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.