Greece: media freedom under attack


In a democracy, the media must keep authority and government in check. In Greece it increasingly feels that it works the other way around.

Take the story of Thanasis Koukakis, a 43-year-old financial journalist who works for CNN Greece and contributes to CNBC, the Financial Times and the Greek research firm Inside Story. Citing national security concerns, the Greek National Intelligence Service, managed directly by the Prime Minister’s office, intercepted his communications in 2020 while investigating the affairs of Greek bankers and businessmen. When the journalist became aware of this, the government tried to cover up the traces of the interception. Shortly after, his cell phone was infected with the Predator spyware. The software allows the user to gain full access to a target’s phone to extract data, contacts and messages, including those sent via encrypted applications, as well as turn on the microphone and access the camera.

Koukakis is not the only victim of interception by the National Intelligence Service. Reports from Solomon, a team of investigative journalists investigating the conditions of migrants in Greece, Iliana Papangeli and Stavros Malichudis also found they had been subject to surveillance by Greek intelligence, which monitored their work with minors on the island of Kos. .

Shortly after the pair discovered the Secret Service’s interest in their coverage, they broke another story, about an NGO dealing with migrant housing that may have had ties to political figures. The answer? A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

In another case, Stavroula Poulimeni, a member of a journalists’ cooperative called AlterThess, was indicted by a gold mine director convicted of serious environmental crimes in northern Greece. The businessman accused her of processing his “sensitive personal information” by reporting on his previous criminal conviction.

The government seems to approve such legal gambits. A new law authorizes the National Radio and Television Council (NCRTV) to impose periodic administrative fines on newspapers for defamation. The NCRTV has jurisdiction over channels that use public frequencies. This concerns the Athens Daily Newspaper Journalists’ Union, which claims that the new regulation directly conflicts with articles on press freedom under the Greek constitution.

Under this law, the fines will be claimed by the majority shareholders if the publishing company fails to pay, and will be collected by the private monopoly distributor of Argos, owned by a government-friendly media mogul. The Journalists’ Union says the new rule threatens the viability of the media, especially the smaller, independent media.

A similar alarm was raised by the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a group that monitors press freedom in the European community. “Challenges to media independence and journalists’ safety are systemic in Greece,” a recent report claimed.

It states that news that is inconvenient for the government, including investigations into serious human rights violations, is not widely reported. This poses a significant barrier to the public’s access to information and subsequently to their informed participation in the democratic process.

According to the MFRR’s immigration policy, human rights violations in its implementation and the humanitarian crisis caused by the influx of migrants are highly sensitive topics for the government. Journalists face barriers including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance and harassment when attempting to report on these topics. And even when independent journalists rely on official information, they face a complete lack of transparency or even refusal to provide information.

Going after the messenger: the cases of Vaxevanis and Papadakou

In January, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis survived a no-confidence vote tabled in parliament by the left-wing opposition over the government’s handling of a blizzard that paralyzed the country. In a speech to parliament, Mitsotakis referred to the journalists who exposed the Novartis corruption scandal in Greece as a “gang” that is “free to practice character assassination” – a term interpreted as an outright attempt to influence the judiciary. .

A few days earlier, prosecutors had sued Kostas Vaxevanis, the editor of the publication Documento, and Yianna Papadakou, a former television host, before the High Court of Athens. They accused the two journalists of crimes related to their reporting of government officials, including ex-ministers, who allegedly took bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to control the pricing of specific drugs.

The accused politicians have dismissed the charges and claim they are politically motivated. This is despite the fact that the US Department of Justice fined Novartis $347 million in 2020 over the case. While not disclosing any names, the company admitted to making illegal payments to Greek providers.

The anti-corruption prosecutor’s investigation, which began in 2016, closed the case against two Greek lawmakers in January. However, a second investigation continues in Greece, looking into an alleged conspiracy between a former minister, the corruption prosecutors investigating the Novartis case, and the two journalists.

Participation in a criminal group, cooperation in abuses and two charges of complicity in abuse of power are among the allegations against the journalists. Under a new penal code provision passed just weeks ago, minor offenses related to a “criminal group” will now lead to actual prison terms.

In other words, Papadakou and Vaxevanis, who reported extensively on the Novartis scandal, could face jail time. Such a prosecution could, in fact, set a disturbing precedent. It also raises concerns about whether whistleblower witnesses in the Novartis case will still be considered credible, or whether they will also be charged.

It is worth noting that Greece was one of 17 European countries that failed to incorporate a new whistleblower protection directive into their legal systems and is now coming under pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the burden by reducing journalists’ rights to access information.

Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Greece 70th in its global press freedom index, five positions lower than in 2020. The country’s position has steadily declined over the past decade, a trend that is likely to continue, judging by recent events. .

The government vehemently denies those allegations and emphasizes that pluralism is allowed in the country. But democracy is guaranteed when the press is free to speak the truth against power. That should not be the job of the courts to determine and decide.

Vera Jourova, the EU’s Commissioner for Values ​​and Transparency, openly warned that “the 2022 Rule of Law Report will pay particular attention to developments related to press freedom and the security of journalists”.

These concerns have become especially concerning in the case of the murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, outside his home a year ago. Despite pressure from Greek and European journalist associations, little progress has been made in the case and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

Even conservative politicians are now expressing concerns about press freedom in the country, suggesting, which many of us fear, that the conservative Greek government has been seduced by the populist conservative turn of countries across Europe, and no longer aspires to participate. part of the so-called moderate-liberal-conservative milieu.

The trend in Greece is indicative of the broader tension rising in some EU countries over the rule of law and the protection of freedoms – the EU’s core values. But the situation in Greece is turning particularly grim on press matters as the issues pile up, gradually drawing the attention of more media freedom watchdogs. Seven groups, including Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists, now express “serious concerns” over the Koukakis case. The Greek government should do more to protect press freedom.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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