Athens Plus (plus one)

It is a happy coincidence that our newspaper’s first anniversary is a tiny footnote in the great event that is the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum. We knew, about a year ago, that the museum would be opening and that this would be a great addition to our city. What we did not know when we published our first edition was that this would be a year in which the whole world, too, would change. The economic crisis – the worst since 1930 – hit every country and every economy. Greece, with its own serious problems, was no exception. So Athens Plus took its first steps at a time when the ground was shaking.

For Greece, even more interesting times were to follow. In December, Athens and other major cities provided the stage for a dramatic new production of our frequent ritual of street violence. This time, the spark was a police officer’s shooting and killing of a teenager in Exarchia, a district of central Athens long given over to self-proclaimed anarchists and a meeting place for would-be revolutionaries. The cause was serious enough, but the response was a combination of inexplicable rage among protesting youths and inconceivable incompetence on the part of the government – which ordered police to keep out of the way of the protesters. For several days, protesters burned, vandalized and looted at will, creating a climate of insecurity that the government paid for dearly several months later in European parliamentary elections on June 7. By that time, another festering problem – that of illegal immigrants left to their own devices in central Athens – along with December’s breakdown of law and order, directed votes to the extreme right-wing LAOS party. Greece’s political scene now features an injured New Democracy party with a one-seat majority in Parliament; PASOK won the European Parliament poll but with fewer votes than in past elections (which would not be sufficient for a parliamentary majority in national elections); the leftist parties also lost votes; only the extreme right populists showed gains.

The country now finds itself in a deadlock. The economy, education sector, health and social security systems are desperately in need of reforms. But the government, even when it was stronger, showed no great desire to confront any group of organized voters. Now it is burdened by its razor thin majority, its poor showing in the European Parliament poll and by a series of scandals (the Vatopedi Monastery landswap that harmed state interests, the incompetence over the Siemens bribery investigation, former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis’s alleged bribe-taking). So we can expect even less desire for change.

The worsening debt and lack of competitiveness in the economy, along with all the social and political problems, can only get worse if they are not tackled head on. We are in for a rough time – which makes newspapers even more necessary. Let’s hope this time next year things will be better for all. Meanwhile, see you next Friday.

Milestones & Footnotes in AthensPlus, 19 June, 2009

Sinking in the status quo

Nothing highlights the shortsightedness of those who govern Greece more than the disaster of our pension system. It reads like the script of a horror movie: workers and employers pay exorbitant health and pension dues, which, along with huge state subsidies, are so badly mismanaged that Greeks have pathetic state health and education systems; this forces them to pay out of their pockets for medical treatment and tuition. When half the money paid in salaries does not go into workers’ pockets (but into social security dues and taxes), then much less goes into investments and consumption – two of the driving forces of employment.

Not only are workers and their employers being bilked for substandard services, draining funds from the private sector, but the system also places endless demands on the state through subsidized services and the payment of deficits run up by security funds and hospitals. This adds to the country’s debt burden and draws an increasing amount of money away from infrastructure, social services and other foundations of a modern society.

As if this were not bad enough, a rapidly aging population multiplies the effects of the collapsing social security system. Fewer and fewer people enter the labor force, which means that not only will they have to pay intolerable amounts in dues and taxes, but these payments will not be enough to cover the pensions and medical needs of people who are already in retirement. As time passes, it appears increasingly unlikely that younger people will be able to expect pensions and other benefits when they reach retirement age. In 2050, close to 60 percent of the population will be over 65. Who will do the work? With the drain on public coffers, it is extremely difficult for the state to provide the tax breaks, subsidies, and so on, that could encourage families to have more than one or two children.

The social security system is also grossly unfair. Most workers and pensioners are covered by the Social Security Foundation (IKA), by far the largest state fund among scores of minnows. People on IKA pay high dues but receive the lowest benefits. They are also excluded from the system of one-off retirement packages – which can come to 200,000 euros, in addition to a pension. These inequalities are unjust not only to those being shortchanged now but also undermine the whole system for future pensioners.

