An interview with Antonis Bougias
What do you do, when your country is holding the biggest trial of a Nazi party since Nuremberg, and the media can’t be trusted to cover it properly?
I spoke to Antonis Bougias, a key person of the Golden Dawn Watch grassroots journalism project in Greece, to find out. We talk about the rise and fall of Golden Dawn, the project and the media failures that made it necessary, how to measure impact, and the challenge of trying to remain impartial in the face of neo-nazi ideology.
Antonis gives us some great insight into an unconventional but effective digital activism project. The far-right is gaining power across the world, so the story of how he and his colleagues are tackling them in Greece, is increasingly relevant for all of us.
About the podcast
Theta Project is a podcast about confronting power, and the people who do it.
Transcript of the interview
What do you do, when your country is holding the biggest trial of a Nazi party since Nuremberg, and the media can’t be trusted to cover it properly?
Now, while some may rush off to hold marches, or write angry letters, my guest today did something quite different. He helped organise a grassroots journalism operation to cover the trial day by day.
His name is Antonis Bougias, the country is Greece, and the party in question is the infamous Golden Dawn, once Greece's third largest political force.
Antonis is what I would call a ‘fire in the belly’ activist. He's passionate, militant but he's also very strategic and driven by results.
We did this interview in March 2020, just before all the Coronavirus craziness started. We talk about the rise and fall of Golden Dawn, the project and the media failures that made it necessary, how to measure impact, and the challenge of trying to remain impartial in the face of neo-nazi ideology.
I really enjoyed this conversation. Antonis is a rare breed, very inspiring, and he shifted my views a bit on how we label things we dislike.
OK, let’s get to it.
ANTONIS: My name is Antonis Bougias, I'm also known as Ypopto Mousi in the Greek social media landscape. I do digital communications, grassroots research and journalism.
We are doing a project about the Golden Dawn trial, called Golden Dawn Watch. And the major purpose of it is to disseminate information and broadcast what’s going on in the trial day by day.
It’s a trial that goes on for almost five years now. We are talking about a criminal organisation trial. Golden Dawn is a far-right, Nazi party, that used to be in the Greek parliament up to the last elections of 2019.
The rise of the Golden Dawn party
MEHRAN: Could you tell us a little bit about the history of the Golden Dawn party in Greece?
ANTONIS: They existed in the Greek scene since the beginning of 1980. They were mostly skinheads, like a club, in a way, like a secret club.
They began their presence in the streets during the mid eighties with attacks on communists and anarchists. And then, during the beginning of the nineties, when we had a huge influx of migrants from Albania, they formed their anti-migrant platform, which eventually in 2012, along with memoranda in Greece and the financial crisis and so on, gave them the chance to participate in the elections and go into the Greek parliament.
MEHRAN: Just to be clear, when we're talking about memoranda, we're talking about the very harsh, destructive austerity measures that Greece had to implement.
MEHRAN: And if I'm not mistaken, in 2012, Golden Dawn became the third largest political force with 7% of the vote.
ANTONIS: Yes, unfortunately, that anti-memorandum and anti-migration platform, sounded attractive to a small but important percentage of our fellow citizens in Greece.
MEHRAN: Do they self-identity as a neo-Nazi party? How would they term themselves?
ANTONIS: They label themselves populist nationalists. They try to create an image like Le Pen's National Front in France, or Salvini's coalition. But, a few of us that were watching Golden Dawn since the end of the nineties and the beginning of 2000s, we knew that we had to do with a national socialistic group.
But they knew that Nazi ideology, was something a bit strange for most Greeks. Because we fought in the second world war, we had lots of victims.
We saw during the trial all the evidence proving our notion of Golden Dawn as a Nazi party. People taking oaths under the Wehrmacht flag. People having Swastika tattoos. We saw people following the leader as the Führer..
The fall of Golden Dawn, and the failure of the media
MEHRAN: What went wrong for Golden Dawn, and, to make them end up in a five-year trial?
