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Media freedom mission to Greece presses for libel reform

Michelle Trimborn

Greece currently faces major restrictions in terms of press freedom, partly due to the economic crisis and legislation, but also because of a complex infrastructure that connects economically powerful media owners to political leadership.

 

Journalists and photographers have been beaten up by police whilst covering demonstrations, and thousands of media workers have lost their jobs, leading to a significant drop in international press freedom rankings. ECPMF’s consortium partner SEEMO (South East Europe Media Organisation) thus sent a diplomatic mission to Greece to better be able to judge the recent developments.

Defamation law increases self-censorship

The mission faced many challenges. During the three-day-visit, the group involving SEEMO’S Secretary General Oliver Vujovic, mainly focussed on the examination of a reform in defamation law to decriminalize libel.

 

"Journalists can formally be punished with a prison sentence through criminal defamation", Vujovic explained to ECPMF. "Even if your sentence is suspended, it will still influence what you will write and how you will write. It thus strengthens the self-censorship of journalists. And for years, everybody will see - if you are looking for a new job, for example - that you have a criminal court case in your dossier."

 

A new bill to reform the current press law was drafted and presented to the mission. The reform will make it harder to bring journalists to court because of defamation. Accusing journalists of libel after they have published critical information is a popular practice to suppress information in some countries.

 

Many journalists, especially those focussing on investigations, are restricted in their work by strict laws. Vujovic met, for example, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis who got a suspended prison term of six months, because he published an article about the Cypriot financial crisis.

 

However, the SEEMO mission is positive about the reforms and current developments and welcomed the proposal introduced by Greek Minister of Justice Nikos Paraskevopoulos: "I’m optimistic. Our success about the mission is that we gained the support for the civil law changes."

 

More international support for reform comes from the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, OSCE. Referring to the regular libel convictions and sentences imposed on investigative journalists like Vaxevanis, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said that such "ruling has a chilling effect on media freedom because it restricts reporting on matters of public interest. Once again, this proves the need to decriminalise defamation to ease the pressure on investigative journalism."

 

Precarious situation weakens journalists

SEEMO’S mission included talks with Professor George Pleios, Supervisory Board Member of the ECPMF, whose research at the National and Kapodistrian University tracks the effects of the economic crisis on media freedom.

 

Journalists also suffer, with Greeks in general, the effects of the EU bailout conditions and austerity measures.

Factbox

  • In Attica, the region of Athens, according to the Greek Employment Service oaed.gr in December 2014, there were overall 132,865 people looking for a job and 41,907 were getting a benefit.
  • In Northern Greece the unemployment rate is expected to raise over 30% until the end of 2015 (over 38% in the city of Thessaloniki). Thousands of employed media workers were laid off, salaries decreased by 35% or more in some cases, and short term contracts or no contracts jobs are becoming the rule.

Strikes and violent demonstrations against the cuts and job losses bring new threats to journalists, especially photographers. Oliver Vujovic : "The police officers openly attack photojournalists, because they know that they are taking photos of the event."

 

Low pay and no pay are issues strongly related to press freedom as it is easy to intimidate - or even corrupt - workers in precarious situations, whose employers rely on advertising or political patronage, or both. The Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (JUADN- Esiea.gr), the EFJ affiliate in Greece, has developed a specific office to support the Union’s unemployed journalist members by applying for projects or workshops. The method is to train their skills in order to get them reconnected with the labour market or sometimes by giving an occasional allowance to those in greatest need. Other journalists‘ unions in the country have developed similar support services. Until the economic situation eases, journalists there will continue to need international support and solidarity

Michelle Trimborn, PR and Communications Manager ECPMF, is responsible for both internal communication with the Consortium Partners and external communication/PR.



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