Interview with Franziska Grillmeier (translated) for World Refugee Day

ECPMF: Franziska Grillmeier, you have been working on the topic of refugees and migration for a long time and live on the island of Lesvos in Greece. For some years now, most people have been familiar with this island, especially with regard to the Moria refugee camp, which burned down last year in the fall.

June 20th is the annual World Refugee Day. Among other things, you report primarily with migration and refugees at Europe’s external border. What journalistic challenges does this particular area bring?

Franziska Grillmeier: We are seeing a dismantling of the rule of law, with regard to refugee rights, such as brutal pushing back at the borders or asylum procedures that are no more than façades. But we, as the press, actually have hardly any access to document this anymore. I’ve been on the island [Lesvos] now since the summer of 2018. In the beginning, I could just be there when a rubber dinghy arrived, there was access to courtrooms and the Moria camp. I could meet people, talk with them in their tents for hours about their life, about their current circumstance. Three years later, this is no longer possible. Since 9th September 2020, when Moria burned down, I can only enter the camp with a police escort. The international press was admitted to the new temporary camp only in rare, guided press tours. As a result, dignified, independent reporting is no longer possible.

We see the same thing with the court cases. The so-called arsonists of Moria were sentenced to ten years imprisonment, during which national and international press representatives or human rights observers were not allowed in. Only 15 people were allowed in the courtroom.

These are always cases where it becomes enormously difficult to get through to people and do your own work.  Like after the fire, when over 10,000 people were trapped and the police wouldn’t let us through for alleged security reasons. We had to find alternative paths and routes through the olive tree fields to talk to the people. Here we can see a deliberate restriction of freedom of the press.

ECPMF: The exclusion of the press from the trial about the fire in Moria was explained by the authorities by Corona hygiene restrictions. How can it still be guaranteed that the reporting is accurate if you can’t do your own research on-site?

Grillmeier: That is an important question. In the case of the court verdict, I naturally speak with the lawyers, since I cannot speak with the defendants and get a picture of the proceedings and atmosphere.

There are often reports of witnesses being intimidated by an overly large police presence, of a rude tone and racist remarks by the judiciary in the courtroom. At this trial, the four young Afghans, including three minors, were identified by a key witness who was not even present in court. Moreover, none of the invited 15 prosecution witnesses in the courtroom could confirm having seen the defendants on the alleged night of the crime. These are all things that violate fundamental rights.

As journalists, however, it is difficult for us in retrospect to reconstruct everything exactly, since we were not admitted to the courtroom.

ECPMF: It is also difficult to report freely in other places. It was only in April of this year that media professionals were able to visit the new camp. How do you assess the situation of press freedom here?

Grillmeier: I used to be in Moria almost every other day, sitting there for hours and eating with people and also allowing silence. I am a trained reporter, I need these nuances. These are no longer possible when we meet at the supermarket parking lot, where the camp residents are still allowed to stay.

Crouching next to shopping carts to conduct an interview with a torture survivor does not work and often leads to enormous retraumatization. There is no safe space.

Voices are vehemently restricted, media professionals are rigorously intimidated.

ECPMF: How did the last press conference in the camp go?

Grillmeier: The last time in the camp was for 30 minutes in a group of 30, 35 other media people who all tried to take photos very quickly. The camp residents were not informed, they didn’t know who was interviewing them, we weren’t allowed to introduce ourselves, we weren’t allowed to talk to some of the people. The press representatives of the Ministry of Migration repeatedly dragged me away by the sleeve. This is no way to get a picture of the situation.

People are supposed to become more and more like ghosts. They are removed from the public eye, while the narrative is pushed that everything is under control. Voices of camp residents are vehemently restricted, as are those of media professionals, who are rigorously intimidated. This is like a legal limbo in which the refugees find themselves.

Lack of transparency, unanswered inquiries, arrests

ECPMF: What role do political institutions like the Greek government and the EU play in the changing situation of press freedom?

