After a long period during which the media landscape has been mirroring the prevailing clientelism, Greece is now experiencing a rapid downslide towards dangerous pathways regarding media pluralism that bring the quality of democracy in the country into question. A look at the events and political developments that have accumulated over the last months.
No matter what international index one decides to look at, the conclusion is pretty much the same. “Press freedom suffered in Greece in 2020.” This is, in fact, the opening sentence in the 2021 country report of the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Overall, Greece is ranking 70th among 180 countries globally, scoring only better than Malta, Hungary and Bulgaria among EU Member States. The report highlights inter alia efforts by the Greek government “to control the flow of information closely as part of its efforts to deal with both the coronavirus pandemic and the refugee crisis”, while it expresses “concern about the new rules for policing demonstrations, because it designates areas for the press.”
At the same time, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom of the European University Institute in its 2021 Media Pluralism Monitor concludes that “Greece faces challenges with respect to media pluralism in all domains under study”. Greece is found, for instance, to be lacking transparency through rules and practices that guarantee systematic disclosure of ownership information to the public. The Media Pluralism Monitor also stresses that “private media are not fully shielded from political interference”.
A new governmental approach and the pandemic accelerated existing pathogens
The language, the tone or the intensity of the findings may differ compared to previous years, however throughout the last decade of an endless financial and political crisis the country has been confronted with a series of challenges related to the media independence that in any case has deep roots. As Stefanos Loukopoulos put it in his article for the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's EU office “the unsavory link between oligarchs, the banking sector, the media and politics is what characterizes, in a nutshell, the state of the Greek media landscape”.
This concentration has only intensified since 2010 with many historical media outlets being forced to close due to financial difficulties. As a result, the polarization of the public discourse has increased. This was particularly visible during the SYRIZA-ANEL term that took over government responsibility for the first time. Striking a balance with the Press was not a simple task and especially the head of the right-wing junior partner, Panos Kammenos did not hesitate to file suits against journalists for critical articles.
In addition to the dysfunctional private sector, the conservative government of Nea Dimokratia amended the framework for public media shortly after its electoral win in summer 2019, aiming to centralize the control of public communication. Both the Public Broadcaster (ERT) and the public news agency- that feeds pretty much every Greek news website- have ever since become a competence of the Prime Minister as well as the General Secretariat for Information and Communication.
The COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 in Greece has been used by the Greek government as an opportunity to allocate €20 million to media outlets for them to carry public health messages, despite the provision in the Greek Constitution that public messages like that should be aired free of charge. The transparency of this move has been questioned right away, as the list of beneficiaries has only been published after pressure by the opposition and watchdog organisations such as Vouliwatch.
This has just been the first ring to a long chain of events and developments that have harmed media freedom and pluralism within the pandemic.
2021 a milestone year for the deterioration of press freedom in Greece
Since the beginning of the year, one can see Greece featuring in numerous statements of International Press Associations on a regular basis. Here are a few reasons why.
1. The assassination of the journalist Giorgos Karaivaz
On April 9th 2021 prominent investigative journalist, Giorgos Karaivaz was shot dead in plain daylight just outside his house in Athens. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted "The cold-blooded murder of journalist George Karaivaz has shocked the whole nation", calling for a swift investigation of the case that the police called “a contract killing carried out by professional killers”. Seven months later and despite the Greek media reports in spring that “the chain is tightening around his killers”, neither arrests have been made nor suspects have been publicly identified, while public information concerning the investigation is rather limited.
2. A SLAPP lawsuit targets a journalist and local media cooperative
In October 2021, the Alterthess media cooperative based in Thessaloniki received notice of a lawsuit against journalist Stavroula Poulimeni filed on behalf of an executive of Hellas Gold S.A, a subsidiary of Eldorado Gold. According to the lawsuit, € 100,000 is requested as compensation for the publication of a story on October 27, 2020, with the charge of illegal processing of personal data related to a criminal conviction. In case of non-payment of compensation, the journalist is threatened with a one-year sentence.
The article by Poulimeni entitled “Two high-ranking executives of Hellas Gold S.A. convicted of water pollution in Northern Chalkidiki” reported about the conviction of two Hellas Gold senior executives for pollution of surface waters and environmental damage after a series of violations of environmental legislation. The story included the initial verdict, which was made by the Court of First Instance of Polygyros and was later confirmed by the Court of Appeal of Thessaloniki on 1 September 2021, with the two executives handed a suspended sentence. The trial was held in open court, without reporting restrictions, and the verdict was publicly available but shortly after this second decision, a full year after the original article was written, a lawsuit was filed with the charge of illegal processing of personal data related to a criminal conviction.
Given the timing, the grounds and the financial demands linked to the lawsuit, international press organisations called this a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), reminding of the need for an EU Anti-SLAPP Directive.
