Greece: Artistic freedom at stake

14 September 2016

Censorship incidents and controversies over artworks have multiplied over the last few years in Greece, particularly since the crisis hit the country in 2008. At the same time, legal controversies over blasphemous and obscene publications continue while hate crimes are on the rise, as exemplified by the murder of young rapper Fyssas in 2014.
By Eleni Polymenopoulou    INSIGHT 
In early 2016, a theatre play titled ‘the Balance of Nash’ (Ισορροπία του Nash) was scheduled at the experimental scene of the National Theatre, Ethniko Theatro. The scenario was based on extracts from a book written by a member of the Greek terrorist organisation 17 Noemvri, Savvas Xiros, who as a result of his terrorist activities was sentenced to life imprisonment.

While the play director insisted that the motivation of the script was not to support terrorism but rather to criticise the Greek judicial system, public and media reaction towards the play were so vehement that it was cancelled. Although a prosecution was not initiated, significant controversy sparked over the legitimacy of ‘the State funding the artistic work of a terrorist’.

Protests over the ban of ‘the Balance of Nash’ at the National Theatre. The poster reads: ‘No to the resurrection of the Saint Inquisition’   (Source:

Blasphemy and obscenity offences in court
This is not the first time that artistic freedom in Greece comes under attack. While the Greek Constitution (that was promulgated after the junta’s demise in 1975 proclaims that ‘art and science, research and teaching shall be free’, prior censorship of offensive artworks and publications is still exceptionally allowed under Article 14 of the same Constitution. Criminal laws are used to censor artworks. Such laws typically include the blasphemy clause of the Greek Penal Code that provides that ‘whosoever insults God in any way publicly and maliciously shall incur a period of incarceration of up to two years’ (Article 198), as well Law no 5060 of 1931 (so-called ‘obscenity law’) that defines obscene materials in a very broad manner, namely as ‘all manuscripts, publications, images and other relevant objects that are offensive to public morals, according to the common sentiment’.

In a significant number of cases both laws have been used to protect the Christian Orthodox Church, i.e. the majority religion, and the official religion of the State. As a result, censorship of artworks on the basis of minor offences against public morals or religious beliefs, including controversies over gay identities, is on the rise, typically also accompanied by the seisure of the contested artworks.

At the same time, a turn towards extreme right wing parties, conservative and nationalistic attitudes is visible in all areas of public life at least since the crisis hit the country in 2008. The murder of young rapper Pavlos Fyssas that triggered protests in Greece and abroad exemplifies this situation. Akin to Grigoropoulos who was shot down by the police during protests few years earlier, Fyssas became a symbol of resistance. More significantly however, Fyssas murder equally triggered the prosecution and arrest of Golden Dawn leaders in September 2013 for running an ‘organisation of a military character aiming at overthrowing democracy’.

Graffiti showing Fyssas in the streets of Barcelona   (Source: )

Legacy of the ‘Last temptation of Christ’
In 1988, a first instance court banned Scorsese’s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. While the film had already been scheduled for screening, this court entertained a civil claim brought by religious organisations. After a thorough examination of the script which it detailed in several pages, it found itself compelled to accept the blasphemous character of the film, which was based on a novel under the same title by Kazantzakis. More astonishingly, in its legal reasoning it considered that religious beliefs are part of one’s personality and ought therefore to be protected against offences. This legal outcome is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, because by allowing public values such as religious sentiments to be protected through a ‘negative’ protection of one’s religious freedom the first instance court assimilated a criminal offence (i.e. blasphemy) to a civil one (i.e. harm of personality rights). Secondly, because in this manner civil courts assume the power to impose censorship for the benefit of an individual or a particular group of individuals and effectively claiming damages in favour of the ‘victims’.

Has the situation changed since then? Not quite. Artworks cause social turmoil for any minor reason, usually amounting to prosecutions of anything that may be considered offensive. By way of illustration, the Last Temptation judgment was followed by another judgement banning Androulakis’s novel ‘Mn’ in 2000, quahed only by the Greek Court of Cassation (Areios Pagos), and five years later, civil actions requesting the ban Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander the Great’, and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ were also brought to court.

