By all international measures, Greece has seen a stunning decline in its level of press freedom: Murder and intimidation of journalists, including threats of state prosecution or private lawsuits, censorship and propaganda are rife.
This is the fifth in a series of articles that chronicle the long history of corruption, lawlessness and censorship in Greece’s media and journalism landscapes. This is a situation that has worsened in recent years in the midst of the country’s severe economic crisis, but which has a deeply-rooted history.
Much has been written in the international press in the past two years regarding the decline of free speech rights and the freedom of the press. Well-publicized incidents such as the shutdown of ERT and the arrest of journalist Kostas Vaxevanis on charges relating to his publication of the so-called “Lagarde List” made international headlines, leading to a general consensus in the international media that press freedoms in crisis-hit Greece are on the decline.
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This decline has been confirmed by media watchdog groups such as Freedom House and Reporters without Borders. Since 2009, Greece has seen the sharpest decline of any country in Freedom House’s annual press freedom index, dropping into the “partly free” category in the 2013 rankings and falling further, to 92nd place worldwide, in 2014, placing it in last place in the European Union and behind countries such as Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Botswana. Similarly, Greece has fallen to 99th place worldwide in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, dropping from 84th place the previous year and falling behind countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan.
Though the international media have treated this decline as a relatively new phenomenon in Greece, the preceding sections have illustrated that this is not quite the case. These examples, however, have merely represented the tip of the iceberg. In this section, examples of outright censorship will be highlighted, as will legal action and physical attacks against journalists, and further threats of censorship and legal troubles.
In 2002, optimism reigned in Greece. The country had just adopted the Euro as its national currency; the Athens 2004 Olympic Games were approaching, and a number of major infrastructure projects had been completed or were nearing completion. And despite the closure of 66 radio stations in Athens the year before, an incident which was largely ignored by most of Greece’s major media outlets, the press in Greece was generally considered to be “free” by international watchdog groups.
That year, though, the Greek parliament passed a controversial new law, 3037/2002, banning “froutakia,” or video gambling machines in establishments other than casinos. The language of this new law, however, was so overbroad that it effectively banned all electronic games and put businesses such as internet cafés and arcades at risk of being shut down. Indeed, in the first few months after the passage of the law, police raided several such establishments in Greece, enforcing the new law with its strictest possible interpretation. This law was soon overturned by the European Union in 2005, which also levied a fine against Greece in 2008 for failing to retract this legislation.
Troktiko’s success abruptly ended on the early morning of July 19, 2010. That morning, a team of masked assassins lured journalist Sokratis Giolias out of his home in Athens and shot him 16 times at close range.
At around the same time, a new phenomenon began to take hold among internet users in Greece: the growth in popularity of so-called “news blogs,” which were often hosted on sites such as blogspot.com and which frequently featured scandalous news stories about prominent politicians, businesspeople and other public figures. Many of these blogs operated anonymously, and by the mid-2000s, they had become an extremely popular source of news and information, often reporting on stories ignored by the mainstream media.
The most well-known of these blogs was Troktiko (The Rodent), which was established in December 2007 and featured a 24-hour stream of often-salacious news stories, scandals, rumors, as well as e-mails and letters from readers all over Greece, with commentary about political and economic issues of the day and even complaints about problems in local communities. By 2010, it had become the most popular blog in Greece, one of the most-visited websites in the country, and its administrators claimed that it was the most popular blogspot.com site in the world.
Successful News Blog Ended
Troktiko’s success abruptly ended on the early morning of July 19, 2010. That morning, a team of masked assassins lured journalist Sokratis Giolias out of his home in Athens and shot him 16 times at close range. Though this was common knowledge to many within the media industry, the general public soon found out that Giolias was the cofounder and administrator of Troktiko. At the time, he was the general manager of news radio station Thema 98.9 FM in Athens.
It was the first murder of a journalist in Greece in 25 years, and responsibility for the attack was soon claimed by a group calling itself the “Revolutionary Sect.” Almost four years later, no arrests have been made in connection with the attacks, and no criminal investigation has been launched. Furthermore, Greek police have reportedly refused to collaborate with Cypriot police forces in the investigation of a likely suspect in the assassination of Giolias.
