It’s not about prostitutes, it’s about a healthy society – sign this petition

Just a few days before Greece’s snap parliamentary elections in April, Greek police published the names and photos of over 12 prostitutes arrested for being HIV positive, in a disgraceful violation of their human dignity and a terrible example for society.

Sign the change.org petition below to tell the Greek Ministry of Justice and other authorities involved or complacent in these actions – including the Greek police, the Ministry of Health and the Citizens Protection Ministry – that it is not acceptable to disregard basic human rights and promote negative and harmful mentalities and behaviors in society.

A 22-year old Russian prostitute was arrested in an unlicensed brothel, and a health examination determined that she was HIV positive. Many more women, some Greek, were arrested in continuing raids ahead of the election. Some of them are still in prison.

Prostitution is legal in Greece, and some brothels are licensed, but there are many unlicensed ones operating in Athens and throughout the country. There is no evidence that these women knew they were infected, and some of them may be drug addicts that worked on the streets, not in brothels.

The police, the prosecutor and the health ministry claim that the identities and photos were published to alert the clients of these women, urge them to get tested, and protect their “wives and families”.

This is not about prostitutes. It is about a healthy and fair society. Greek authorities are working against both in this case.

The message that authorities are sending society is this: it is ok if you are reckless and engage in paid, unprotected sex with prostitutes or other vulnerable women (some sources suggest that clients at brothels actually pay extra to go unprotected), the state will trample the human rights of some people (namely vulnerable people) so that you know it is time to get tested.

If the Health Ministry wants to address the spread of HIV in Greece, it seems to me that the message to the public should be: any one of you out there that pays for sex, despite all the awareness campaigns that many of these women are trafficked, should now get tested. It could be any one of you. And also, stop it.

The Health Ministry claims to be concerned with the wives of Greek men that visit brothels. Has the ministry asked these wives which of these message they are more comfortable with? “Keep visiting prostitutes, we’ll arrest and humiliate the HIV positive ones” or “Prostitution is a symptom of crime, trafficking and social suffering. Now everybody is at risk and should get tested and change their behavior.”

The public safety excuses of Greek authorities for their actions do not hold up – not through their own logic, and not through any examination of best practices around the world for engaging in effective prevention and education.

From the Irish Times:

“I find it very strange that the government has only now recognised this public health danger, days before the elections. I can’t be but suspicious at the motives,” said George Tzogopoulos, of the Eliamep think tank. “We need continuity in disease prevention, not fireworks.”

International and Greek rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the local office of humanitarian medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, denounced the breach of medical confidentiality and the endangerment of the women’s safety as a violation of human rights. Police even published the addresses of some of the women, though a few are homeless, so I guess the police can’t direct any crazy people to their doorstep.

  • Press release by the European Aids Treatment Center, signed by several organizations: here.
  • The Greek Ombudsman, in a May 10, 2012 press release (in Greek), declared that publishing the photos and identities of the HIV+ women is a violation of human dignity.
  • The General Secretariat for Gender Equality also denounced these actions.

Please sign this change.org petition to make your voice heard that this is not acceptable: Greek Ministry of Justice: DEMAND THE RELEASE AND MEDICAL TREATMENT OF HIV POSITIVE WOMEN

The petition is directed to the Greek Ministry of Justice and demands the release and medical treatment of these women.

To the Greek authorities:
These are not solutions.
You should know better. You have reputable local and international organizations to consult and examples around the world to look at. You have no excuses.

Advertisements

Discussion with an artist in Larissa: art in a hospital and art in a crisis

Melas Karagiannis is a Greek painter in Larissa, a city in central Greece. He recently produced some paintings for the radiology clinic at the Larissa University Hospital.  “I’m actually working there as a cook, because as a painter you can’t survive. Don’t try this at home,” he jokes.

Art can have specific purposes, and this is certainly the case in a hospital. As an artist, Melas says, “If you want to do something, I mean artistically, in a hospital, you should really think, ‘In that place there are people who are not well.’ It’s not a gallery, so you can’t put whatever you want, or whatever you like. There are people who are sick, are ill, and they want to get better, so you should really take care. Be careful of what you are going to produce.”

