It is a late August night on the outskirts of Athens. Three Albanian men, all in their early 20’s, are getting ready to sleep al fresco in the terrace of a trendy bar-restaurant in the coastal area of Porto Rafti.

The air is warm, almost pleasant, as they are setting their sleeping bags on the ground for a few hours’ rest. They are employed as dishwashers but, as the suntan on their naked torsos indicate, they also work in daytime, cleaning the place, taking care of the pool, gardening, carrying six-packs of beer and bags of ice to refrigerators. Eating, sleeping and essentially living in the premises, each is paid 4,000 drachmas (approximately 12 dollars) a day—less than half what Greek employees earn. As the owner freely admits, they have “of course” no legal permits.

The story of Yorgos, Yanni and Mondy, the three Albanians savoring Athenian nightlife, dates from 1997 when this reporter researched a story on immigration for a Greek newspaper. Two years later they have departed seeking different work, but a telephone call to the club verifies that other Albanians are employed in similar positions, albeit under ameliorated terms. The case is not unique. The 1990’s have brought to Greece, a country of roughly 10 million people, more than 600,000 foreign immigrants. The influx of foreigners tested social attitudes, produced a torrent of sensationalist reports in the electronic media, initiated a national debate about immigration, and culminated in the creation of a Greek “green card system.”

In a sense, the whole controversy that rose up about immigration is a historical irony. Greece was traditionally a country that its people left behind, migrating to the West in search of jobs and prosperity.

In the 1990’s, the situation has been different. The dissolution of the Soviet block and the growing disarray in the Balkans changed things dramatically. Albanians, Bulgarians, Poles and Russians came to Greece in ever-increasing numbers, apparently seeking better fortunes, as did Egyptians, Ethiopians, Philippinos and Kurds. (Sadly some of the latter would occasionally wander unknowingly into the minefields in the Greek-Turkish border in Thrace, along the Evros river.) It was pretty obvious almost from the start that the Greek government had no way to stem the tide. The police would round up Albanians nightly in Omonoia Square in central Athens, board them on buses and drive them across the border. Yet what came to be known ironically as the “Balkan Express” proved ineffective as did similar policies in other major cities or in the countryside. In 1991, 170,000 Albanians were expelled in one way or another. Most would return sooner or later, across a steep and mountainous border almost impossible to patrol.

This massive influx of foreigners through porous borders caused concern. Greece perceived itself as an ethnically cohesive Christian Orthodox country, and attitudes towards immigrants were essentially untested. Widespread ethnic cleansing in neighboring Yugoslavia, arson attacks on foreign hostels in Germany, and massive deportation of Albanians initially confined to football stadiums in Italy (which made for gruesome pictures), made the early 1990’s ominous throughout Europe. Yet, despite worries, the transition in Greece proved to be smooth.

With “black economy” contributing, incredibly for an EU country, to 30 percent of the Greek GDP, the potential for exploitation of foreigners proved, sadly, enormous, but also assured quick acceptance within the Greek society. Albanians worked in construction and in all sorts of odd jobs, Poles harvested oranges or olives in the Peloponnese, and the Greek lower middle class satisfied its craving for upward mobility by employing Russians or Bulgarians as house help.

This fragile equilibrium, resting on exploitation of cheap labor, was to be upset by the local media. Story after story in the press had documented rising crime rates in the 1990’s, and violent crimes committed by foreigners started to catch the eye of the producers of the television evening news. The Greek airwaves had been progressively deregulated in the late 1980’s, first radio and then television. Political instability during the scandal-plagued 1989-90 period, when the beleaguered socialists of Andreas Papandreou surrendered power to the conservatives of Constantine Mitsotakis after three consecutive elections, led to a free-for-all in newly privatized electronic media. Soon the country found itself with a fluctuating number of more than 20 radio stations. The television market, given the bigger start-up and operating costs and the limited size of the target audience, looked even more crowded. Three state channels were soon in competition with four major private networks, Mega Channel, Antenna TV, åKAI, and Star TV, and another 10 minor channels (again the numbers were fluctuating).

Conservative and, since 1993, socialist governments would allow hopeful entrepreneurs or consortia to set up stations and start broadcasting. Yet, despite a media and communications bill masterminded by Minister Evangelos Venizelos and passed in the mid-1990’s, the process of licensing has proved slow: More than 10 years since the electronic media were deregulated the procedure for obtaining licenses has not been completed. Bureaucratic snags—and a political desire to retain leverage against broadcasters by deferring licensing—has created a de facto, rather than a regulated, state of affairs in the airwaves.