This had not been the first time that Troktiko came under attack. In August 2009, Google (which operates blogspot.com) temporarily shut down Troktiko, in response to multiple complaints that allegedly had been received from Greece. The blog was soon restored. Later, in February 2010, Giolias was arrested on defamation charges and had several laptop computers and hard disks that belonged to him confiscated by police. He was released soon afterward.
These legal threats, however, have mirrored the experiences of other similar blogs in Greece. In 2008, prosecutors launched an investigation against another prominent news blog, “Press-GR,” acting upon criminal charges of blackmail, which had been filed by several prominent media personalities and politicians. The investigation led to a raid of the offices of a newspaper where Press-GR’s founder, journalist Andreas Kapsambelis, was employed. Kapsambelis’ home was also searched, and computer equipment and files were confiscated by police. Though the anonymity of online communications is protected by law in Greece, prosecutors were able to overcome these protections as a result of the criminal charges filed against the blog, which enabled them to execute a search warrant.
In another well-publicized case, the owner of blog aggregation site “blogme.gr,” Antonis Tsipropoulos, was arrested in October 2006 on charges of libel as a result of hyperlinks on his website pointing to a different blog, “funEL.blogspot.com,” where content satirizing controversial Greek televangelist Dimosthenis Liakopoulos had been posted. Apparently, because funEL was hosted on United States-based servers, Liakopoulos was unable to obtain the identity of the individual(s) who operated the blog without proof of criminal charges being filed, and so he instead filed suit against blogme.gr for merely linking to the content on funEL. Tsipropoulos was acquitted in early 2013.
Legislation Aims To Block News Blogs
The popularity of the news blogs, and their often controversial content, resulted in several legislative efforts to outlaw online anonymity. In 2008, the New Democracy government reportedly attempted to draft legislation that would have placed substantial restrictions on bloggers, under the guise of harmonizing Greek law with the 2001 Convention of Cybercrime. The following year, Giorgos Sanidas, a prosecutor at the Greek Supreme Court (Areios Pagos) published a legal opinion just days before his retirement, arguing that online communications should not be legally protected by the principle of the secrecy of communications, opening the way for an internet user’s anonymity to be stripped not just in criminal cases, but also for alleged misdemeanors.
Kostas Vaxevanis . . . was arrested on charges of violation of privacy, following the publication of the so-called “Lagarde List” of almost 2,000 alleged tax evaders from Greece who had bank accounts with HSBC in Switzerland.”
That same year, then-Minister of Civil Protection Mihalis Hrisohoidis publicly stated his opinion that the anonymity of bloggers should be stripped due to countless instances of defamation, and that every blog should be required to register a legal representative before the law. Further calls to outlaw the anonymity of bloggers followed in 2010 from both PASOK and New Democracy politicians. Several PASOK MPs, citing the legal opinion issued by Sanidas, called for the passage of such legislation after Troktiko reported, falsely as it turned out, the impending resignation of the then-Minister of Education Anna Diamantopoulou. The Sanidas opinion was also cited by New Democracy MP Lefteris Avgenakis, who called for legislation that would “restore order” to the blogosphere. Giorgos Karatzaferis, president of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) political party, also called on the government to outlaw anonymous blogging, in a 2010 speech before parliament.
Two months prior to his arrest, Vaxevanis was the target of an attempted attack outside his home by unknown individuals.
At around that time, numerous commentaries also began to appear in major newspapers, such as Kathimerini and Ethnos, accusing blogs such as Troktiko of purveying “yellow journalism” and “libel,” while decrying their anonymity, and after Giolias’ murder, commentator Aris Portosalte, in an appearance on the main evening newscast of Skai TV, stated that “anonymity on the internet sometimes results in being killed.”
Notably, Giolias, prior to working at Thema 98.9, had worked as the head editor of two investigative television programs, “Kitrinos Typos” and “Zougla,” both of which are hosted by well-known journalist Makis Triantafillopoulos. The relationship between Triantafillopoulos and Giolias soon soured, however, and Triantafillopoulos was often the target of many of Troktiko’s criticisms and accusations. In August 2013, an investigative exposé by Hot Doc magazine hinted that Triantafillopoulos may have been behind Giolias’ murder.