Given these factors, one would expect that the whole nation would be mobilizing to solve the problem. But any government’s attempt to reform the social security system is met with a universal uproar. Trade unions, opposition parties (even dissidents in the ruling party), workers, professional associations, anarchists, and so on, unite in rare agreement that nothing must be done to disturb the status quo. Virulent protests greet any attempt to consolidate and decrease the large and grossly inefficient number of funds, to increase the retirement age or to raise dues. Everyone agrees that the government should just keep footing the bill. The truth is that feckless politicians and institutional mismanagement – not the size of workers’ contributions nor their retirement age – are mostly to blame for the system’s woes. But with minimal effort going into reforming the system, none of the problems are solved.

The fear of protests has kept this government’s reform effort at a minimum. It appears it has learned the lesson of Costas Simitis’s PASOK government which froze and abandoned all effort to govern when party dissidents and unionists derailed an effort at serious social security reform in 2001. The pension system is still standing because of changes instituted by a highly unpopular New Democracy government in the early ’90s. At that time, thousands of protesters were in the streets every day. Now every opponent of change wants to maintain the status quo that arose from that reform. The irony is nice – but that won’t help save pension funds nor keep the state from going bankrupt. Then, which status quo will everyone want to protect?

Editorial in Athens Plus, 12 June, 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

School for scandal

The past week has been something of a fire sale in terms of getting long-simmering scandals out of the way as the country heads for European Parliament elections in a month’s time. There was the vote early Tuesday on whether to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the allegation that former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis extorted money from a shipowner; on Thursday, Parliament debated the Siemens bribery scandal; in the early hours of Friday morning, Parliament was to vote on whether to hold an inquiry into how Pavlidis awarded lucrative subsidized contracts for ferries serving remote islands.

Three debates and three after-midnight votes in five days had MPs feeling something like priests during Holy Week: exhausted by an excess of what they usually do in carefully measured doses. Holy Week, however, culminates in the annual, symbolic resurrection of Christ, with its message of hope for humankind. The Passions of our Parliament offer no such hope of redemption, culminating as they do in nothing more than confirmation that our political system is an empty ritual devoid of any meaning or any hope that our politicians will be held accountable for failure or mendacity. It’s a refresher course in cynicism.

After years of practice, every wing in the Parliament played its role in the ritual to perfection. The government – whichever of the two main parties is in power – professes to pursue truth but has to allow some higher principle to get in the way of the parliamentary process. New Democracy had two arguments this time: that Pavlidis had been cleared by an earlier inquiry (by a committee on which ND was in the majority) and, with regard to the Siemens scandal, that the issue was still being investigated by the judiciary and so should not have been sent to Parliament at this stage. The opposition parties, in self-righteous frenzy as always, portrayed themselves as paragons of virtue who need only be voted into office to clean up politics once and for all. The smaller the party and the less chance it has of ever being in power, the more unequivocal it is in its demand to “hang the bastards.”

This time, though, the stakes were higher than usual. The government, with 151 members in the 300-seat Parliament, is hostage to every single one of its MPs. Pavlidis had every reason to bring down the government if he appeared in danger of being abandoned by his party. Under the grotesque law on government ministers’ accountability, if this Parliament were dissolved without Pavlidis being indicted, then he would be free of all charges. So the government was obliged to give him a free ticket, whether it suspected him of wrongdoing or not and despite angry demands by some ND members that Pavlidis simply “do the right thing” and resign. Pavlidis, an old hand in politics, did nothing of the sort, knowing very well that the only way he could be lead to the gallows would be if he himself made things easy for the government.

Fearing that enough ND MPs would vote for an inquiry into Pavlidis, thereby giving the opposition motion a majority, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, was preparing himself for early national elections to coincide with the European Parliament poll. In the end, the motion did not get the necessary 151 votes, so the government will keep on its day-to-day struggle, not daring to tackle any of the very serious problems that the country faces in case it loses its one-seat majority.

