In a democracy, the media must control authority and government. In Greece, it is increasingly felt 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, run directly by the prime minister’s office, intercepted his communications as he investigated the affairs of Greek bankers and businessmen. When the journalist realized this, the government tried to erase the traces of the interception. Shortly after, his mobile phone was infected with 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 apps, as well as turn on the microphone and access the camera.
Koukakis is not the only victim of the National Intelligence Service interception. reporters from SolomonA team of investigative journalists investigating the conditions of migrants in Greece, Iliana Papangeli and Stavros Malichudis also discovered that they had been the subject of surveillance by the Greek intelligence services, which monitored their work with minors on the island of Kos.
Shortly after the couple discovered the Secret Service’s interest in their reports, they published another story, about an NGO dealing with immigrant housing that had possible ties to political figures. The answer? AN SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
In another case, Stavroula Poulimeni, a member of a journalists’ cooperative called AlterThess, was sued by a gold mining executive convicted of serious environmental crimes in northern Greece. The businessman accused her of treating her “sensitive personal data” by informing her about her previous criminal conviction.
The government appears to approve of such legal tactics. A new law authorizes the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV) to impose recurring administrative fines on newspapers for libel. NCRTV has jurisdiction over channels that use public frequencies. This alarms the Athens Daily Journalists’ Union, which claims that the new regulation directly violates press freedom-related articles of the Greek Constitution.
Under this law, the fines will be claimed by the majority shareholders when the company that publishes the newspaper does not pay and will be collected by the private distribution monopoly of Argos, owned by a media magnate sympathetic to the government. The journalists’ union argues that the new rule threatens the viability of the media, especially the smaller and more independent ones.
A similar alarm was expressed by Media Freedom Rapid Response, a group that monitors press freedom in the European community. “Challenges to media independence and the safety of journalists are systemic in Greece,” said a recent report.
He argues that news that is inconvenient for the government, including investigations into serious human rights violations, is not widely reported. This creates a significant obstacle to the public’s access to information and, consequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.
According to the migration policy of the MFRR, the human rights violations committed in its implementation and the humanitarian crisis generated by the migratory current are highly sensitive issues for the government. Journalists face obstruction including arbitrary arrest and detention, restricted access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment when attempting to report on these issues. And even when independent journalists rely on official information, they face a complete lack of transparency or even refuse to provide information.
In search of the messenger: the cases of Vaxevanis and Papadakou
In January, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis survived a no-confidence motion in parliament by the left-wing opposition over the government’s handling of a snowstorm 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 engage in defamation”, a term interpreted as a direct attempt to influence the judiciary. .
Prosecutors had summoned Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of the Document publication, and Yianna Papadakou, a former television presenter, to the Athens Supreme Court a few days earlier. They charged the two journalists with crimes related to their reporting on government officials, including former ministers, who allegedly took bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical corporation Novartis to control the price of specific drugs.
The accused politicians have rejected the charges, claiming they are politically motivated. This despite the fact that the US Department of Justice in 2020 imposed a fine of 347 million dollars on Novartis due to the case. Although it did not reveal any names, the company admitted to making illegal payments to Greek suppliers.
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 setup involving a former minister, the anti-corruption prosecutors who investigated the Novartis case, and the two journalists.
Participation in a criminal group, collaboration in the crime and two charges of complicity in the abuse of authority are among the complaints filed against the journalists. Under a new penal code provision passed just a few weeks ago, misdemeanors linked 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 go to jail. Such a prosecution could indeed create a worrying precedent. He also raises concerns about whether the complaining witnesses in the case against Novartis will continue to be considered credible or will also be charged.
It is worth noting that Greece was one of 17 European countries that did not incorporate a new whistleblower protection directive into their legal systems and is now under pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the burden by reducing journalists’ rights to access information.
Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Greece 70th in its global press freedom index, down five positions from 2020. The country’s position has steadily declined over the past decade, a trend that is likely to continue, judging for recent events.
The government categorically denies these accusations, emphasizing that pluralism is guaranteed in the country. But democracy is safeguarded when the press is free to speak the truth to power. That should not be the job of the courts to define and decide.
Vera Jourova, EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency, openly warned that “the 2022 Rule of Law Report will pay special attention to developments related to press freedom and the safety of journalists”.
These concerns have become particularly worrisome in the case of the murder of police 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 fear, that the Greek conservative government has been seduced by the populist conservative turn in countries across Europe, and is no longer strives to be part of the so-called moderate liberal conservative milieu.
The trend in Greece is indicative of increased tension in some EU countries around the rule of law and the protection of freedoms, the EU’s core values. But the situation in Greece is becoming particularly bleak regarding press matters as problems mount, 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 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.