Cancer patients, their families, hospital staff and visitors all have access to the corridor lined with Melas’s paintings.

“You should talk to the people who are working in the hospital,” he advises. “You should get their advice so they can help you have a better result. That’s all.”

While working at the hospital, Melas wanted to do something for the clinic’s patients. The psychiatrist and psychologist working in the hospital clinic advised that the paintings include cool colors, like blue and green, and remain abstract – that is, without representations of people, animals or other objects. “It cools them down; they relax while they walk. They don’t just see a naked wall, they see something, but it’s nothing in particular. It’s great. The reactions are good. And I’m happy for that.”

Melas is a painter. He has several influences: “Salvador Dali, and also pop art, this kind of mixture…colors, strong colors. I’m trying to provoke in a way, the people around me, to show them something that will wake them up from their routine reality.”

He says that most people either like his work or hate it – which indicates that his work has an effect on people. “These are the reactions which I like – either love it or hate it – because it is very important. The people that are neutral…it means [the piece] didn’t touch them.”

“I’m working on several paintings now, because I can’t work on one. I’m just mixing colors and seeing the result, that’s all. If I don’t like it, I just put some more color on it until I like it, and it stays.  That’s the way it works.”

As an artist in Larissa, he is not alone. There are many creative people in Larissa, professional and amateur, producing art. They paint, sculpt and write.

“Sometimes I think that this city can’t really see what is going on, and it is unable to give all the artists a chance to show their work.”

According to Melas, the state should play a role in helping artists create and display their art. “This is the only way. Nobody else will [do this]. And the artists, by themselves, it’s not a matter of courage, it’s a matter of money, strictly. They can’t afford to pay to have shows.”

He acknowledges that the Greek state will not likely take on this role anytime soon given the economic crisis.

Yet art has an important role to play during this crisis. “To provoke. To wake up. There’s no other role now, it’s the times. Art now should wake up the people, should make them think ‘why’ when Greece is like this: why is the situation is like this, why are we like this. And to show them, every day art should be like a mirror. Around the misery which we are living. Nothing else. There’s no time for beautiful paintings, or flowers somewhere and sunsets. To provoke, nothing else. To wake them up. We ended up like this because we were sleeping. And it’s time to wake up.

When asked if he has any message for aspiring or working young artists in Greece, he says he cannot understand young artists in Greece.

“I understand that it is very difficult to live, just to survive, from art.  It is very easy to say, ‘I have to do what the people want me to do or paint, just to pay my rent.’

But the only message I can give them is: don’t give up. Do what you want to do. This is the only thing that is going to change the world. If you give up, nothing is going to change. It is going to stay the way it is. And you see the results; they are obvious. So don’t give up. And if the younger generations don’t give up, maybe a better future will come. If they give up, then for sure it’s going to be the same.”

Sounds like a message for more than just young artists. We’ll take it.

View some of Melas Karagiannis’s work on his website: http://www.melas-karagiannis.eu/

This is the first in a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and stay tuned for the rest!

A global public art project allows local communities to be a part of their local art

This GOOD article describes how artist JR took his project to a global level, thanks to his vision and the 2011 TED prize. His InsideOut Project allows whole communities to be a part of local art.

Check out the Inside Out Project trailer, Episode 1, and other videos on the project’s YouTube channel.

In Greece, MELD | Athens invited six Greek photographers to lead a Group Action as part of this global art initiative. They created portraits of children from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds in Athens and posted them in side-by-side pairs in the city’s public spaces on October 15, 2011. This Eyes of Truth Group Action was a parallel event with the October 10, 2011 TEDxAcademy.

TEDxAcademy Talk by Corinne Weber, Creative Director & Producer of MELD and Yvonne Senouf, Creative Concepts Producer of MELD:

Greek referendum: A card in what game?