The worst legacy of scandals that lead to loads of bluster but nothing else, though, is that the charade instills a sense of futility, anger and cynicism in citizens who see politicians making a mockery of justice. When their representatives are so shameless, how can we expect citizens to adopt a higher moral code? Any delay in subjecting politicians to the same justice as the rest of us is, very simply, an incitement to crime – in places high and low.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 8 May, 2009

Newspapers have a future

We are in the middle of an information revolution and one of the great ironies of our age is that newspapers are in danger of extinction – because they are seen as extraneous to our wired world – at precisely the moment that they are more necessary than ever.

The very overabundance of other information media, the spread of the Internet and digital communities, and the economic crisis make it imperative to have serious investigation and analysis of a world with no certainties.

Until now, only newspapers (with educated and experienced journalists) have appeared capable of providing such a service.

Newspaper people – with a combination of narcissism, fatalism and rubber-necking – each day record the minutiae of their profession’s woes. Reading newspapers, one would believe that their demise is a matter of just a few years if not months.

Indeed, the chronicles of newspaper deaths are impressive.

Great newspapers in the United States have closed or are in danger of closing.

Just last Friday we read that Britain’s Independent and Independent on Sunday are headed toward sale or slaughter because of debts that exceed 1 billion euros (so, of course, no one will want to buy them).

The great New York Times and Washington Post are firing people and trying to cut costs in whichever way they can.

In this climate of uncertainty, the 10th annual European Newspaper Congress in Vienna last week provided an opportunity to discuss the challenges that newspapers face and proposals for their future.

We went expecting obituaries and lame jokes about rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Instead, for two days, press people from many countries discussed their problems with great seriousness but also with optimism, exchanging ideas as to how newspapers can make the great leap forward.

Whether world-famous gurus of design, such as Mario Garcia and Juan Antonio Giner, media analysts or editors of newspapers large and small (for sale and free), everyone was part of a single world with common problems: Newspapers are precious but expensive products that will have to embrace the possibilities provided by new technologies and not sink under the weight of inertia or the waves caused by the competition. One conclusion that everyone appeared to share was that design and reorganization of content can renew an existing newspaper and attract readers who have grown up using the Internet, mobile phones, Twitter, and so on. As Garcia noted, “in 2012, people who have no recollection of life before Google or the Internet will turn 21.” For Garcia, the newspaper is now one with its online edition, mobile services, messages etc. “You are news people, not newspaper people,” he told the audience in Vienna City Hall’s grand ballroom. He explained that journalists have to review their content according to the medium that they will use to get it to the public, as what works in print may not work online, and vice versa. “Invest in the Internet,” he advised. “And nurture your weekend print editions.”

In this new world, journalists work for their newspaper’s print and online editions and they adapt their work according to the medium. Design plays a great role in attracting readers – people who will pay for something that they can ostensibly get for free on the Internet or in free papers. But, as all speakers noted or took for granted, the greatest weapon that newspapers have is serious journalism – not with news that will already be known via electronic media, but through the analyses, investigations and commentary which will give a particular newspaper’s readers an advantage.

The crisis will pass. The need for good information is permanent. The challenge for newspapers is not to be first with the news but to be the best at what they do with it in terms of analysis and getting the big story right. The best newspapers will survive.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 4 May, 2009

We are what we eat

The Greeks’ relationship with the Cretan diet, as the Mediterranean diet could also be termed, is typical of their relationship with their country’s culture and its natural and architectural beauty: In less than two generations we have managed to squander the wealth that was refined by centuries – if not millennia – of acquired wisdom. In the past five decades we have seen our old way of life destroyed, the cobbled paths of villages bulldozed into dust, coastlines covered in cement, rivers and ravines poisoned by garbage, towns and villages stripped of green and smothered by cars. So is it any wonder that we would violate the very foundations of our lifestyle – our diet?

