ATHENS – After the murder earlier this year of a noted investigative journalist, the reported surveillance of another by the country’s intelligence service and a fake news law that has severe penalties for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 has Greek reporters on edge.
A coalition of media freedom groups has also finished a virtual fact-finding mission over its concerns about a deterioration of the rights of the press and may follow up in January with a visit to the country.
George Pleios, head of media studies at the National University of Athens, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that, “Freedom of the press has become a concern,” under the rule of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government.
Pleios cited press freedom violations in recent years that included journalists being detained or intimidated, and police beating photographers during protests and the daytime assassination this year of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz outside his home.
There have been no reports that the Greek police have any clues or progress into the case that drew the attention of media freedom groups and questions about whether it would ever be solved.
Now the passage of a so-called Fake News law aimed at slowing the spread of misinformation about the pandemic has reporters anxious because it provides fines and jail terms for journalists and publishers too if they are found guilty of its vague definition.
Pleios said journalists are “under a cloud of fear” about their profession, safety and surveillance and whether they could face penalties for stories about the pandemic the government doesn’t like.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, “While it is legitimate to combat false information, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, prison sentences have no role to play in the quest for the truth. The Greek authorities should instead promote reliable news and information at the national, European and international levels. The necessary tools are already available to them.”
Greece fell five spots in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF and now ranks 70th out of 180 countries, behind Poland, where journalists are under siege, and even Mongolia.
On Nov. 13, the leftist daily Efsyn published what it said were internal intelligence memos gathering information on anti-vaxxers and activists helping migrants – and journalist Stavros Malichudis, later hired by AFP.
Malichudis was allegedly put under surveillance after working on an article about a 12-year-old Syrian boy in a refugee camp on Kos island whose artwork had appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde.
“In Greece, we like to condemn other countries when it comes to press freedom but never look at our own case,” Malichudis told Al Jazeera.
IT’S NOT WRITE
“Since the issue of my monitoring became known, I have had messages of support by journalists from media from all parts of the spectrum. But most Greek media … didn’t even do a news story on this,” he said.
“It’s intrusive, it’s scary and I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said, although there haven’t been any further reports about alleged spying on journalists in the country as the government tries to counteract the accusations.
In response to AFP letters, Minister of State George Gerapetritis insisted “there is no surveillance of journalists in Greece.” He said that, “Greece fully adheres to the values of democratic society and rule of law, especially pluralism and freedom of the press.”
He later added that media independence was “sacrosanct” and that, “Whilst we may not always agree with what the media writes, we will defend… the right of a free press to report unencumbered by and independent of outside interference,” but there’s been no investigation about the alleged Efysn leaks.
The Efsyn reporter who broke the story, Dimitris Terzis, accused the government and supporting media of “trying to bury the case,” and AFP said that in the last year, the government has ignored requests for information on key stories and pressured journalists over unfavorable reports.
The Fake News law includes prison sentences for those convicted of violations of reports “capable of causing concern or fear to the public,” which was so ambiguous that the Athens newspaper journalists’ union restricted free speech.
Journalists also have complained that police and government ministries have routinely ignored their emails seeking answers on the coronavirus pandemic, police abuses and the migration crisis, retreating into silence.
Mitsotakis in November engaged in a public feud with Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel who accused him of “lying” about reports that Greece has pushed back refugees and migrants at sea and across land borders.
“You will not come into this building and insult me… or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that are not supported by material facts,” he said during a news conference with visiting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Beugel, later said she had received threats, and temporarily left the country.
Fabien Perrier, a correspondent for French-language media in Greece, said his editors received a letter from the Culture Ministry in May over a piece criticising a new concrete walkway at the Acropolis.
He said journalists in Greece were under pressure to “practice self-censorship,” to avoid reprisals although much of Greek media has political leaning agendas.
Two journalists working with Greek media resigned last year, accusing the government of attempted censorship, allegations it denied, said AFP.
Athens University Media Professor Lambrini Papadopoulou told the site that Greece has a long history of collusion between Greek media, and the political and financial elites.
“Problematic relations between media and power are nothing new,” she said.
“There is little room for critical and independent journalism in Greece,” she added.
George Tzogopoulos, a Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy think tank, said much of the media simply prints government press releases about COVID without questioning them, with media outlets often dependent on government contracts.
RSF said the government hasn’t protected journalists and noted that it’s been 11 years since journalist Sokratis Giolias was killed, the case unsolved.