On Friday, September 11, Iason Athanasiadis had just finished reporting from the streets in front of Kara Tepe, where approximately 12,500 asylum seekers had found refuge since a fire had swept through Moria camp two days earlier. Athanasiadis was on his motorbike returning to Mytilene, when he saw Greek police apprehending several people.
The 41-year-old journalist, on assignment for the German daily Die Welt, parked his motorbike and approached the crowd. He identified himself as a journalist, and tried to talk with a man who had been arrested, who had been participating in a march in solidarity with the refugees.
Police, however, violently handcuffed and persecuted him. Athanasiadis was brought to the police station of Mytilene, the island’s biggest city, along with some of the detained protesters.
Preventing journalists due to “Police operation”
Athanasiadis’ case was highlighted in a report published on September 17 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), condemning the use of “brutal violence and arbitrary bans” by Greek police, to “obstruct reporting on the refugee crisis”.
Six more press freedom organizations — the International Press Institute (IPI), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECMPF), the Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), and Article 19 — also condemned these practices.
In the aftermath of the fire at Moria camp, Europe’s largest refugee accommodation facility until then, Lesvos has attracted global attention. In the days after the fire, reporters, photojournalists, TV-crews and documentarists representing media from countries around the world arrived on the island and embedded themselves among the victims.
During the first days, access to the refugees was still possible. Journalists just needed to park their cars before the checkpoints on either end of the coastal road, where asylum seekers were contained in dismal living conditions, and journalists could report, shoot, film and interview them.
But on the afternoon of September 12, journalists arriving at the checkpoints were told for the first time they were not allowed to enter, as a “police operation” was ongoing. Although the operation was said to last a few minutes, journalists were not allowed inside later that evening either.
They were told they would be allowed to enter the area the following morning, but that proved untrue. And that went on for a couple of days, with the sole exception on some afternoons when journalists were finally allowed to enter the contained area.
When asked about it, representatives of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum attributed the decision to the Greek Police.
“After being allowed access to the people who were sleeping on the streets after the Moria fire, the authorities suddenly began denying access arbitrarily, because they gave many different reasons,” Katy Fallon, who was on Lesvos reporting for The Guardian and Al Jazeera told Solomon.
“First there was a military operation happening. Then that we would be allowed the next day from 8:00 am, and then simply that it was just orders,” she said. “And for many days, even actually until people were in the new camp, we were denied access to people living in the streets without any credible reason given.”
“Greece is supposedly the birthplace of democracy, and free speech,” Fallon added. “Free press and freedom to report is the essential component to any functioning European democracy, so it was quite astonishing to suddenly be denied access for seemingly no reason.”
Allowed to film in the new camp… or rather just the entrance
In other instances, journalists inside the contained area had to submit to ID checks by information agents; in some cases they were asked to leave, while in other cases they were escorted to the local police station.
Solomon, reporting from the ground during that time, gathered testimonies by journalists. “No, especially if you are journalists, no,” was the response officers gave journalists who wanted to cross the checkpoint.
While journalists had to come up with ways to slip into the restricted area, becoming more familiar with the nearby hills as each day passed, they did get invited into the new camp when preparations for it began; but not exactly inside it.
“You have your own space,” a police officer said to a reporter who wanted to enter the area. Their “own space” was a spot just in front of the new facility, which has been built next to the sea.
TV-crews were allowed to report from there, broadcasting as the new facility grew bigger day by day, and the first few hundred asylum seekers were allowed to enter. However, journalists did not have access inside the new camp, where asylum seekers had moved after being promised access to food, running water, showers, electricity, only to find out that electricity was available in a very limited part of the camp, food was provided once a day, and there were no beds, nor showers, or enough portable toilets for all.
Asylum seekers were also promised that on September 21, the Skype interviews for their asylum claims would resume. This was one of the main reasons that, although hesitant, they were persuaded to enter the new camp.
On September 21, however, it was announced that they would have to wait one more week; and one week later they were told that the interviews would start on October 8.
With asylum seekers inside, journalists, for days, only had access to a specified, pre-arranged area just inside the entrance to the camp, where they could get a mini-tour by the Ministry’s spokesperson. Walking on this fine land of about 150 meters, to their left was the windy sea, and to their right was the quarantine area for people who were COVID-19 positive.
A reporter who participated in this mini-tour spoke with quarantined asylum seekers behind the barbed wire and was later called on by a press officer who told him: “Rules were clear, you are not allowed to talk with the refugees.”
Conditions still deplorable, access still restricted
Although during the first days there was no such possibility, a specific number of asylum seekers in the new camp are now allowed to exit the camp daily from 8:00am to 8pm (but not on Sundays). Journalists are still not allowed to enter the new camp.
This has led to asylum seekers operating as journalists themselves. Τhis is not only the case with Refocus media lab students, who are asylum seekers themselves and report from the inside, but with other residents who provide the media and journalists with pictures from inside.
Residents documented how their tents flooded with water and mud following the first rain on Lesvos.
Residents of the new camp told Solomon that there is still no electricity to the greater part of the facility, while food is still provided only once per day. Families still do not have access to beds, and residents do not have access to showers.
One male resident said he got sick because he had to resort to showering in the open, and others shared photos of residents washing themselves in the sea.
Reporting demands that you get as close to reality as possible − something that’s impossible through pre-arranged visits to pre-decided areas of the camp. Thus, Solomon contacted the Ministry of Migration and Asylum and asked if they are considering allowing journalists to access the rest of the premises.
However, we have not received an answer from the Ministry. One afternoon that the Ministry was organizing tour visits in the camp, I ran into an experienced photo-journalist who was there working for foreign and Greek media.
I asked him if he was planning to take part in one of the tours. “This way? This way I am not going inside,” he said, supporting the view of other media professionals as well.
“The time will come, and we will find our way to get inside the way that we should.”