem, particularly within the police forces. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, the police internal affairs unit took numerous actions against officers for various crimes, including forgery, pimping, and taking bribes, though overall investigations were weak and penalties were disproportionately lenient. In October 2008, a land exchange deal involving the Vatopedion monastery and the Hellenic Public Real Estate Corporation almost brought down the government and led to the resignation of two cabinet ministers. In addition, two judges were dismissed during the year on corruption-related charges. Greece was ranked 57 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution includes provisions for freedom of speech and the press, and citizens have access to a broad array of privately owned print and broadcast outlets. There are, however, some limits on speech that incites fear, violence, and public disharmony, as well as on publications that offend religious beliefs, are obscene, or advocate the violent overthrow of the political system.
During 2008 there were a number of events that undermined freedom of the press in the country. In one incident in October, four journalists from Macedonia were arrested while covering protests against a disputed army training site near the Greek-Macedonian border. In another case, a French photographer was arrested in July while taking pictures at a port for a story on immigration. Separately, a Greek journalist known for his investigative reports on corruption and human rights issues was attacked in the city of Lechaina in October.
A 2007 media law inhibits minority press freedom by mandating that the main transmission language of radio stations must be Greek. It also requires that radio stations keep a certain amount of money in reserve and hire a certain number of full-time staff, rules that placed a disproportionate burden on smaller, minority-owned stations. Internet access is not restricted in Greece.
While the constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice, the Orthodox Church is considered the “prevailing” denomination of the country, and it receives government subsidies. Members of some minority religions face social discrimination and legal barriers. For example, some groups have encountered legal restrictions on inheriting property, and “known” religious groups are required to obtain permits to open houses of worship. Proselytizing is prohibited, and consequently, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely arrested and have reported abuse by police officers. Anti-Semitism remains a problem in the country. In August 2008, a group of self-proclaimed Greek neo-Nazi students posted a video online of a man urinating on a Holocaust memorial on the island of Rhodes, with comments complaining about Jews. Until 2006, when approval for construction was granted, Athens had been the only European Union capital without a functioning mosque built for the purpose of worship. Academic freedom is not restricted in Greece.
The constitution allows for freedom of association, but there are limits on the freedom of groups representing ethnic minorities. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate without interference from the authorities. In some cases, domestic human rights groups receive government funding and assistance. Throughout 2008, NGOs and the media reported on police corruption more frequently compared to the previous year. The right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and generally protected by the government.
The constitution and laws provide workers with the right to join and form unions. Massive strikes by civil servants in March 2008 caused serious disruptions to public transportation and closed down schools and other public offices.
The judiciary is independent, and the constitution provides for public trials. Parliament in 2008 discussed a bill on the early voluntary retirement of judges to encourage greater turnover and reduce corruption, among other factors. The bill also provided clearer procedures for removing judges who are deemed incompetent. Under the Greek constitution, judges are appointed for life, with a mandatory retirement age of either 65 or 67, depending on their position. Human rights groups have raised concerns about the ill-treatment of asylum seekers by law enforcement officials, and prison overcrowding remains a problem. In November 2008, the Associated Press reported that more than half of the inmates in 21 out of the country’s 24 prisons were on a hunger strike to protest overcrowding and other poor conditions.
Despite government efforts to combat it, racial intolerance is still pervasive in society and is often expressed by public figures. The government does not officially recognize the existence of any non-Muslim ethnic minority groups, particularly Slavophones. Macedonian is not recognized as a language, and using the terms Turkos or Tourkikos (“Turk” and “Turkish,” respectively) in the title of an association is illegal and may lead to persecution. The Romany community continues to face considerable discrimination and a general denial of justice.
Immigrants are disproportionately affected by institutional problems in the judicial system. Bureaucratic delays force many into a semilegal status when they are not able to renew their documents, putting them in jeopardy of deportation. There were a number of cases of abusive treatment of immigrants in 2008. In one case reported in July, undocumented immigrants were held in unsanitary conditions on the island of Lesbos. In another, 140 war refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories were abandoned and forced to live on the streets on the island of Patmos. In September, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture made an ad hoc visit to Greece, the second of its kind since the regular visit in September 2005. The main focus was to view the conditions of those detained by law enforcement agencies, especially irregular immigrants held by police or border guards.
Women lack specific legislation to deal with domestic violence and face discrimination in the workplace. Following the 2007 elections, women held roughly one in six seats in Parliament. Trafficking in women and children for prostitution remains a problem, but the government has attempted to address the issue in recent years. The U.S. State Department ranked Greece as a Tier 2 country in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, noting that international NGOs continued to express concern about its practice of forcing victims to testify against their traffickers before they can receive protection.