3. Reporter wiretapped by the Greek Intelligence Service following story about a 12-year-old refugee child from Syria
In mid-November, a report by Greek journalist Dimitris Terzis for the newspaper EFSYN presented evidence that journalists, civil servants and lawyers dealing with refugees, as well as members of the anti-vaccination movement, are being monitored by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP). One of them under the microscope is apparently investigative journalist of “We are Solomon”, Stavros Malichudis, who is also AFP correspondent in Greece. Malichudis has a long track record of reports on the conditions refugees are facing in Greece, including inter alia a long read on teenage asylum-seekers in Greece, growing up in the shadow of coronavirus.
In an Op-Ed entitled “I am the journalist wiretapped by the National Intelligence Service” he published on the Reporters’ Alliance website “Reporters United” Malichudis explains how he was working on a story about 12-year old Syrian child, Jamal, whose drawing had made the pages of ‘Le Monde’. This is how he identified himself in the report by Terzis that included also images of EYP documents.
According to the same documents, EYP- whose competences have been transferred to the Prime Minister’s office in 2019- also surveilled an IOM employee, therefore Malichudis sets a number of questions in his op-ed such as “How exactly does EYP know which story a journalist is working on? What is the "high credibility source" that takes note of the stories a journalist is working on while they are still in the investigative stage? And, most importantly, what purposes does the collection of this information serve and to whom is the final information provided?” and ultimately “is journalism a threat to democracy”?
4. The case of Ingeborg Beugel and the control of the migration narrative
The tense exchange between Dutch journalist, Ingeborg Beugel and the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis during a press conference held on the occasion of the Dutch Prime Minister’s visit to Greece in November has been a major story in Greek and international media. A statement-question by Beugel concerning pushbacks on the Greek/EU external borders, sparked a fierce reaction by Mr. Mitsotakis who even put Beugel’s visit to the refugee camp on Samos in doubt, causing a social media explosion. The language used by the Greek Prime Minister who expressed his respect for the culture of asking direct questions in the Netherlands (as opposed to Greece?) triggered a heated public debate that provided room also for accusations against Beugel who was called “pro-Turkish” by prominent news anchors, as her intervention at such a central stage rather disturbed the dominant narrative of the Greek government around the management of migration in the country.
Ingeborg Beugel, 61, a freelance correspondent for Dutch media who has lived on Hydra for almost 40 years, had been arrested in June accused of “facilitating the illegal stay of a foreigner in Greece”. Now, following this incident at Maximos Mansion, official seat of the Prime Minister of Greece, Beugel faced physical threats and intimidation that forced her to leave the country after advice from Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs & embassy.
5. The new criminal code and the slippery slope of “fake news”
Just a few days ago, the new criminal code that came into force and one of its articles immediately attracted a lot of attention both domestically and from international media like EurActiv and NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch. Article 191 suggests that “fake news causing uncertainty or fear to the public or undermining public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health” can lead to legal persecutions. The article says that violators “shall be punished by imprisonment of at least three months and a fine,” and it adds that “[i]f the act was repeatedly committed through the press or online, the perpetrator shall be punished by imprisonment of at least six months and a fine.”
However, a clear definition of what actually is “fake news” is nowhere to be found, making the whole legislative initiative a particularly slippery slope that may further undermine press freedom at this anyway fragile moment. Therefore, the Greek Journalists' Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) called for the law to be withdrawn as being too vague and after informing their European counterparts, they are now hoping that the issue will soon be brought for discussion to the European Parliament.
Still waiting for adequate response at national or EU level
Most of the above-mentioned events or developments receive either minor or very polarized coverage in the Greek press that does not leave room for public debate. At the same time, any discussion in the Greek Parliament fails to address the actual issues and usually ends up in a noisy debate among political leaders that disorientates citizens. Journalists’ Associations in Greece have issued some public statements condemning particular events, international press associations have also been vocal calling for explanations from the Greek government, usually without response.
But what is probably more worrying is that at EU level this unfolding new reality seems to remain under the radar of the EU institutions. The 2021 Rule of Law report for Greece, for instance, refers in the chapter on media pluralism and media freedom to “attacks on and threats to the physical safety of journalists continue”, including a clear mention to the murder of Giorgos Karaivaz. But the overall language and approach fail to reflect the disturbing reality on the ground that indeed puts the rule of law at risk. One can only wonder what is in the end of the day the value of such a report and what can be the consequences for a member state that clearly breaches essential EU values.
Further tolerance may end up being dangerous for the future of the country, where democracy was reinstated just 47 years ago, and of the EU as whole, which Greece joined 40 years ago. Could the expected European Media Freedom Act provide an adequate protective framework also for Greece? “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” This quote by Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist known as the “the most trusted man in America” summarizes plainly why protecting media pluralism is a daily struggle and a core element for functioning democracies. Shall Greece continue to be one?
This article was first published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Thessaloniki, Greece office.