ANTONIS: Golden Dawn based their political positioning on acts of violence, perpetrated by people that were part of their political organisation.
We saw an escalation of political violence in streets, with the signature and the stamp of Golden Dawn, because they were wearing uniforms, they were waving flags, they had shields. We had several attacks, attempted murders, arsons, attacks on migrants, attacks on communists, on far-left organisations.
The most known case was the murder of rap musician Pavlos Fyssas. The murderer was a member of the local chapter of Golden Dawn. And the people that assisted him were people that were also members of the same chapter.
So, all of these got together in a huge case file and they were indicted in 2014, with charges of participating in and administrating a criminal organisation. And were indicted in a trial that is still on.
MEHRAN: This trial is coming to a close presumably in the next couple of months, I mean we're speaking now in March 2020. But if I understand correctly, you would expect that the news of this trial, and information of this trial would be quite widespread, that the public would be very interested in the progress of the trial. However, the media landscape in Greece is quite particular is it not? Could you elaborate a little bit further on that?
ANTONIS: Well, of course the media landscape in Greece is not so liberal as we would like it to be. First of all, it's been concentrated in the hands of a few.
But the thing with Golden Dawn, and the thing with the ways that were portrayed in the media prior to their indictment... I think that played a huge role in how the media actually covered, or no, their indictment and then the trial.
Because, prior to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, which was the case that blew everything apart, Golden Dawners were portrayed as patriots, and as an authentic movement, that was trying to help Greeks in their everyday struggles.
A myth was created out of an imagery that was broadcasted through mainstream media, that after the indictment and after Pavlos Fyssas murder, collapsed.
MEHRAN: So, the media, as a result of all their facilitating, enabling coverage prior to that, could not be depended on to cover the trial.
ANTONIS: Well, that's one thing. And the other thing is that, lots of the media didn't think that the trial was going to be sexy, as an issue to report on. They didn't see it as a chance for democracy to re-establish its ground, as a chance for the people to understand what's going on with such a far-right Nazi group. They saw it as an occasional drama.
Like, when the Golden Dawn MPs and members of Golden Dawn got arrested, there was a huge show for two or three days on the television, with Golden Dawn MPs, with handcuffs, going in and out of judicial buildings and cop cars and so on. All of a sudden all these outlets that were portraying them as patriots, now they were portraying them as the new criminal circus of Greece.
We were talking about the biggest trial of a Nazi party after the Nuremberg trials, and they wouldn't even admit that. Because in the core of Golden Dawn's ideology was a set of elements they could recognise in their own selves, in the mind of the average Greek citizen. That exceptionalism, that bit of racism, the great history that Greece has in nationalism. All these things created like a bubble that the media didn't want to go in and break it.
How Golden Dawn Watch was born, and how it works
MEHRAN: Right. So let’s take a step back for a minute. It’s 2015. Greece. We've got the trial of a neo-nazi party, which is something unprecedented. They're being tried for murder, for being a criminal organisation, among other charges. And, you've got a media that is simply not up to the task of following the trial, and making sure that the public are very aware of the momentous nature of this trial and how important every twist and turn is for democracy, for the legacy of this awful thing which has happened in Greece.
As a grassroots journalist and digital marketing expert, what's your solution to this?
ANTONIS: Considering that formations like Golden Dawn use two different imageries, two different ways of speaking and narrating what they want and what they do... One narrative was that they were popular nationalists, they were patriots, they were trying to help. And below that, the national socialist narrative, with all the things that I said before. The oaths under the Wehrmacht flag, the recruiting of young people, the military style, the violence and so on.
I thought that we need to put a light on the second part of their narrative.
So, initiatives got together that were from the biggest part of the political spectrum in Greece. Leftists, anarchists, centrists, socialists. And said that we need to cover the trial. So, all these people created the observatory for the trial of Golden Dawn, that was called Golden Dawn Watch. And its main goal was to disseminate information and to broadcast almost in realtime, what was being said in the courtroom, through social media and web channels.