In 2004, a Belgian artist, Gerhard Haderer, creator of the comic book ‘The Life of Christ’ was prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment on the grounds of blasphemy, namely for depicting among other things Jesus as a surfer and cannabis smoker, while in 2005, Eva Stephani’s Anthem for freedom [Ύμνος στην Ελευθερία], which consisted of a short video showing a half-cut woman masturbating under the soundtrack of the Greek national anthem and exposed during the exhibition ‘Art Athina’ in 2005 was seized. Once more, the exhibition’s director was arrested and prosecuted under the criminal obscenity criminal law and the laws protecting national symbols; he was acquitted only after the pre-investigation took place.

Most alarmingly, while many complaints stop or are extremely delayed at the prosecution stage (trials involving police abuses for instance), complaints involving artistic freedom are almost always taken forward. As a result, artists and curators rush to remove artworks in order to avoid conviction. This was the case with the exhibition ‘Outlook’ that was organised in 2003 during the so-called ‘Cultural Olympiade’ (which coincided with Greek Orthodox Easter), where a painting by Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier, entitled Asperges me, and representing a penis ejaculating on a cross sparked controversy. Following complaints by the Bishop of Athens, as well as conservative MPs, a prosecution was again initiated and the exhibition’s curator Christos Ioakeimidis was indicted and asked to appear before a first instance criminal tribunal. While the artist defended himself by pointing out that ‘he was not Christian’, the curator removed the painting in order to avoid criminal conviction.

De Cordie’s ‘Asperges me’   (Source: )

Banning gay kisses
Debates over gay identities are another exemplary illustration of the turn towards conservative attitudes in the last years. The first gay kiss that sparked controversy was aired by private channel ‘Mega’ during the series ‘Close your Eyes’ (Κλείσε τα μάτια) in 2003 and earned the Channel a fine of 100,000 euros by the National Radio and Television Council (Ethniko Symvoulio Radiotileorasis). Following an administrative complaint against the tv channel, the Supreme Administrative Court (ΣτΕ) annulled this decision with a judgement hailing artistic freedom and its prevalence over moral sensibilities. Given that LGBTI rights have never been effectively accepted in Greece however, other ‘gay kisses’ that followed the Court’s judgement equally became the object of debate in the Greek cultural scene.

In 2009, a theatrical play at the National Opera Scene (Ethniki Lyriki Skini) triggered once more extreme reactions. The play was based on Antonin Dvorzak’s melodic fairytale ‘Rusalka’ and directed by French director Marion Wasserman, a co-production with the Opera House of Nice. Prior to the opening of the play, a homophobic text signed by the Administrative Board of the Opera was circulated and handed to the audience stating that the specific version of the play embraced homosexual attitudes ‘attributing to the main protagonist of the play homosexual tendencies through extreme scenes’.

Likewise, in 2012, another controversy sparked, this time for a male to male kiss during the first episode of the tv-series ‘Downtown Abbey’ – aired on a daily basis in the UK and scheduled to be aired by Greek state television for the first time. In 2016, the Terrence McNally theatrical play Corpus Christi, re-configured by a young theatre group and presenting the image of Christ as a homosexual sparked protests in Athens. Following a complaint for blasphemy and obscenity by members of the Orthodox Church, accompanied by Golden Dawn MPs, a prosecution was initiated but once again charges were not pursued further.

Fear of protests following Corpus Christi   (Source: )

Lax application of hate speech standards
While blasphemy and public morals trials seem to prevail in Greek judicial practice, the issue of hate speech in Greece has never been particularly problematic – unless it leads to violence as in the case of Fyssas.

Hence, contrary to blasphemy, literary, artistic or other expressions concerning genocide or Holocaust denial have never been considered as a form of expression that should specifically be the subject of a restriction or outright ban. Greece has ratified the ICCPR, which contains restrictions on hate speech (Article 20 Paragraph 2) and has since 1979 adopted a law on racial hatred (the so called ‘anti-racist law’) that incorporates the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in the Greek legal order. Its application, however, has traditionally been relatively lax: as noted by the local NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor, since 1979 there has been only one conviction.