There were many distressing aspects to the whole situation this week with the bailout agreement for Greece, the sudden call for a referendum, the just-as-sudden cancellation of the referendum, and the ideas everyone had about what the referendum play could have meant.

What was going on? Did Europe scold Greece like a teen that spent the grocery money on mobile apps? Did the Greek Prime Minister stand up to Big Lending Rating Finance and remember The People? Where does the win go: democracy, politics, finance or scapegoating?

Some commentators suggested Prime Minister George Papandreou may have been attempting to get Europe to “sweeten the deal”, or renegotiate the latest debt agreement. Others suggested that he remembered democracy and was giving the Greek people an opportunity to make the decision.

After two years of austerity measures under EU and IMF loans, which the Greek people did not have the opportunity to vote on, the referendum struck many people as a joke at best, and, at worst, a shameful move by government to dump its responsibilities on the people after digging the country into a hole.

The referendum idea was cancelled, and it now seems that Papandreou may have done this to threaten opposition Nea Democratia leader, Antonis Samaras, to step up to his responsibilities, and get the opposition to support the austerity measures. This sounds like a bold move.  However, Samaras, in the middle of the crisis this June refused to form a coalition government at Papandreou’s invitation, preferring instead to ask the prime minister to step down and insisting on elections (though now he is roaringly insisting on a national unity government, followed by elections – again, if Papandreou steps down). Given all this, I suppose it would not be too shocking if we later found out Papandreou’s referendum move was indeed an attempt to get the opposition to become more constructive, even knowing he would have to step down.  Maybe Papandreou knows his former roommate better than anyone.

Right now, social media is blowing up with Greeks expressing their desire to see Papandreou step down. While their sentiment may be justified, it is easy to focus frustration on an individual leader, even after months of protesting against all their politicians. Lest we forget: what do you call it when politicians of a ruling party and an opposition party play politics in the middle of a crisis, even though both their parties are polling at around 20 percent, and thousands of citizens are outside the parliament, screaming at them that they are all guilty of devastating the country? Many would call this a bitter joke. (Note: the percentages may be different, but this is a question for those of us living in the U.S. as well.)

If we are going to wonder about who is doing the most damage to democracy, we have to look at both Greek leaders and European leaders. After the Greek prime minister announced a referendum on whether to accept the debt agreement, EU leaders insisted on the referendum question being ‘stay in EU or leave EU’ when there has been NO serious dialogue in Greece on this issue and polls show that 70 percent of Greeks do NOT want to leave the EU. And they set the date for December 4, leaving no time for a real debate. This is not a minor point.  This is absolutely critical.  A referendum alone is not democracy. A referendum is one part of a process.  If you spring a referendum on people without facilitating an informed debate process, you are simply manipulating and insulting those people, and they would be right to believe that you are hiding something.  Whether EU leaders were sincere or also calling Papandreou’s bluff, it is a destructive message to send throughout a union of democracies and to the rest of the world.

This week’s events may be yet another sign that the EU is speeding up its own destruction process. All along this crisis was not ’caused by’ or ‘all about’ Greece. But if EU leaders are in denial and prefer setting up a scapegoat to avoid discussing their real problems, fine, I guess they are more knowledgeable than me.

I have no idea what to think at this point about the referendum or the national unity option, and I will not pretend to be an expert. But these are issues that I saw in this week’s events that concern me.

The one thing I can say is that we may be missing one of the biggest lessons that comes out of the events involving Greece, a lesson which will be important to learn as the crisis spreads to more countries:

Throughout this economic crisis, the bailouts and the austerity measures imposed with those bailouts have meant that the priority reforms that have needed to take place in Greece for decades now – reforming the justice system and anti-corruption institutions to introduce some transparency and accountability to the overall system – have remained on the sideline.

These are the issues that have broken people’s patience and all trust in their political leaders across the spectrum.

These are the reforms that have fueled the demonstrations.

