Special Report on Greece. Threats, lawsuits, a journalist killed but little is said about it

Not even the murder of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz, killed in Athens on April 2021, neither threats to another reporter, has changed the situation

This reportage was made as a contribution to the round table on “Justice and freedom of the press: how to stop impunity for crimes against journalists”, organized by Ossigeno and UNESCO, in Syracuse, on 3 November 2021 to celebrate the “International day to end impunity for crimes against journalists “(IDEI) – The author, Elena Kaniadakis, is a Greek journalist, lives in Athens and collaborates with “La Repubblica” and Euronews

OSSIGENO – Athens,  30 October 2021 –  by Elena Kaniadakis – In Greece, the authorities, public opinion and the media do not pay much attention to the numerous threats and intimidations directed at journalists who reveal uncomfortable truths. Yet spurious and intimidating lawsuits inundate the courts; in the last year there have been cases of censoring of the state broadcaster; last April an investigative journalist known throughout the country for his investigations was murdered in Athens and another equally well-known colleague was declared in danger of his life for his work.

The government moreover introduced an amendment to the Criminal Code that provides for jail and fines for those who publish news that can cause concern or fear among citizens or shake trust in the authorities.

All this has not disturbed the usual torpor with which Greece follows these events. No major protests were organized in the country in response to the killing of a journalist, unlike what happened in Slovakia or Malta after the murder of Ján Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia. “Neither has the Greek government given signals nor taken concrete measures to reaffirm its commitment to press freedom,” said Pavol Szalai, responsible for the Balkans region for Reporters Sans Frontiers.

On April 9th 2021, the investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz was shot dead in a suburb of Athens by two unidentified hit men who fled on a motorcycle without leaving any traces.

A few weeks later, the journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher and reporter of Documento – the leading Greek investigative weekly – was placed under police protection. According to information obtained his life appeared to be in grave danger. But the same journalist declared that he does not trust the police and, consequently, the protection of the state in an article addressed to the readers entitled “I am forced to inform you because you are my only protection”.

Vaxevanis and Karaivaz had both dealt with corrupt police, malignant politicians and organized crime. Their dramatic events have stimulated the debate on press freedom in the media and have captured the attention of international observers interested in understanding what is happening to press freedom in Greece.

But over recent months the Greek police have not released information on the progress of the investigations launched to find the culprits of Karaivaz’s death or on the threats to Vaxevanis. Even the Greek press has ceased to pay attention, after the publication of the news articles in the immediate aftermath of the events they stopped dealing with them.

The publisher of Documento considers his dramatic story to be evidence of “a slow and constant process of de-legitimizing the press by the Greek government itself, accustomed to labelling uncomfortable inquiries as false or contentious news”, thus contributing “to creating an ideal climate of hostility for those who want to silence reporters”.

The possibility that the killers of Karaivaz will never be found is to be taken into serious consideration, given another dramatic precedent. In 2010 the journalist Sokratis Golias, known for the investigations on his blog into corruption and organized crime was murdered by gunshot near his home. The murder was claimed by a self-styled group of anarchists, but those responsible have never been identified by the police.

In its latest study on Greece, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) stated that the country represents “a dangerous cocktail for freedom of information”. Pavol Szalai explains how three very alarming processes have occurred in the recent period in Greece: “the killing of a journalist, a high number of arbitrary arrests of reporters in their workplaces and the attempt by the state to control the dissemination of information “. In the annual RSF global ranking of the countries that best safeguard freedom of information, Greece occupies the 70th place: among the European countries only Malta, Hungary and Bulgaria scored worse.

“In Greece – explains Szalai – the relationship between journalists and the police is very different from that, for example, in Italy where reporters trust the police escort they are given. In Greece, on the contrary, the police have been responsible for numerous attacks against journalists, and generally do not enjoy their trust”.

During the period of the pandemic, several photojournalists reported being attacked by the police: fifteen alone during the demonstrations last spring, when the country was in lockdown. Even some professionals of the foreign press, engaged in recent years in reporting the migratory crisis in the Aegean hotspots, have denounced abuses of power and arbitrary arrests by Greek police.

Physical assaults, however, are not the only threat faced by journalists. “Censorship in the workplace is an actual problem even if, for obvious reasons, more difficult to document,” explains Szalai.

At the end of 2020, the journalist Dimitra Kroustalli resigned from the daily newspaper To Vima, due to “suffocating pressure” from the cabinet of the Greek prime minister after the publication of her article on the imperfect monitoring of cases of COVID-19 contagion. At the same time, another respectable journalist, Elena Akrita, resigned from the daily Ta Nea, accusing the newspaper of having censored an article in which she criticized the government, led by the conservative party of Nea Dimokratia.

Moreover, a few months later, some journalists of the state radio and television broadcaster ERT (the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) accused the government of having compelled the news broadcasts to exclude some footage of a public event in which the Greek Prime Minister violated the distancing rules for Covid.