By way of example, in a case concerning an anti-Semitic historical book that negated the Jewish Holocaust, the Athens Appeals Court ruling in 2009 reversed a first instance court judgment and acquitted the author, pointed out that ‘pen is free’. A new law was passed in 2014 to combat hate speech. Its application however, is not predicted to be any more effective than its predecessor as it contains a number of flaws that have been already highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in its concluding observations on Greece in 2015. Most notably, it is an extremely generic law since, along with hate speech, it criminalises also the denial of genocide as well as ‘other acts of racism’, including homophobia. It provides moreover for disproportionate punishments and fines – something that may hinder its effective application.

Protest against refugees by Golden Dawn adherents   (Source:

Artistic freedom in the post-crisis era
In 2008, Greece was hit by a severe financial crisis that resulted in record unemployment rates and unbearable taxes. The art world, as well as the entire public sector and the media, were affected in multiple ways. According to Reporters without Borders’ (RwB) index of freedom of expression standards, Greece dropped nineteen places, sharing bottom place with Bulgaria. This downgrade did not come as a surprise. Following the crisis many journals were forced to stop their operations, while others were compelled to self-censorship partially losing their independence. By way of illustration, in 2011, the widely read daily Eleftherotypia, the first paper to circulate after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1975, closed down due to lack of funding; TA NEA and Kathimerini both journals widely circulating significantly reduced or stopped their print capacity; while in 2013, Greece’s public service broadcaster, ERT, was also shut down and remained so for almost two years. In 2016, one of the largest bookstores in Athens closed down. Book publishers as old as Estia also shut down, whereas others significantly reduced their stock capacity, leaving by implication authors, graphic designers, illustrators and other applied arts creators jobless. Artists and musicians have also presumably been amidst the 200,000 individuals (350,000 according to other statistics) who left in the massive ‘exodus’ from the country.

What is left behind is a rise in popular music, usually situated outside the ambit of either legal or judicial control. A flagrant example is the music of Pantelides, a young singer who died in a car accident in 2016. Although the quality of his songs had in some instances raised significant controversy, he was a beloved persona in the Greek music scene and his funeral was attended by thousands of people. In other instances, popular music raises concerns in terms of equality and human rights issues. The song ‘Bulgarian girls’ [Βουλγάρες] for instance by rapper TUS recently came under the spotlight following its condemnation by the General Directory of Equality (Geniki Grammateia Isotitas) because, as noted in the relevant statement dated 8 August 2016, ‘it presents sex trafficking as normal behaviour that can make one rich’. This is another illustration of abuses of freedom of expression in the post-crisis era – a particularly worrying one given that the song already since its release has to date more than 1,200,000 views (including however several thousand dislikes); that TUS channel on YouTube has more than 160,000 subscribers; that other hits by TUS have several million of views; and that a large percentage of TUS and other such rappers’ audience are teenagers.

Nonetheless, in many other ways the crisis has also had positive effects on the Greek art world. While shops put locks and many parts of Athens were deserted by fear of protests and violent episodes, graffiti on ran-down walls branded the city with a new, vibrant and revolutionary aesthetics. New forms of collective, cultural and artistic community actions started taking place, in many cases in self-ran open spaces, while Athens for the last four years has been proudly organising an LGBTI movie festival.

Artists started being proactive, looking for new ways to promote and sell their artworks, including on the web and on cyber-art platforms; musicians, comedians, performers, handicraft makers and street artists are visible in all parts of Greece; and independent film makers and theatre companies as well as small festivals mushroomed, including in smaller cities and on the islands. Theatre producers, comic artists, newspapers illustrators and all forms of satirists along with students, bloggers, journalists and academics have found themselves contributing to Greece’s cultural and political awakening and, despite censorship, boosting their political message.

In many instances, as in the case of Xiros’s play, the message was perhaps more provocative than what society can handle. In other instances, however, it became strong and fearless. In one of the most controversial cartoons that appeared during the negotiations for the new bailout deal in 2015, cartoonist Tasos Anastasiou portrayed Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, dressed in Nazi uniform. Published in the daily Avgi, the cartoon was accompanied by the caption ‘Negotiations have started’, with Schäuble stating in a bubble: ‘We insist on the soap from your fat… We are prepared to discuss the fertiliser from your ashes’. The cartoon was criticised not only by Schäuble himself, who stated that the cartoonist ‘should be ashamed of himself’, but also by the umbrella group ‘Jewish Communities of Greece’ that denounced the cartoon as ‘insulting and odious’.