We are fortunate that we can still enjoy the benefits of a long tradition of healthy eating, thanks to the momentum that drives most Greeks to seek out quality in what they consume. People who have grown up eating the oily “magirefta” foods, such as lentils etc, which their mothers and grandmothers cooked, will be more likely to select them when the opportunity arises than will the children who are growing up on a staple of red meat, fried potatoes and a range of other foods that are overwhelmingly rich in calories and which lead to obesity and ill health.

Here we see the dangerous confluence of tradition with the its breakdown: The older generation – today’s grandmothers – who grew up during the long years of deprivation want to make sure that their darlings are getting plenty to eat; but what they eat today is not what they would have been eating yesterday, when fast-food outlets and processed foods were not an option. Lifestyles also changed along with our diet. The majority of Greeks no longer live in the countryside and, of those who do, fewer of them are involved in agriculture. And even farmers have pickup trucks and mechanical equipment that save them from long walks and heavy lifting. The result: People who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were at a comparable age are also overindulging in food, cigarettes and drinks.

From a hard life that was forced on them by their hard land, the Greeks went straight to the luxuries that their grandparents would never have imagined. With the serious lack of organized (and mandatory) school sports, very few children build up the physiques and the character to help them cope with their future sedentary lifestyles. And so we became a nation of “soft people,” the “malthakoi” that the ancient Greeks so abhorred. Prizing a sound mind in a sound body, they would surely have been horrified to see the modern Greeks surrender to the excesses of the good life. In fact, they would probably have blamed the country’s many ills on the fact that citizens had given up the rigors of physical and mental exercise and were allowing their children to grow up fat and idle.

Fortunately, the healthy solution is at our fingertips. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil and the other features of the Cretan diet are all readily available year-round and are still cheaper than most other options. Clever businessmen understand that people want to eat healthy food but may not always have the time to cook, so even some fast-food franchises tailor their menus to reflect this. What we need now is for even cleverer people to marry the beneficial ingredients of the Cretan diet with our changing lifestyle, creating ready-to-eat meals that are actually good for us. But perhaps the most effective way to get Greeks to eat right is to force school canteens to carry only healthy food, not their greasy, sweet or highly processed fare. As all the healthy ingredients are produced in Greece, we will attain healthier bodies as well as a healthier economy: Not only will we import less, but a successful brand of healthy food would be a great product to export.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009

Math delusion

Easter is over, but the government is still tottering under the burden of a cross formed by the scandals that it must handle, the economy’s death spiral and the fact that it has a one-seat majority in Parliament. But even as the nation – both audience and protagonist in this sad act – is consumed by the spectacle, the dark clouds gathering above its head are a far more serious threat than Costas Karamanlis’s Calvary.
The clouds come in the form of numbers – merciless economic data from which there can be no escape, where faith in resurrection will not suffice. The country is in very serious trouble. On Wednesday alone, a host of economic figures showed how deep a hole we have dug ourselves into. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical service, confirmed that Greece’s 2008 budget deficit was 5 percent, way above the government’s figure of 3.7 percent – which was already above the eurozone’s 3-percent excessive deficit threshold. Also, the International Monetary Fund announced that it expects Greece’s gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by 0.2 percent this year and a further 0.6 percent in 2010; unemployment is expected to rise from 7.6 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2009, to 10.5 percent 2010 – which means 143,000 more people unemployed. At the same time, the Bank of Greece announced that receipts from tourism in the first two months of the year were down 20.2 percent from the previous year. These are the most official figures we have had so far, with tourism sector officials estimating that visits and revenues may drop between 10 and 20 percent this year. Also, receipts from shipping fell by 25 percent in January-February. As tourism accounts for about 18 percent of GDP and employs one in five workers, we can imagine what a 10-20 percent drop means. At the same time, the government’s loan-servicing expenditures rocketed from 33.1 million euros last year to 527.2 million in January and February.
As a measure of how big these figures are, the government’s desperate one-off extra tax levied on people earning more than 60,000 euros annually and the freeze on civil service salaries is expected to net under 300 million euros. So the question is very simple: With our deficits and debt greater than expected, with our loan requirements and expenses growing, with fewer people in our work force and with fewer revenues from tourism, shipping and taxes, how on earth are we going to meet our financial obligations as a country?
This is not a philosophical question; it’s a matter of simple math. Thinking that we can carry on as we have so far – with strikes shutting down our ancient sites and museums, with youths burning the city center as a rite of passage, with various closed-shop professions feeding off  the efforts of others – will only drive tourists away and lead to a brain drain, cutting our productivity and revenues even further. Thinking that we can just ride out this storm is a mass delusion of national proportions.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009