All of the above incidents have helped set the stage for the further decline of press and journalistic freedom during the years of economic crisis in Greece. Perhaps the most emblematic example is that of journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of Hot Doc, who in October 2012 was arrested on charges of violation of privacy, following the publication of the so-called “Lagarde List” of almost 2,000 alleged tax evaders from Greece who had bank accounts with HSBC in Switzerland.
Vaxevanis had published the names and professions of the alleged tax evaders, which included several prominent politicians, business figures and their relatives, while reporting that this list had been given to then-Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou by the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, in April 2010, after which no legal action had been taken against any of the individuals named in the list.
Though other mainstream publications republished this list without repercussions, Vaxevanis was held criminally liable and arrested. In the original trial that followed, Vaxevanis was acquitted of all charges against him, but prosecutors appealed the verdict, claiming it was “legally mistaken,” and they secured a retrial against him. In November 2013, Vaxevanis was again acquitted.
This was not the only instance in which Vaxevanis faced legal – or extralegal – threats. Two months prior to his arrest, Vaxevanis was the target of an attempted attack outside his home by unknown individuals. Vaxevanis has claimed that these were would-be assassins, but that police have downplayed the incident, considering it a botched burglary attempt. No arrests have ever been made in connection with this incident.
In December 2013, then-Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis filed extortion charges against Vaxevanis, after the latter published, in Hot Doc, evidence of inappropriate contacts made between the health minister and a pharmaceutical company representative. The charges were followed by a war of words between the two on Twitter, in which Georgiadis openly threatened Vaxevanis about the impending legal charges. And this past January, Vaxevanis was ordered by a court to pay €10,000 in damages to the scandal-ridden Vatopedi Monastery for a series of allegedly defamatory articles against the monastery and Abbot Efraim.
In another related incident, a blogger going by the pseudonym of “Geron Pastitsios” (playing on the name of “pastitsio,” a popular Greek dish) was arrested in September 2012 and charged with “malicious blasphemy,” for maintaining a Facebook page he managed that parodied Elder Paisios, a deceased religious leader who is widely popular with segments of the Greek population. In January, Pastitsios was sentenced to a 10-month prison term, longer even than what prosecutors had requested from the judge, drawing criticism from organizations such as Amnesty International. Pastitsios was released pending an appeal of the verdict.
Golden Dawn is implicated in a number of legal challenges filed against journalists in the past two years, in addition to outright threats.
Another well-publicized arrest of a journalist came in October 2012, when Spiros Karatzaferis was arrested shortly before he was to reveal, on his television program, allegations based on data that had been leaked by “Anonymous” regarding the alteration of Greece’s economic figures to bring the country under the supervision of the IMF. Karatzaferis was arrested on the basis of a previously-existing charge of libel against him, which had not been acted upon. More recently, in October 2013, journalist Giorgos Papachristou was arrested following defamation charges filed by Panos Kammenos, the head of the Independent Greeks political party, regarding an article Papachristou published with regard to Kammenos. Similarly, in April, journalist Despina Kontaraki was arrested after charges were filed by Independent Greeks MP Rachel Makri, stemming from an article Kontaraki had written opposing Makri’s apparent claims that the actions of the far-right Golden Dawn party could not be considered criminal in nature.
Golden Dawn Implicated
Indeed, Golden Dawn is implicated in a number of legal challenges filed against journalists in the past two years, in addition to outright threats. Perhaps the most-publicized incident came in March 2013, when Golden Dawn organized a protest outside the headquarters of Mega Channel in Athens, during which the now-jailed Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas urinated outside the main entrance to the station. In September 2013, journalists from the ANA-MPA news agency were attacked by members of Golden Dawn, while there were several incidents during the October 2013 court hearings against several high-ranking members of Golden Dawn when journalists and cameramen were assaulted by Golden Dawn representatives, including MP Ilias Kasidiaris, outside the court where the hearings were being held.
Indeed, the threat or usage of both physical violence and legal action against journalists is hardly limited to just Golden Dawn.