The Prime Minister, Mr Tsipras, explained in the Greek Parliament that such cartoons are ‘way too provocative’ highlighting that ‘they do not represent the Greek government’. In a letter to the Communities published online, Anastasiou replied: “The controversial cartoon … was not intended to be “humorous”, nor to make someone laugh. It contained a lot of pain, a lot of anger and sought precisely the opposite: to remind that the concepts about the ‘Untermenschen’ i.e., those who should be treated inhumanely by the ‘Aryan’ race, do not belong, unfortunately, to Europe’s past […] There was no intention to challenge the historical memory or disrespect for the most savage and repulsive moment in modern history, the Holocaust.”

Anastasiou’s drawing that sparked controversy  (Source:

Self-censorship on the rise
Greece’s approach to freedom of artistic expression is hybrid. Its Constitution solemnly proclaims that ‘arts are free’ with no further qualification; yet the number of attempts to prosecute artists and curators do not do justice to this proclamation. When it comes to religion and public morals, the public as well as first instance courts appear to follow a traditional and relatively conservative direction similar to Muslim and Eastern European states. In respect of other issues however, including hate speech and Holocaust denial, it seems rather influenced by the American model on freedom of expression standards, where speech is free (and restrictions content-neutral) unless there is evidence of incitement to violence.

This practice is in many ways contrary to contemporary international practice. Although at the international level there is a clear trend to consider blasphemy laws and religious defamation outdated, in Greece legal controversies and artistic prosecutions for blasphemy are common, even in respect of relatively innocuous art works. In 1988, a civil law first instance court allowed seizure of an artwork – while in 2004 a criminal Court condemned a Belgian cartoonist for blasphemy. Furthermore, despite the significant developments in the area of LGBT rights, any representation of homosexuality in the media leads to considerable social outcry, and moreover, despite the European trend to consider Holocaust denial a crime, in Greece until 2006 holocaust denial raised little concern because, as an Appeal Court had then said, the ‘pen is free’. At the same time, global hate speech controversies that shook the world such as the controversy over the ‘Danish cartoons’ in 2005 passed almost unnoticed in Greece, with the public sentiment being in favour of non-publication of the contentious drawings. Contrary to other European cities, the protests following Charlie Hebdo were equally minimally attended in Athens.

In terms of procedures, triggering a prosecution and even a criminal trial at the first instance for either blasphemy or outrage of public morals is relatively easy under the current legal framework. The seizure of any offensive, either immoral or blasphemous material is allowed under Article 14 of the Greek Constitution. In this context, artists and curators commonly ‘rush’ to take down any offensive artworks, for fear of a criminal conviction. It is relatively simple for any individual who feels offended to file a civil law action claiming an offence against his or her moral sentiment or religious beliefs, since both blasphemy and offences against public morals are understood by the Greek courts as involving an active infringement contrary to one’s personality rights. If artists are found liable, seizure is again possible as a provisional measure and compensation is due to victims.

This legal framework is amenable to abuse, as demonstrated by the series of cases that stop at the first instance courts – and rarely reach appeal stage, like Haderer’s blasphemous comic. Although the Greek Court of Cassation (Άρειος Πάγος) as well as the Supreme Administrative Court (ΣτΕ) have never ruled against artistic freedom, they has significantly contributed to raising self-censorship among artists and maintain the culture of vexatious jurisdiction from which Greece suffers.

This state of affairs further raises alarming questions of censorship since the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent rise of right-wing extremism. The murder of Fyssas as well as the protests against any form of art that is found to promote ‘gay attitudes’ or which is otherwise allegedly offensive to (Christian) religious beliefs indicate that the crisis has not only had financial effects, but considerable legal and social ones.

Eleni Polymenopoulou is Lecturer in Law at Brunel University in London, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on cultural rights, with a specific interest in the intersections between arts, religions and the law. Prior her academic appointment, she has worked as a practicing artist, illustrator and children literature writer, as well as a legal researcher in a number of NGOs in Greece, France and the UK, including at the international organisation for freedom of expression, Article19.

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in September 2016.

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