The paper napkin

The government’s efforts to find a way to narrow the ever-widening deficits are like a nightmare in which an unfortunate soul tries to cover his nakedness with a paper napkin that keeps getting smaller. We need only look at the figures that were made public on Wednesday – a truly black Wednesday for our economy – to see the truth of this. Eurostat announced that Greece’s public deficit in 2008 came to 5 percent of gross domestic product, or 12.29 billion euros (an amount that the government reached on its fifth revision). On the same day, the International Monetary Fund forecast that Greece’s GDP would shrink by 0.2 percent this year and by another 0.6 percent in 2010, while unemployment would climb from 7.6 percent in 2008 to 10.5 percent in 2010 (an increase of 143,000 jobless).

In other words, in order to bring the budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP in 2010, as required by the European Commission, the government will have to increase revenues by 5 billion euros. But Bank of Greece figures show just how difficult a task this will be: Revenues from tourism were down 20.2 percent in the first two months of the year, while shipping revenues were down 25 percent over the same period. Higher unemployment, a market starved of cash, coupled with reduced consumption and construction all lead to lower revenues at a time when costs (especially those of borrowing and servicing debt) keep growing.

So how will the deficit be covered? After a one-off tax levied on high-wage earners, the government is now thinking of raising their tax rate from 40 to 45 percent. Taxing people who already shoulder the heaviest burden highlights the government’s inadequacy. For first it admits that it had no idea where the deficit was heading, then it does not dare take on the black economy and the economy’s many real problems. The country’s tragedy is that neither the government nor the opposition parties care about real economic reforms. They prefer to fight over the ragged napkin…

