By Maria Alafouzos
There is a cafe off Syntagma Square and it’s filled with people drinking coffee and speaking to each other in indoor tones. The smokers sit outside under outdoor heaters. Daylight is beginning to fade.
That same day, in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the CEO of Express Service was arrested because the roadside assistance firm allegedly owed 7.8 million euros to the IKA social security fund.
In Aghios Panteleimonas, near central Athens, the local parish began distributing pasta, olive oil and cheese to the homeless.
Hours earlier, in Holargos, north of Athens, a stolen car was driven through the window of a jewelry store. The intruders were not able to open the safe, so they fled the scene and ditched the car.
It's an ordinary day for Greece in the midst of its current economic woes: There is evidence of the crisis and the graft that led to it, but there is nothing profoundly devastating that would suggest the country is about to go under.
Back in the cafe over a raised wooden table, Anna Stratoudakis, a computer graphics animator, and Mehran Khalili, a political communications consultant, speak about the Greek image crisis.
“People can't believe we're having coffee in Athens without Molotov cocktails being thrown at us,” Khalili says.
“You'd think everyone in Greece was searching through garbage cans,” Stratoudakis adds.
Poverty has become a feature of life here. Around 3.4 million people were deemed at risk of falling beneath the poverty line as of 2011, said Eurostat, the European Statistical Agency. Within the past year, Greek household incomes have shrunk by 5.4 billion euros (or 13.6 percent), according to data released on November 22 by the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT). But still, Stratoudakis and Khalili argue there is a huge deviation between the suffering in Greece and the way its been represented.
Khalili and Stratoudakis are part of Omikron Project, a grassroots organization trying to stopper the stream of negative Greek stereotypes orbiting the world.
On November 9 they released an animated video that quickly went viral. The video introduces a character named Alex, a person who “could be you or me.” But Alex is Greek, and under the crushing weight of stereotypes about him – a “lazy, cheating, violent, rude, racist, tax evading, troublemaking, thieving vandal” – he is having a hard time defending himself.
Omikron Project has also produced ad images that offer two angles from the same story. Duplicated photographs of policemen are labeled “To serve and protect,” or “Brutality unchecked.” “Greek crisis? Get the whole picture” stretches across the bottom of the page.
For over four years, the Greek police have been on the front lines of protests and riots, constantly photographed in unbroken rows, holding their shields. They've become a ubiquitous symbol of restraint in Europe and their image has frequently been distorted by international media coverage.
Yet the recent November 17 rally in Athens to commemorate the deadly suppression by the junta of a student uprising in 1973 was almost entirely peaceful, without the scenes of clashes between rioters and police that have become associated with Greece. Police presence was high, security was tight and a few metro stations closed in anticipation of possible violence.
In Athens it was an underwhelming demonstration, far from what has become expected of the Greek public. Since 2008, when a policeman fatally shot a teenager, triggering riots that lasted over a week, Greece has experienced unprecedented coverage by foreign media that only intensified with the onset of the economic crisis a year later. “Crisis pornography” is what Khalili calls the insatiable coverage by local and foreign media of Greece.
Crisis pornography is just as much about ignoring one side of the story as it is about sensationalism. It brings to mind a drawing of the Italian cartoonist Marco Marilungo suggesting the coverage isn't representative of what's really going on.
A crowd of thousands littered with signs demanding equality, dignity, justice and solidarity stand together in a uniform and quiet group. The focus of every person in the crowd is on the backs of a group of cameramen next to them who intently film one man whacking a parked car with a bat.
Bad behavior always makes for better press than good.
“I have met foreign journalists who came to Greece to do stories about the crisis and were very surprised, shocked even, to see that this is not a country collapsing and that there are people out and about on the street – because based on the media reports they had read, they had expected something much more dramatic,” said a journalist at a foreign news agency who declined to be named. “Yet one still went on to produce a story about Greek society collapsing. Because that is the story they had sold in the first place.”
A look through newspaper headlines will tell you that Greeks have thrown rocks, kicked, clashed, hurled and pelted their way through riots and protests, which have themselves been violent and eruptive, sometimes including firebombs, Molotov cocktails and water cannons. Greeks have been arrested, Greeks have been beaten, Greeks have beaten. Chaos in Athens. Athens burns.
“Greece has become the poster child for the European crisis,” said Peter Economides, a brand strategist who launched the campaign “Give Greece a Chance” in European newspapers a few days before the German parliament voted on the first bailout funds for Greece.
“We're a loud nation, we're first out on the streets and we attract the world's attention and for that we've become an easy target,” Economides said. “Imagine the Acropolis in the background and fire burning in Syntagma – it's a beautiful, dramatic story.”
The pursuit and distribution of crisis pornography hasn't been nearly as damaging to the Greek image as the other stereotypes that emerged – labeling Greeks as being unable and unwilling to change.
Greeks cannot seem to shake off the impression that they are a cheating and undisciplined lot. In a country where tax evasion has been titled a national sport, it's an uphill treadmill of negative assumptions that Greeks have still not been able disprove.
Italian journalist Adrianna Cerretelli is quoted in a Reuters study by Oxford University investigating the coverage of the Greek debt crisis released in March 2011 and whether it “has failed to observe one of the main obligations of good journalism – to develop a thorough criticism in the interests of democracy and its citizens.” Cerretelli reflected on the inevitable failures that occur when covering a breaking and complicated story: “The international press has been divided, just like in a stadium, by making a distinction between 'good northern people' and 'bad southerners,' by using old stereotypes like the 'Nazi Germans' or the 'lazy Greeks.'”
As if to confirm this, a few days ago the Lisbon Council named Greece a eurozone leader for structural reforms but within hours of finance ministers agreeing on a plan to reduce its debt, a portion of the German media insisted that Greece was a lost cause. This is how journalist Hugo Mueller-Vogg put it: “The team of European doctors around the patient's bed justify the continually rising costs of the treatment with the hope that at some point the expensive medicines will prove effective.”
“There are lazy people everywhere. Why should a whole country be labeled as lazy?” Stratoudakis said.
“Or an entire capital violent?” Khalili added.
On November 15, three civil servants in Thessaloniki threw coffee and bottles of water at the German consul, Wolfgang Hoelsche-Obermaier, after comments made by Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans Joachim Fuchtel, suggested Greek civil servants were inefficient compared to their German counterparts.
The news made headlines. Some articles embellished, claiming eggs were thrown too. Europe's naughtiest child was acting up again.
But only a handful of Greek publications reported on the apology that was made by one of the civil servants who attacked Hoelsche-Obermaier.
“I had a strong emotional response to the measures announced that may lead to losing my job,” the civil servant said to Hoelsche-Obermaier in person, thanking him afterward for not filing a lawsuit against him.
Hoelsche-Obermaier accepted the apology.
Omikron Project does not want to sugarcoat anything, instead they're urging people to be aware of stereotypes and look for untold stories.
“The time for diagnosis is over, the time for talk is over. An active citizen has more than just a vote,” Khalili says over an empty coffee cup.
Alex by Omikron Project will be back in a sequel, along with more ads and a possible exhibition. They are looking for people to help turn their ideas into reality.