But these are not the reforms that concern European leaders. EU and IMF involvement in the economics of the country seems to have just added yet another wall between citizens’ demands and any reform attempt in the institutions that would ensure the austerity measures were implemented in a fair manner, at a time when the economic crisis could have been an opportunity to propel these critical changes. This burden for a democratic system that does not work in critical areas is now on international shoulders, not just the shoulders of Greek politicians or Greek society.

Remembering why we celebrate the past

It was always my belief that the greatest reason to celebrate the past is because it can help us re-evaluate the present and inspire our journey towards our future.

On a day when we recall how, 71 years ago, the Greek prime minister and the Greek people said ‘OXI’, or ‘NO’ to Mussolini’s forces when they demanded Greece allow Axis troops to enter and use the country in their advance towards North Africa, are we asking ourselves, “Do we say ‘OXI’ when we need to?”

There were annual parades across Greece today, but protesters in the northern city Thessaloniki prevented the annual military parade from taking place.  On Thursday, the student parade took place in that city with only the mayor participating. All other politicians opted to withdraw their participation. In other parades, students turned their faces away from politicians, city bands carried black ribbons, and protesters attacked dignitaries. More here.

While I agree with activism, I do not support violence or throwing objects at people for any reason. I do not necessarily agree with protestors blocking and forcing the cancellation of a parade.

But the reactions to these events raise some important questions.  I would say that memory does not stand alone, or apart from the present – particularly a national memory.  The Oxi Day national celebration is for a political moment. How does a historic political memory or celebration stand apart from a society’s current reality?  How do we celebrate this past memory without seeking to reflect on the lessons it teaches today’s society?

Politicians seem to be asking that people pause their serious discontent with the economic and political crisis to celebrate the past. The president of the opposition party New Democracy was quoted in Reuters as saying, “Those who are glad to have ruined our national holiday must know they have injured our national pride. They have insulted the memory of our heroes.” Many will share this sentiment. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Citizen Protection condemned incidents at parades around the country, saying that people need unity right now.  It sounds like what many politicians mean by ‘unity’, however, is more like ‘quiet acceptance.’ I am not drawing this conclusion on my own, simply from politicians’ statements in the media.  While in Greece for over two months this summer, the common theme I heard in discussions with business and domestci media leaders, entrepreneurs, academics, young people, civil society leaders, was that there is great feeling of mistrust between citizens and government, and people in Greece feel there is no political leader that is offering any vision for the future, or for any way forward. Without inclusive dialogue, where will trust and unity come from? National parades?

Today, do we say ‘OXI’ or ‘NO’?

Do we say it at critical decisions where we need to say it? Do we say it to the status quo when it is time? This is a discussion that protesters in more countries than Greece are demanding.  It is a question that is still relevant today, because it is not always an army that destroys.  It is not always a force from the outside – outside our borders, outside ourselves – that does us the greatest damage. Are we saying no to weak or ineffective institutions, corruption, our own silence or complicity when we have the means to fight for change, crumbling social safety nets for the most disadvantaged groups, flaws in financial institutions or the financial system itself?

Given these questions, I would ask: did the parade organizers try to consider making the day’s celebration relevant to today’s Greece? Did they try approaching different groups in society to discuss organizing an event that would respect both the past and the present?

Some people will prickle or laugh at the thought of this. But I find it unfortunate if it was never considered or attempted, because it reveals that there is still no acknowledgement of the need for new dialogue among national, local, public, private and grassroots elements of society, even at moments where all can agree on the need to draw inspiration from the past.

The Greek Crisis: Tents on a Square

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma [Square, in front of the parliament] make for an unacceptable sight.”
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one [thing] and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”

Following those quotes, you may be expecting to read something like: these are the statements I am hearing from people in the city. In fact, these are statements from Greeks in public leadership positions. Read again, with their names indicated:

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma make for an unacceptable sight.”
    – Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou. According to Kathimerini, the same term, ‘gypsy tents,’ was used by Costas Aivaliotis, spokesman for the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). Source.
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
    – Dora Bakoyannis, leader of the Democratic Alliance party and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mayor of Athens from 2003 – 2006. Source.
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
    – The mayor’s office. Source.
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”
    – Justice Minister Papaioannou. Source.