Grillmeier: There is a basic feeling of being pushed into the corner of fake news by the Greek government. At a press conference in March, Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis and EU Commissioner Eva Johannson faced the national and international press after the EU gave money for five new high-security camps on the Aegean islands. The government was asked about illegal push-backs that have been proven to take place in the Aegean time and again. This was called ‘Fake News’ and that we should do our job properly. Often there are outright defamation campaigns, in the course of which one is accused of [being] “lügen presse” [English: the lying press].

This is a climate in which quite open criticism is no longer allowed. There is a great lack of transparency and delays in responses to press inquiries.

This extends to arbitrary arrests, on the coast, of various colleagues, which we were able to observe in Samos and Lesvos last year. If I was at the spot when a rubber dinghy with refugees arrived, I knew that I would be taken to the police station and that I could be accused of human trafficking, because no documentation of violations of the law is wanted.

So I ask myself the question: at what price do I go there?

Of course, I try to stick to the rules, but sometimes you get the feeling that they can change within a few hours and that even the police often don’t know which access journalists do or don’t have.

We don’t yet know exactly what the situation will be of the new camps in the future. These new camps are being built in the hinterland, out of public view. That causes us great concern about how we are supposed to do our job and check how EU standards are being met there, without us being able to get in there.

The public’s eye must not go blind

ECPMF: Can the local media and journalists still fulfil their function here?

Grillmeier: As long as they don’t report on it, it simply doesn’t exist. It is the public’s eye that must not go blind there. Independent observers are needed on the ground. That is a fundamental right that must not be restricted.

I would not have thought possible this rapid dismantling of the rule of law that we have seen in the last year alone, in the courtrooms, but also in the freedom of the press.

But this is not only being done by the Greek government, it is also being done in full awareness by EU member states, who see this as the price of securing borders. Not only in Greece, but also on the Bosnian-Croatian border, on the Italian-French border, state actors intimidate the press, or the police prevent them from working.  So the field of work reflects the limbo in which the refugees find themselves, where lawlessness prevails.

Waiting for the next escalation

ECPMF: What risks does this change bring with it?

Grillmeier: There is incredible pressure on the people in the camps. The consequences of isolation are enormous. According to Doctors Without Borders, the psychological consequences of the camp conditions are more severe than ever before. For many refugees, the will to survive is becoming less and less due to the isolation.

Personally, I don’t feel threatened at the moment. But it was different last March, when we were attacked again and again, like many humanitarian workers and refugees, by right-wing extremist groups, which prevented us from working. I was attacked in the car or prevented from driving to the camp with stones and sticks. We got out of that situation okay, but the general atmosphere was tense. It was a flurry of activity. The frustration of the islanders exploded, many radical right-wing groups mobilised from all over Greece and to some extent other European countries. This resulted in great insecurity for weeks. Many left the island for security reasons. It’s different now and I can work and live there, also because there are still acts of great courage among the tireless islanders, who have been working in solidarity for years. Nevertheless, every upswing wears off once in a while, and you never know when the mood will change again.

I still wouldn’t put on a press vest now and think that I’m protected by that, rather the opposite.

ECPMF: Which actor do you see as having a duty here to take measures to protect press freedom, and what measures could these be?

Grillmeier: In the final analysis, it is the Greek government, but above all the European member states, that must once again comply with EU law and a strong civil society that demands this.

In addition, it certainly helps if the editorial offices in Europe and also in Germany keep an eye on the hurdles that colleagues at the EU borders have to overcome in their work and make this a topic in their reporting.

This is true for Greece, but also to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France, but also to reporters on rescue ships in the Mediterranean or countries with which the EU has concluded refugee agreements, such as Libya or Turkey. There are only a handful of journalists there who report continuously. If there were more, it would do us all a lot of good.

We should also work together more so that we have certain safety nets and don’t feel alone when we are arrested, for example, but the solidarity among us is already great.

Franziska Grillmeier (Copyright: Julian Busch)

Our interview partner

Franziska Grillmeier is a freelance journalist and reporter. Her focus is on political and social issues such as health care in war and crisis situations, international law, Middle East, migration and trauma.
She lives on the island of Lesvos, in Greece.

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