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Friday, April 16, 2004


Democracy: The Reality Show

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the Greek and Greek Cypriot media coverage of the April 24 referendum has been to witness how quickly democracy falls victim to fear-mongering and contrived hysteria, often clearly racist. If the American media celebrate consensus, the Greek media wallow in contention. And if the American media, even in their role as “critics” of a particular administration, serve as bipartisan integrationists and unifiers, the Greek media, even when they’re willing to consider the merits of democratic difference, are organs of partisan rancor, systemic conflict, and political unilateralism. The advantage to a partisan press, of course, is that it concentrates and channels opposition, without which democracy cannot function. This was well-known in the US during most of the Republic’s history, but was forgotten in the postwar ideological settlement that established the Cold War, security-state consensus. Thus, at a time when George W. Bush is pushing the envelope of fundamental(ist) constitutional revision, more and more Americans are finally waking up (admittedly in a cold sweat) to the ancient virtues of democratic partisanship.

On the other hand, in a society given to an almost innate sense of despair, victimization, and, yes, tragedy (very, very different from America’s self-image), partisanship invariably leads to a conspiratorial view of the world, to an even more acute sense of persecution, and, worst of all, to that distinctive malaise of all ancient and, therefore by definition, “fallen” peoples: a heightened sense of superiority leavened by an even sharper sense of imperial loss and even decadence at the hands of the new — and invariably “barbarian” — rulers.

It is a commonplace of linguistics that a language is a dialect with a flag and an army. The president of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, in “explaining” his opposition to the Annan plan told his fellow ethnics that, as he had “received a state,” he had no intention of “handing over a community.” What does it mean to “receive a state,” however? Apparently, mostly exercising arbitrary political authority verging on repression. I quote from a report by Judy Dempsey (“EU hits at perceived ban from Greek Cypriot TV”) in the Financial Times of April 20:

Top European Union and United Nations officials are being prevented from giving interviews to Greek Cypriot television before Saturday’s crucial referendum on a UN peace plan for ending the division of the island, according to EU officials.

The officials said state and private Greek Cypriot channels were refusing to carry interviews by Günter Verheugen, the enlargement commissioner, who has steered Cyprus over the past five years through difficult negotiations to be ready to join the EU on May 1.

They said the television stations were also preventing Alvaro de Soto, UN special envoy to Cyprus, from giving interviews. His scheduled appearance on CyBC [Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation], the state broadcasting channel, last week was cancelled.

The Cypriot government yesterday denied censorship. “The government categorically states that it had never intervened, nor does it intend to intervene in any way. This would be against the freedom of expression which the government fully respects and upholds,” said a spokesman.

Commission officials, however, insisted Mr. Verheugen was not being allowed to appear on television.

The actions of this so-called “state” convict themselves and need no further judgment from me; if nothing else, they bespeak the profound degradation to which communities are prone when they promote themselves to (ill-considered) statehood. What is most interesting — and chilling — in Ms. Dempsey’s report, however, is the fact that the stations practicing this egregious censorship were not limited to the state broadcaster but included private channels.

Thus do democracies commit suicide, as the Volksseele censors and represses itself. What is most astounding about what has been happening in Cyprus during the last three weeks is that it is all ostensibly part of the process of Cypriot accession to the European Union. One journalist recently authored a column in the Cyprus Mail, an English-language daily, in which he wrote that, “In the highly likely event that the No vote wins…we will become the first police state to become a full member of the EU” (“Triumph of the will,” April 18). While there is much tongue in the cheek of this particular commentator, the question is inescapable: Have the Greek Cypriots even begun to understand how nasty (and frightening) they look to a democratic continent that thought of them all these years as victims but now is getting a particularly ugly — and unrelenting — picture of them as victimizers?

Meanwhile, the Greek media have circled the wagons in their uniquely paranoid fashion to support the “democratic right” of the Greek Cypriots to engage in the most outrageous and openly racist demagoguery regarding the future of their country. As writes in its editorial (see “Cyprus Against Europe”), while Mr. Papadopoulos has accused the UN of fostering ethnic cleansing through its peace plan, it is apparently Mr. Papadopoulos and his ilk who cannot stomach the thought of another ethnic community besides that of the Greeks daring to call Cyprus home. The racism among the Greek Cypriot rejectionists is as palpable as it is repulsive — and, yet, the Greek press continues to jabber away about the Greek Cypriots’ rights, as if the “right” to impose a prejudicial constitution and second-class citizenship on an ethnic minority is the foundation-stone of a majority’s “self-determination.”

As Europe watches this sad and thoroughly unedifying sight, of course, its collective jaw drops in disbelief verging on disgust. The president of the European parliament, Pat Cox, has referred to the Greek Cypriot “no” campaign as “an unwholesome spectacle”; Günter Verheugen, the EU commissioner who has been singled out for particular demonization by Greek Cypriots, has charged that “never before in the history of the European Commission has a member of the European Commission been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of a member state.” And all this Greek Cypriot calumny and disinformation is being perpetrated in the name of democracy and self-determination. Is it any wonder that Turkish Cypriots have claimed for decades that they could not trust their Greek interlocutors?

Never has the lack of genuinely independent media in Greece and Greek Cyprus been put in starker relief, and never has there been clearer confirmation that private ownership is, in itself, a fraudulent guarantee of independence. Clearly, in Greece and Cyprus, as everywhere else in the world, independence means the ability to engage, contest, and more than occasionally repudiate the majority. Greece and Cyprus are both cultures, however, in which civic patriotism is still considered a strategy of national subversion and liquidation. Cyprus, after all, was led to (its wretched) “sovereignty” by an “ethnarch” who, almost two decades before the Islamic republic of Iran, combined in his person the dual offices of chief of state and ultimate religious (in this case Orthodox Christian) authority.

Under these conditions, it should not surprise that the current president of Cyprus sees no contradiction between, on the one hand, joining a union of nations in which freedom of individual movement is the most fundamental right and, on the other hand, trying to suppress all freedom of movement in his own country for those he considers to be fundamentally “alien.” (Then again, Mr. Papadopoulos’s political perspectives undoubtedly owe more than is decent to those mythologies of Serbian “resistance” that were so puissant in the Orthodox world a decade ago.)

The good news is that Günter Verheugen finally got a chance to speak on the Cypriot public broadcasting network. It wasn’t television, of course, but, rather, the second station of Cypriot public radio. Still, Mr. Verheugen was grateful for tender mercies; as he put it so piquantly to his radio interviewer: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity because not everyone in Cyprus does that nowadays.” The bad news, however, is that most Greek Cypriots still could care less about what Mr. Verheugen has to say. Mr. Verheugen may have spent five years of his life trying to get Cyprus into the European Union, but now that the Greek Cypriots are in, they don’t intend to look back. After all, they’re a full-fledged “state” — and they’ve proved it every day for the last few weeks by pulling the media plug whenever, and on whomever, they want.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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