Greece: Media freedom under assault

Journalists in Greece working to hold those in power to account are facing increasing pressures.

Greek PM talks to journalists
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis talks with journalists during a news conference in Athens, on August 12, 2021 [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

In a democracy, the media should keep authority and government in check. In Greece, it feels more and more 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 investigative outlet Inside Story. Citing national security concerns, in 2020 the Greek National Intelligence Service directly administered by the prime minister’s office, intercepted his communications, while he was investigating the affairs of Greek bankers and businessmen. When the journalist became aware of this, the government tried to erase traces of the interception. Shortly after, his mobile 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 through 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. Reporters of Solomon, a team of investigative journalists researching migrant conditions in Greece, Iliana Papangeli, and Stavros Malichudis also discovered that they had been subjected to surveillance by the Greek intelligence services, which monitored their work with minors on the island of Kos.

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

In another instance, Stavroula Poulimeni, a member of a journalist cooperative called AlterThess, was sued by a gold mining executive convicted of serious environmental crimes in northern Greece. The businessman accused her of processing his “sensitive personal data” by reporting on his prior criminal conviction.

The government seems to approve of such legal gambits. A new law authorises the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV) to impose recurrent administrative fines on newspapers for slander. The NCRTV has jurisdiction over channels using public frequencies. This alarms the Athens Daily Newspaper Journalists’ Union, which claims that the new regulation directly violates articles involving press freedom under the Greek Constitution.

Under this law, the fines will be claimed by the majority shareholders when the company that publishes the newspaper fails to pay and will be collected by the private monopoly distributor of Argos, owned by a government-friendly media mogul. The journalist union argues that the new rule threatens the viability of the media, especially the smaller, independent ones.

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

It argues that news that is inconvenient for the government, including probes into serious human rights violations, does not get widely reported. This causes a significant obstacle to the public’s access to information and, subsequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.

According to the MFRR immigration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation, and the humanitarian crisis that the migrant stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance and harassment when they try to report on these topics. And even when independent journalists rely on official information, they face a complete lack of transparency or even denial 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 snowstorm that paralysed the country. In a speech to parliament, Mitsotakis referred to the journalists who disclosed the Novartis corruption scandal in Greece as a “gang” who are “free to exercise character assassination” – a term interpreted as a straightforward attempt to influence the judiciary.

Prosecutors had summoned Kostas Vaxevanis, the editor of the publication Documento, and Yianna Papadakou, a former television presenter, to Athens’ Supreme Court a few days earlier. They charged the two journalists with crimes linked to their reporting about government officials, including ex-ministers, who allegedly accepted bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical corporation Novartis in order to control the pricing of specific drugs.

The accused politicians have rejected the charges, claiming they are politically motivated. This is despite the fact that the US Department of Justice in 2020 imposed a $347m fine on Novartis, due to the case. While it did not disclose any names, the company admitted to making illegal payments to Greek providers.

The anti-corruption prosecutor’s probe, which began in 2016, closed the case against two Greek lawmakers in January. A second inquiry, however, is continuing in Greece, looking into an alleged frame-up involving a former minister, the corruption prosecutors who probed the Novartis case, and the two journalists.

Participation in a criminal group, collaboration in wrongdoing and two counts of complicity in the misuse of authority are among the allegations levelled against the journalists. According to a new provision of the penal code approved only weeks ago, minor offences related to a “criminal group” will now result in actual prison sentences.

In other words, Papadakou and Vaxevanis, who reported extensively on the Novartis scandal, could see jail time. Such prosecution effectively could create a troubling precedent. It also raises concerns about whether whistleblower witnesses in the case against Novartis will continue to be considered credible, or whether they will be charged as well.

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

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

The government fiercely denies those accusations, stressing that pluralism is granted in the country. But democracy is safeguarded when the press is free to speak truth to power. That should not be the job of the courts to define and decide.

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

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

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

The trend in Greece is indicative of the broader tension rising in some EU countries around the rule of law and the protection of freedoms – the core values of the EU. But the situation in Greece is becoming particularly grim with regard to matters of the press as problems accumulate, gradually attracting the interest of more media freedom watchdogs. Seven groups, including Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists are now raising “serious concerns” about the case of Koukakis. The Greek government should do more to protect press freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.