There was quite a push to clear the tents off Syntagma Square in Athens in the last two weeks, and today, city authorities and the police finally removed them. This past Thursday, a prosecutor began an investigation to determine whether the demonstrators maintaining the tents and activities on Syntagma Square were breaking any laws.

I support a respectful use of public space and a concerted effort to promote tourism. However, the situation on the main public square in Athens and the remarks of political leaders at the local and national level raise different issues in my mind, and do not bring me to the conclusion that the priority in Athens is to clear the tents away.

Who determines the use of public space?

There is a great and historical significance to the public square.  We tend to think of public squares as a starting point for tourists: lovely areas with cafes, beautiful restored historic buildings, and monuments of historical and influential figures. Perhaps we sometimes forget that, around the world, they have been the settings for significant social and political developments, and not always positive ones. Some of our most inspiring but also our darkest moments as human beings have played out in public squares around the world, from revolutions to public executions. Yet some people are uncomfortable with having the country’s social, economic or political problems reflected on the main public square in the capital. What exactly is the reason why the demonstrators in tents on Syntagma should have a shorter timeline than the economic crisis that brought them to the square?

If other citizens want the protestors to move out because their use of the square is being prevented, this is an important matter to address. But this is not what is being said. Based on discussions with people here in Athens, and my own experience passing through the square nearly every day for the past three weeks, there is plenty of space to pass, the area is tidy, organized and peaceful, and no one walking through seems disturbed or obstructed. Every time I passed through the square in the evenings or at night, there were people of different ages there, engaged in discussions near the tents.

Syntagma the first week of July.

People cleaning the square. Mid-July.

This is extremely contrary to every sidewalk I have walked on in the city, where mopeds and motorcycles park and drive freely, and cars often park half or entirely on the sidewalk. Yet this is not the obstruction and lawlessness leaders are commenting on right now.

Further, the demonstrators have not thrown unwilling citizens and tourists into their effort to make their voices heard by political leaders, which cannot be said of, for example, taxi owners.  Taxi owners have been on strike for nearly two weeks, and part of their strike has included blocking access to roads, ports and airports.  They also went so far as to throw oil on a road to prevent vehicles from leaving the port of Piraeus. Rather than make a case for their position and invite supporters to join them, they simply interrupt services for citizens and tourists and hope this will somehow aid their cause.

To what extent can image divert attention from or completely hide reality?

It seems to me that clearing off every marble tile on the square is less of a concern in addressing the image of the city and the country than the issue of how the media is covering events in Greece and the absence of a strong, clear and consistent message from the mayor’s office or national leaders on what is happening and what they are doing to move forward. Who would we fool by removing the tents from Syntagma?  No one will see the closed, empty shops on every street? No one will encounter young people around the city during the day, who have no job to go to?  Tourists will not notice the increased amount of graffiti and visitors will not see that neighborhoods in central Athens are crumbling further from the condition they were in just a couple years ago? Or will no one see the children, often victims of criminal and trafficking rings, approaching them one after the other to beg while selling flowers or tissues or while playing the accordion?

Whose vision of tourism are we concerned with?

Let’s assume a clean Syntagma will shine so bright as to hide all of the above in a lovely hazy glow.  What is the comprehensive plan for tourism? Is a clean, quiet Syntagma Square the center of the plan?  I would think that making transportation efficient and clean, and developing the network of museums, archaeological sites and cultural activities would be some of the main concerns, particularly in the short-term. There are some disappointing blind spots in these areas.  Here are just a couple examples:

a)     I had to pass through one of the Athens bus terminals several times this summer to catch buses for other parts of Greece.  To get to the terminal, you need either a car/taxi or to switch from the metro to a city bus.  Once you are there, use the restrooms at your own risk (ladies, there are still squat toilets in use) and bring change to give to the woman at the door so that she hands you some toilet paper. There is also one giant chaos of people, buses and cars going wherever they please throughout the terminal, and a non-stop procession of people selling trinkets, tissues or directly begging for change. The train would be a nice alternative, given that the station is accessible by metro, but it still does not connect Athens to all the larger cities of northern Greece.