MEHRAN: Some people listening might be wondering, how do you do that? Where do you start, what are the mechanics of putting together that kind of an operation? Because I would imagine that you need people to go and sit in the trial... because it’s not being televised this trial.
ANTONIS: No it’s not .
MEHRAN: There is not the national interest through the media that there ought to be, which is precisely the problem. So, you need a team of people to listen in, and then you need people to transcribe it, and then you need someone who can actually put that together into a compelling and interesting narrative and put it out there, distribute it... so all of this takes time, money, resources, energy. How do you do that?
ANTONIS: Almost half of these five years it's been run by volunteers. The initiatives that began and founded Golden Dawn Watch, sometimes these organisations fund the initiative of the observatory.
There are three distinctive teams on the Golden Dawn Watch observatory. One team is the team of lawyers. They observe what is going on, they take turns on each trial day, they put information online. They try to convey whatever is going on almost in real time.
The other team is the back office team, that takes what the lawyers are listening to, and corrects it, and confirms it through their archives, and then disseminates it through social media, Twitter and Facebook, the official social media of the observatory.
And the third team, is the editorial team. We are taking this information, we create a webcast each week.
So in that way, we have a complete dissemination each week and each month, on what's going on in the trial.
MEHRAN: The trial is not every single day, right? It’s not 1500 days of trial here. We are looking at...
ANTONIS: We are looking at something like ten to 13 trial days per month. And in terms of text, each trial day has something like 40 to 80 A4 pages per proceedings day.
MEHRAN: And at the end of every day, you and the editorial team have to distil all of that content into a video which lasts what, half an hour, 45 minutes?
ANTONIS: Sometimes 45 minutes, sometimes 1 or 1.5 hours. We've done webcasts that were 2-2.5 hours. We've had guests from the civil prosecution. We've had witnesses that already testified on the stand and came afterwards to our webcast to share their experience...
MEHRAN: You mentioned earlier that one of the reasons that the media didn't really want to cover this is because it's not sexy enough for them. And the Greek legal process is quite a slow-moving thing. How do you address that challenge, and keep the interest?
ANTONIS: To begin with, I'm not sure if I'm keeping the interest! The issue here is to combine visual elements of the case file, all the things that were proving the charges, with actually what was going on in the courtroom. Like, when they were examining one of the cases, I would put out videos that were confiscated from the hard disks of the defendants of that case, in order for the people to understand what was being discussed in the trial when one lawyer was saying that ‘in that video you Mr Defendant said that or did that’. `So I tried to combine these things for the people to understand.
Measuring the project’s impact
MEHRAN: You said before that you're not sure that you're having an impact. Then I would ask you: with an activist project of this depth -- I mean it's a very long term thing but it’s also a very single-issue campaign -- what are your metrics to understand when you're making a difference?
ANTONIS: We need to think about impact in two different ways. The impact that we are going to have in the present time, that the trial goes on. And the impact that is going to be happening in the future.
For the first part, we have some benchmarks on digital communications, in terms of time and viewers and conversion rates and so on. We never fall under 100 to 120 people on the realtime broadcast, and sometimes we've reached three or four hundred people. And more than 2 to 3,000 views when we upload the video.
And, that's really important. We're talking about a webcast that exceeds 45 to 60 minutes. These are numbers that people in the digital communications area know, are non-existing. So, we can see that we have an impact through the years. For the present time.
But for the future, we don’t know what the impact is going to be. Because, you don’t have any other coverage for these proceedings elsewhere.
MEHRAN: To what extent are you infiltrating the narrative in Greece and beyond, with the content that you're putting out? Because those people that you quoted me, you've got 100, 120 people now watching these one-hour webcasts, which is considerable. I mean they're really glued to it. Those could be very influential people who could also be carrying that message to wider audiences. Or they could just be observers who would rather tune in to Golden Dawn Watch than watch a soap on television. Is there any way of distinguishing?