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 April, 2009

The Greeks’ migrations

The history of the Greeks is an endless river that springs up from the depths of central Asia and acquires a homeland at the bottom of the Balkan peninsula, across the Aegean and in Asia Minor. From there, like blood pumped by a powerful heart, Greeks spread out across the world. The fate of their homeland – the prosperity or hardships of little Greece – always determined the emigration or return of its children. After they conquered the area we now know as Greece, the Greek tribes quickly expanded – either through the creation of colonies around the Mediterranean and Black seas or through war (such as the Trojan War and Alexander’s conquests), or through trade. The lack of arable land and shortage of other natural riches forced the Greeks to become seafarers, mercenaries and merchants. They learned the art of survival far from friends and family – they became the first cosmopolitans, the first global citizens.  As adventurers, they opened roads and created Greek settlements, large and small, everywhere – from the deserts of the ancient Middle East to the suburbs of Melbourne.
The past century saw great developments in the Greeks’ migrations, an epic that has still not found its poet. With the opening up of the “new world” of the Americas, Oceania and Africa, hundreds of thousands of Greeks left their villages in search of a better life. They took root far from their homeland, creating new hearths of Hellenism far from the familiar coasts of the seas near Greece. But the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the persecution of the Greeks of Turkey and Stalin’s deportation of Greeks from the Crimea and the Caucasus, pushed Greeks deep into central Asia again – but also resulted in more than a million coming to Greece. This new blood (rich with the experience, wealth and inventiveness that Greeks acquire when the live abroad), strengthened the anemic Greek state, which only found its current form after World War II. At the same time, hunger and the stifling horizons of post-war Greece pushed tens of thousand of young Greeks to leave for Australia, Germany, Belgium and other countries in search of hope and prosperity. Also, many students who studied abroad realized that only outside Greece could they fulfill their expectations, that only as emigrants would they be judged according to their merit and be paid according to their worth. With the billions of euros that flowed into Greece from the European Union, it was no longer poverty that forced the more restless, the more daring Greeks to seek their fate elsewhere. Now it was the lack of opportunity and the thirst for knowledge that inspired the descendants of ancient mariners to migrate.
In the past few years, things have changed once again. Instead of poor Greeks leaving, poor foreigners are coming to Greece while it is the Greeks with the education and means to do so who have been seeking their fortune elsewhere. The foreign immigrants gave new life to Greece’s countryside, propped up the social security funds and helped complete major construction projects.
Now the global economic crisis is laying bare all the problems of Greece. In addition to the dysfunctional  social, educational and political systems, our economic problems can no longer be hidden behind borrowed prosperity. The lack of competitiveness (for which Greek workers are the least to blame) and debt are undermining the future. The problems faced by other countries are leading to a drop in tourism: the money that we were used to waiting for will not be coming, we will have to seek it elsewhere.
The solution for Greeks has always been to look beyond their country’s limits. The Balkans, the Arab states, Russia and Turkey were always favored areas for trade and settlement. In these regions the Greek presence has withered or disappeared, but the past acts like a beachhead for the future. Greek communities in foreign lands – as well as isolated professors, students, contract workers, sailors and entrepreneurs – are like firm stepping stones in history’s river. They show that for those who dare, home is not just the hard and beautiful country of their birth or ancestry, but the Earth itself.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 13 April 2009

Shot in the foot

Last Thursday, April 2, the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies met among the ruins of the global economic order to seek consensus on how to deal with the crisis and what steps to take toward the foundation of a new international system. The meeting – which was also Barack Obama’s first foreign sojourn since his election as US president – was an historic event both because of its timing but also because the leaders of very different nations set aside their differences and worked toward a compromise. Irrespective of whether decisive steps come out of the London Summit, it comes at the end of one era and the beginning of another.
On the same day, central Athens was blocked to traffic by an ongoing protest by textile workers who had encamped on Syntagma Square days earlier. Also, as the major labor federations had called a 24-hour strike to protest against the global economic crisis, demonstrations made the center a no-go area – unless one wanted to spend hours stuck in traffic.
So, both inside and outside Greece, Thursday, April 2, 2009 was a day of major import to the Greek public, whether one wanted to know where the world was going or whether one should dare go to central Athens.
But, this being Greece, no one in the public could learn anything about the world or his or her own city – because the journalists’ national federation suddenly called a 24-hour strike to coincide with that of the other labor federations. In a triumph of stupidity that would surely rank as a chapter in a textbook on journalism if the subject of public enlightenment were ever taken seriously in Greece, journalists managed to cast a mantle of darkness over their readers, viewers and listeners on precisely the day that the public needed the best possible information on global and local events. In this way, journalists stressed both how important their work is and how incompetent they are in evaluating its importance. They also highlighted their own irrelevance: People who cared about international developments could read all about them on international news sites or watch foreign television channels, whereas, locally, several news sites and blogs not affiliated with professional publishers were able to keep chattering away.
The journalists’ unionists must have been very proud of themselves because of the success of the blackout they imposed on an already benighted population. For years they have shown an impressive immunity to the painful truths and mortal challenges that their profession faces. As the global and local economic crisis hits mainstream journalism at its heart – advertising and circulation – the journalists’ only weapon is to prove every day how necessary they are for a well-informed public. It is madness to point members of the public to other sources that do nothing to put bread on publishers’ or journalists’ tables. Pulling the switch on information at a time of such crisis is like picketing our own funeral.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 10 April 2009