This is an issue of far greater concern to me than a peaceful walk across Syntagma Square.

b)    There is an issue relating to archaeological sites in Athens of which not many people are aware. In February, archaeologists discovered the Altar of the Twelve Gods during renovation work for the electric rail near Thiseio and Monastiraki.  The altar was an area of religious and political significance, and at one time was the central point from which distances were measured.

This week, the Council of State, the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece, ruled to allow the burying of the Altar so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution, such as constructing an underground line for the train.

It is disappointing that there has been no significant discussion on the part of the relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) to consider a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network of sites highlighting ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora, Kerameikos and other ruins, or even a plan to revamp and better utilize the existing sites.

Public Speaking 101

Ultimately, this situation reveals that Greece’s leaders appear to have forgotten the importance of public speech.  Hard to believe, given Greece’s history, but painfully clear in the statements above.  It is something I have heard this summer from people of different ages, in different sectors and of different political views:  leaders are not speaking to the people in a way that acknowledges their struggles or gives them reason to believe that anyone in power is truly making an effort to make things better.

The People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square has continued to maintain its online forum (real-democracy.gr) and its system of selecting topics of discussion, and it says that the peaceful protests will pick up again in September. Leaders can ignore all of this, call them drug users and loose women, and suggest that the tents on Syntagma are one of the city’s biggest problems if they choose, but this approach only dismisses the real frustrations of the broader public, many of whom are really struggling.  There are European Union statistics that indicate this, if the message is not coming through from the Greek people themselves:

“Based on the most recent statistics available, Brussels calculates that 116 million people in the EU are at risk of poverty (they live in a household with a disposable income below 60 percent of the national median) or social exclusion. The 2008 figures show that more than 2.1 million Greeks fall within the “at risk of poverty” bracket.”
Source.

August is a quiet month in Greece.  The weather is hot; most people go on vacation.  Hopefully Greek leaders will take this time to think about the message they are sending to international and domestic audiences, and lay out a respectful and constructive communication strategy. And some would do well to consider the racism they express when using the word ‘gypsie’ as a derogatory adjective.

Peaceful organizing in cities across Greece

Yesterday, May 25, thousands in Greece gathered at public squares in cities across the country to protest peacefully and demand solutions.  The rallies were organized through social media sites under the banner ‘Aganaktismenoi sto Syntagma’ (“Indignant or Exasperated at Syntagma”) and ‘Aganaktismenoi’ at other cities. The effort was modeled on Spain’s Los Indignados movement.

There were no molotov cocktails and no signs or evidence of allegiances to the political parties, unions or associations. Just organized, peaceful people that are struggling and expect better solutions.

Source: Enet.gr - Ελευθεροτυπία

Some news outlets are reporting that as many as 10,000 (ekathimerini.com) to 30,000 (ANA-MPA) people showed up at Syntagma Square in Athens alone. Individuals reported through social media (#greekrevolution, #25mgr, also follow Asteris Masouras @asteris for updates) and Greek blogs that the crowds included many youth but people of all ages. The protesters in Athens also reportedly blocked a group of anarchists that attempted to filter their ranks, keeping them at a distance and away from the parliament. The rallies served as a sort of public assembly, with participants of different ages and backgrounds discussing their thoughts and opinions.

The rallies did not become a sit-in (though there were some tents in Athens), but this may serve as the long overdue, concrete example that peaceful organizing and mobilization is possible in Greece. Even if an organized, long-term movement with clear goals and proposals does not immediately follow, this is a message that people in Greece and in Greek diaspora communities have been waiting to receive, and that the international media and financial institutions should heed.

Some great photos from the Thessaloniki rally: Spanish style protests reach Greece