First of all I think it’s the impact that I see with people that I meet in various events. People are coming up to me and saying ‘I saw the show last Friday’, and ‘keep up the good work’. That’s one thing. But you cannot measure that.
And there’s another thing that I’ve seen, mostly in the digital sphere: people answering to far-right trolls and far-right accounts and profiles, with material and narratives from the show. Providing the counter-narrative, of the actual defense narrative.
The challenges of staying impartial
MEHRAN: On that note: When it comes to counter-narratives, in my opinion one of the most important principles is to show, rather than tell. And, in the case of these lawyers prosecuting Golden Dawn, all of that evidence is being shown.
So, how opinionated are you in these shows that you're putting together? Do you try to put that down and let the evidence tell the story itself, or do you find it very hard to resist injecting your own opinion into this, which of course is very against Golden Dawn and hopes that they're acquitted?
ANTONIS: Of course it's really hard to not be opinionated in front of a national socialist party. OK? History has shown what happened to the people that were not so opinionated.
But, we are in a legal procedure. We have defendants that have rights, and I cannot deny that. OK? I cannot deny that the proceedings. I cannot deny the way justice works -- even if it's not how I would like it to be. Because I need to accept the way justice works in order to participate in the debate.
I put a really big effort not to be so opinionated. I try to have a balance in terms of: ’they have the right to say whatever they want'. The judicial system is not against them, is not trying them in terms of their ideology. It's trying them in terms of their crimes.
But there's a twist to that. On the indictment, it's being said really really clearly, that the major motive of their crimes is their ideology. And the way that they try to convey that message through violence.
So, all these things, in everything that I do regarding Golden Dawn Watch and the trial, I have to have always under my consideration. Not easy, but I need to do that.
MEHRAN: But also, isn’t it important for what you just said, the impact of this record in the future, this record that you are creating with Golden Dawn Watch? Because, this is the only record, really, of this trial. Right? So, what you don't want is for people in five or ten years to be going through your material and saying ‘well, obviously these guys are all cherrypicking the facts, it's obviously a hit job’, etc. Because then that will diminish the impact of the truth that you’re presenting, won’t it?
ANTONIS: Well it depends who says that. Because on the part of the Golden Dawn supporters, their bias, they cannot get over it. I don't care about that. I need people to understand what's going on in there, why they are getting tried. That’s why I said the impact in the future is not known right now.
Let me put it in another way. Were the Nuremberg trials biased?
MEHRAN: Good point.
Far-right ideology, and violence, in Greece today
OK, looking at the situation in Greece now. It's March 2020. There was a recent piece in The Guardian, saying that "the deep wells of anger that the neo-Nazis attempted to draw from has now dried up". Implying that far-right ideology is no longer mainstream in Greece.
Explain this to me: what’s the picture today about far right ideology in Greece?
ANTONIS: Well first we have to understand that as I said before, Greece has a huge history of nationalistic far-right ideology. Modern Greece was based on a thing called ‘the big idea’, that was designed and implemented during the 1920s and 30s. We are a bit like the Americans or the Israelis. We feel for ourselves that we are exceptional. Our education has all those things inside it. It’s something that lies deep inside Greek culture and society.
When crisis comes, all these elements are coming to the surface. It's like when the lake is dried up, you can see the skeletons in the bottom.
MEHRAN: But if Golden Dawn is no longer around, what will be the outlet, what will be the organising force for all this nationalism and far-right sentiment?
ANTONIS: First of all, part of Golden Dawn's platform and ideology now is part of the government party's platform and ideology.
MEHRAN: The centre-right New Democracy government of Mitsotakis.
ANTONIS: Yes. They have a really far-right flank, that reproduces the narrative of Golden Dawn. If we see Golden Dawn MPs speeches in the parliament in 2012 and 2013, they were talking about closed migrant centres, mines on the borders, they were talking about fences. And now we, we hear all these things through the spokesman of the current government.
