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10.07.2019

Greece: New Democracy - New Press Freedom?

by Renata Rat

Greece’s newly-elected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been sworn in. From a far-left to a conservative government in the crisis-ridden country – what does it mean for press freedom?

New Democracy - New Press Freedom? Greek Flag. Photo: Public Domain

Vangelis Marinakis – international businessman shipping owner and president of Olympiakos football club owns the biggest Greek press and book distribution agency Argos and several major newspapers (including To Vima and Ta Nea), the leading news portal in.gr and a few TV stations. He also happens to be a close friend of the new Prime Minister from the conservative party New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Marinakis has been accused of several corruption crimes in the past. Nevertheless, he still owns those media outlets.

The newspaper Parapolitika is alleged to be controlled by Marinakis. In the past, it has never published an article that was not favourable to the conservative government. Even though it has never been admitted, transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations showed Marinakis discussing Parapolitika’s next headline with editor-in-chief Yannis Kourtakis and even giving him direct instructions.

According to Deutsche Welle, the newspaper Ta Nea used to have a social democratic editorial line until Marinakis bought the paper: the editorial line turned conservative and campaigned in favour of the New Democracy.

“I think that the new Greek Government has the majority of the media on their side” said Tassos Morfis, editor-in-chief of the independent English-language news website Athens Live.

Economic crisis also in the media sector

Due to the ongoing financial crisis during the past 10 years, many Greek journalists and media employees were left with no pay for months. In 2017, members of the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers went on a 24-hour general strike to protest against cuts in their social security and welfare funds. In early 2016, the government passed a law to allow only four TV licences to be issued to private broadcasters. Along with media freedom organisations, the European Commission expressed concerns about the lack of media pluralism and media independence in the country. A month later, the Greek Council of State ruled this proceeding unconstitutional. Last year, the Greek government managed to allocate broadcasting licences to five TV stations.  

As in many other European countries, individual journalists in Greece live in danger. In December 2018, a bomb attack on the SKAI TV station in Athens caused extensive damage. Due to warning calls and the evacuation of the building, no one was injured. The TV station had been receiving threats before and, according the SKAI, had also reported them to the authorities but the reports were not taken seriously. In May 2019, the CNN Greece reporter Mina Karamitrou’s car was destroyed by an arson attack. Before it happened, she had been reporting on a leftist terror group. Last week, anarchists stormed into the headquarters of the newspaper Athens Weekly and smashed office equipment, computers and furniture.

Bombed headquarters SKAI The bombed headquarters of SKAI TV with destroyed windows. Photo: Wikipedia

With few exceptions, the main threat to journalists’ safety in Greece comes from far-right extremists. In January 2019, reporters and photojournalists covering a protest in Athens against the Greek government’s approval of Macedonia’s name change to North Macedonia were assaulted and physically attacked by far-right protesters. Christos Bairamidis, a journalist from Omnia TV, is well known to neo-Nazi circles. His face has been shown on several far-right online platforms and he has been receiving threats via social media from Golden Dawn members. Golden Dawn is a far-right Greek party that failed to reach the 3% threshold to enter the parliament in last week’s elections. It used to be Greece’s third-largest political force during the peak of the migrant crisis. The party has also faced legal problems: a member was accused of murdering an anti-fascist rapper in 2013 and several party officials face charges of operating in a criminal organisation.

Journalists and photographers trying to cover the arrival and treatment of refugees in Greece have been harassed and the authorities even tried to hide new arrivals away from tourists at the ports. ECPMF’s refugee journalist Ola al Jari found them.

 Greece ranks at place 65 on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – it climbed up nine places compared to the previous year. In September 2018, three Greek journalists have been arrested and detained for one night in prison as the result of a defamation complaint against them. They were reporting about the defence minister’s alleged misuse of EU funding connected to a refugee camp. The Greek law requires “flagrant procedure” when it comes to defamation accusations: it allows the accused journalists to be immediately arrested. RSF notes that the flagrant procedure is frequently used by business owners and politicians. Nevertheless the good news is, in February 2019, the Ministry of Justice introduced a bill on the way that seeks to decriminalise defamation in the press.

Despite its close ties to several media outlets, the new conservative government must ensure that the situation of press freedom in Greece continues to improve..