For Vaxevanis, the Greek journalists union also bears some responsibility for what is happening. “Historically, it has always dealt with bureaucratic or economic issues, with unemployment caused by the financial crisis. But the situation has worsened in recent times and requires a different commitment. Today the main problem is how to allow journalists to work without fearing for their lives. The trade union machine moves slowly and – the publisher of Documento adds – in most cases it either does not take a position or aligns itself with the government, as, for example, happened with the Petsas list”. Vaxevanis cites this emblematic case, the Petsas list, of the government’s interference in the Greek press whereby a government loan of 20 million euros destined, at the beginning of the pandemic, for the Greek media, was broadened to include newspapers with insignificant circulation and at the same time arbitrarily denied to some newspapers considered anti-government.

The client politics relationship between political power and journalism is a problem that dates back to the period of the fascist military dictatorship in the years 1967-1974, when the press was used as a sounding board for the colonels’ junta. In the years of democracy, and then in the more recent period of the financial crisis, the country has witnessed, on the one hand, a deregulation of the sector which has favoured the concentration of the media in a few and powerful publishing groups and on the other hand a general impoverishment that made the country more vulnerable to outside interference.

The connivance between politics and crony journalism is reflected in public perception. According to this year’s report from the Reuters Institute of the University of Oxford, only 30 per cent of citizens believe that the news is generally reliable. Another 2017 report also points out that Greece is one of the few European countries where people trust social media more than traditional media. When, in March 2021, many Greek television channels reported in a tendentious way or falsely the clashes with the police that took place in the country, for days the most widespread hash tag on Twitter was “Boycott Greek media”, testifying to the disrepute of the Greek press.

For Nikolara Maki, secretary of the Board of Directors of Esiea, the main union of Greek journalists, “the problem of press freedom has worsened with the economic crisis: many professionals care first of all about their jobs. We cannot talk about freedom of the press when there is job insecurity, “she explains. Maki herself, an ERT employee, denounced in April 2021 on her Facebook page, cases of censorship of some of her television reports regarding episodes of police violence that were never broadcast. For the journalist, “the union could certainly do more, but it is active, for example, by organizing events to raise awareness on the issue and by offering legal support in the case of libel lawsuits”. However, as Apostolos Tsalapatis, an Esiea lawyer explains, the cases of journalists defended by union lawyers are very few: “we provide legal aid to those cases where it is clear, from the outset, that the journalist has exercised his or her job correctly. Many of these are resolved with the acquittal of the journalist “.

In Greek law there is neither specific provision to protect journalists from the so-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) the systematic use of lawsuits to intimidate and stop the journalist’s work nor parliamentary initiatives aimed at protecting the category from this practice.

“The intimidating use of lawsuits is a phenomenon that is very present in Greece – explains Vaxevanis – in the editorial offices of Documento, for example, we are dealing with 80 lawsuits, for each of which we have to spend 3 thousand euros. This is a strategy that isolates the journalist, since the issuing of the lawsuit is passed off as certification in itself of the falsity of the news that is being challenged. In addition, the reporter is induced to self-censorship to avoid facing unsustainable expenses. For this reason – explains the journalist – we support the need for a regulation in the European context that protects journalists from these actions, especially when they are undertaken by those who, unlike reporters, are protected by political immunity”.

In addition, a proposal by the Ministry of Justice to amend article 191 of the Greek Penal Code, relating to the dissemination of false news, has raised concern in recent weeks.

The amended article, inter alia, would punish, with a prison sentence of at least six months and a fine, “anyone who publicly disseminates, through the press or via the Internet, false news that may cause concern or fear among citizens or shake the confidence of the public in the national economy, in the defence capability of the country or in public health”. The same penalty would be imposed on the owner or publisher of the media in which the alleged offences were committed.

In a press release, Esiea highlighted how “due to a vague wording, it is not specified what news consists of and how this differs from the expression of one’s opinion, formulated according to one’s personal judgment, on a specific issue . Journalists thus risk being held responsible for causing concern or fear among citizens, when they express an opinion or a criticism, an action that is an integral part of our mission “.

In other words, the union fears that the judiciary, thanks to this amendment to the Criminal Code, may intervene to limit the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Both the parliamentarians of the main opposition party, Syriza, and representatives of the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the Index on Censorship observers have spoken out against the Justice Ministry’s proposal, worried by the severe limitation to press freedom that would ensue.

As highlighted by Giorgos Plies, president of the faculty of communication sciences at the University of Athens, “the first government that criminalized “false news “, a vague and unspecified term, under the pretext of conspiracy theories, was the Orban government in Hungary, the black sheep of Europe”.

What is of concern in Greece, therefore, is above all, the lack of a political authority seriously interested in safeguarding the role and dignity of journalists even when the journalists question or put in difficulty their political activity.

ASP / wt

 

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