And there’s another thing. It’s a new party from a guy that used to be in New Democracy. He created a party called ‘Greek Solution’. He got into the parliament in the last elections. And he's the spokesman of the far-right elements that don't want to follow a centre-right party.
MEHRAN: And is the violence, that politically-motivated violence that you described earlier, is that element still present on the Greek streets?
ANTONIS: Now it gets a bit more dangerous. Because, we saw in the past two weeks, the same things: attacks on migrants, militias in the night looking for migrants and people working for NGOs and so on. We saw that.
Not in the organised way that we were used to seeing that in Golden Dawn's actions in the street. But we saw that from plain ordinary people, youth and so on.
An activist’s guide to tackling the far-right
MEHRAN: What would you say to someone listening to this in their country, who sees the far-right on the rise, and who wants to confront this? What would be the first step that you would advise them to take? Resources, points of contact, things that they can do that could make a difference in the short term.
ANTONIS: First of all, they should connect. With other initiatives, with people that have the same need for action. Create teams, and try to put down ideas.
And then try to put some things in action... even if they are wrong.
Connect. Learn. Information. Trial and error. These are the steps for me.
MEHRAN: Are there any kind of resources or international networks that you are aware of, that would facilitate those kinds of connections that you're describing that people should make?
ANTONIS: For example, in Germany there is NSU Watch. Which actually was the basis of the idea for Golden Dawn Watch.
In the UK, there is Hope Not Hate, a great group that is doing great work on the far-right. Especially with the Brexit issues.
In the US, we met some people called Unicorn Riot, and they had a huge success, by putting online, leaking, all the messages that were on a server dedicated to far-right groups in the US. And they leaked that.
So, we have actions. If someone wants to do stuff, he just needs to, you know, search a bit, connect and start trialling.
MEHRAN: Yeah. I think that touches on something really important with grassroots activism, that if you're looking to tackle a problem, your first step should be to go out there and see who else is tackling it and how. Best practice you can learn from and adapt. Instead of making it up as you go along.
OK, I have two more questions. And these are personal.
What drives Antonis’ activism
I first met you in 2011 at the Syntagma Square ‘Indignants’ protest. And, you are quite a rare example of a citizen activist that has never stopped being active since then. What motivates you?
ANTONIS: Life is not only: wake up, go to work, try and hunt a salary or money or whatever, come back, sit on your couch and watch TV, die a bit and then all over again the next morning.
We need to understand that we can affect the things that are going on around us. And, in order to understand that, we need to try it. We need to attempt to influence; we need to attempt to do stuff. Even if they are wrong.
We need to tackle issues that are going to create a better tomorrow for everyone. We need to also defend rights and things that humanity earned with blood and stressful situations.
If we don’t do that, who is going to do it?
We have institutions that are collapsing, we have no trust in politicians, we have no trust in the system...
So, OK, what are we gonna do, just sit and watch? We are going to go nagging day by day and that's gonna be our life? No, I don't want my life to be like that. I don't want to be the nagger. Saying that everything sucks. OK, everything sucks -- what can we do about it?
MEHRAN: Got it. Nice.
Could you recommend two or three books that are related to the kinds of topics that we're discussing?
ANTONIS: I will propose two different books. One for the big picture and one for activism.
The first book that really affected me was “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. Every time I read it I find something new. It gives me the big picture.
And the other one, which is more focused, is called “Twitter and Tear Gas” by Zeynep Tufecki. It focuses on the Square movement, movements in Turkey, in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece. And it provides you with the image of: Yes, we can be active, we have tools in our hands that nobody had prior to our generations. We can use them to create change, to tackle issues that concerns , we can use them to improve our world.
MEHRAN: Well, that’s absolutely great. Really valuable stuff, really interesting conversation. Thank you very much.
ANTONIS: Thank you.