In this overcrowded and uncertain landscape, the race for ratings and advertising revenues proved catastrophic in terms of maintaining standards in news reporting. The audience, long frustrated with state monopoly, was offered choice by private broadcasters yet was soon confronted with evening news programs that “bled” profusely. Crime, accidents and human-interest stories led the programs that soon went down-market in an atmosphere of pervasive sensationalism. The coverage of the arrest and subsequent suicide of a pedophile in the Peloponnese and of the sexual abuses and murders committed by a gang of youths engaged in “satanic” rituals in an Athens suburb in 1993-94 proved milestones in the downgrading of Greek media.

Predictably, the encounter between broadcast sensationalism and offences committed by foreigners, mostly Albanians, proved spectacular. Almost every violent crime committed by foreigners was granted prime-time coverage, complete with ominous music, reenactments and special effects imported from American television. The 1997 meltdown in Albania made matters worse. With AK-47’s on sale in Greece, a gun-shy country, for 10,000 drachmas (approximately 30 dollars) and scores of criminals at large after the Albanian prison system broke down, the public was warned by broadcasters to expect the worst. “Miami Vice” speedboat attacks in Corfu and a number of murderous robberies in the mainland turned Albanians into fodder for the evening news and ignited a mass hysteria amid news reports that ordinary citizens, especially farmers, were buying shotguns in self-defense.

In this sensationalist climate, the print media appeared split. Tabloids went into a down-market spiral, echoing broadcast xenophobia. But quality newspapers such as To Vima, Kathimerini, Ta Nea and Eleytherotypia opted for high ground. A number of stories questioned broadcasts, quoting figures from law enforcement proving that the share of foreigners in overall crime was marginal, fluctuating between three and seven percent during the 1990’s. True, Albanians had an increasing share in crimes committed by foreigners (in part because they outnumbered all other nationalities), but often statistics were about arrests and charges, not convictions.

The findings shed light on biases against foreigners in law enforcement and, of course, the media. Moreover, the debate about foreign crime urged the more serious newspapers to look harder into the harsh realities of the life of immigrants in Greece, to investigate possible racist attitudes among the Greeks and, ultimately, to examine the changes their influx was bringing to Greek society. News reports and features were supplemented by a steady stream of editorials and op-eds pointing to the dangers of xenophobia.

Apparently, the issue had gained prominence and velocity: The backlash was not too late in coming. Under pressure from sensationalist broadcast coverage and the assertions of television pundits of an alleged widespread public demand for law and order, the Greek police sent a heavily armed local SWAT team to storm an encampment of gypsies in search of a suspect. Television cameras followed eagerly heavily armed members of the special forces as they stormed the grounds, throwing terrorized people to the ground. In a country ill at ease with human rights abuses during the aftermath of the civil war and the military junta of 1967-74, the images of macho policing produced widespread revulsion and criticism. Alarmed by extremist “back-bench” parliamentarians demanding mass expulsions or internment of foreigners, the government, led by Prime Minister Costas Simitis and backed by prominent public figures left and right of the political spectrum, chastised xenophobia and pushed for new immigration legislation.

The proposed bill, euphemistically called a “green card system” in the local media, was meant to provide a much-needed framework for foreign workers, acknowledging and normalizing a change in Greek society. The lawmaking tamed television coverage by forcing the national debate about immigration into the political mainstream and bringing a sense of closure. Broadcasters, apparently having no desire to be framed as extremists, toned down their coverage of foreign crime, though an increased sensationalism of the Greek evening news programs seems here to stay. As for the quality print media, liberal editorial boards are left to ponder whether Greek society is indeed becoming multicultural.

Whatever the verdict is on that question, the war of words and images among broadcasters during the 1990’s alerted the Greek print media to the complexities of reporting on immigration and to dangers of succumbing to a “barbarians at the gate” tabloid mentality. As a consequence, there has been a steady flow of newspaper stories about immigrants in Greece. Most memorable are the features documenting the harshness of their everyday lives. Instead of demonizing foreigners, members of the media now seek out the voices of immigrants as they talk about their experiences and perspectives.

What has happened in reporting the immigrant story may have a good effect in preparing Athenian newspaper reporters and editors for the challenges that might be presented to us by the war in Kosovo. This ethnic conflict has sent hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees to neighboring countries, and although Greece has not received any yet, it will certainly be affected. There is no reason to believe that our job of telling the stories of the journeys and circumstances of the refugees from this region won’t intensify as we head into the next century. Let’s hope the lessons we’ve learned will serve us well and that others might learn from the unfortunate cycle of coverage that we endured.

Dimitri Mitropoulos, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, is a political correspondent for To Vima newspaper in Athens.

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