In November, a court on the island of Lesvos found local journalist Stratis Balaskas guilty for “insulting” a local Golden Dawn official, as a result of having called him a “Neo-Nazi,” while in December, Golden Dawn members attacked a journalist and cameraman from Star Channel. That same month, members of the local organization of Golden Dawn in the city of Komotini threatened to sue local radio station Radio Paratiritis over opinions aired on the station that opposed Golden Dawn, while three journalists from the newspaper Workers Solidarity were tried following charges filed against them by lawyer, Ioannis Andriopoulos, who is said to maintain ties to Golden Dawn, regarding an article they wrote supporting the right of immigrants to obtain Greek citizenship, in which he was mentioned.
Indeed, the threat or usage of both physical violence and legal action against journalists is hardly limited to just Golden Dawn. The Greek state, and Greek police in particular, have increasingly resorted to violence against journalists in recent years, especially during protests against the government’s unpopular austerity measures.
• In June 2011, journalist Manolis Kypreos, while witnessing police violently beating protesters at Syntagma Square, outside parliament, and attacking the protestors with tear gas, was directly attacked by riot police, who threw a stun grenade at him. The grenade landed 50cm from him, and the explosion resulted in the almost complete loss of his hearing.
• Later that year, in October, cameras caught riot police repeatedly punching female reporter Tatiana Bolari during another protest at Syntagma Square, during which photoreporter Panagiotis Tzamaros was also beaten by riot police, from behind, with a club.
• On April 5, 2012, photographer Marios Lolos was seriously injured by police at another demonstration in Syntagma Square, despite the situation reportedly being calm at the time of the attack and despite Lolos being with a group of clearly identifiable journalists. The injuries were severe, requiring Lolos to undergo brain surgery.
• That same month, journalist Rena Maniou of ANT1 TV was hospitalized after being hit in the back of the neck with a baton by police, while Dionysis Vythoulkas of the newspaper To Vima and Giorgos Gerafentis of ERT were also attacked by police swat teams.
• Foreign correspondent Anthee Carassava of Sky News and the Los Angeles Times was also attacked by Greek police, while covering a military parade for Greek Independence Day 2012 outside the Greek parliament. Carassava was threatened by police despite possessing required journalistic accreditation and despite the fact that she was moving away when told to do so by police. A police officer threatened to remove her by force and attempted to grab the mobile phone with which she had recorded his voice. He was then joined by three other officers, who allegedly “manhandled” Carassava. When Carassava tried to identify her assailants, they reacted by transporting her to a police station, where she was threatened and intimidated. In all of the aforementioned cases, officers acted with apparent impunity, as not one officer has been held responsible for any of these attacks.
“I will come to your house . . . you will not be able to sleep . . . I will have somebody cut off your throat while you sleep. I will hunt you everywhere.”
More recently, on June 12, Bolari was once again the target of police violence, having been beaten by riot police while covering the ongoing protest of laid-off cleaning women outside the Finance Ministry, while the following day, an employee of ERT Open was attacked with a knife by a NERIT security employee, while the former reacted to the takedown of a black flag that had been raised at the gates of ERT’s former headquarters, in memory of ERT employees who have died since its closure last year.
In one more recent incident, photographers Simela Pantaratzi and Giannis Kemmos were attacked by supporters of Golden Dawn outside an Athens courthouse in July, while covering the court appearance of Golden Dawn leader Nikos Mihaliolakos and two other Golden Dawn MPs.
Perhaps the most disturbing of such incidents came in February 2013, when journalist Andreas Charalambopoulos of Unfollow magazine received a phone call from a man claiming to be shipping and oil magnate Dimitris Melissanidis. Charalambopoulos had previously co-written an article exposing alleged oil smuggling, in which Melissanidis and other prominent figures were involved.
During the call, Melissanidis allegedly made death threats against the journalist and his family, reportedly saying: “I will come to your house . . . you will not be able to sleep . . . I will have somebody cut off your throat while you sleep. I will hunt you everywhere.” Unfollow published the threats, claiming that the call had been traced to the headquarters of Aegean Oil, to which Melissanidis is said to be connected. In turn, Melissanidis filed a lawsuit against the magazine for its report, and the hearing, which had originally been scheduled for February, has been postponed until November of this year.
Dramatic Increase in Censorship
The government and major business figures in Greece have not necessarily needed to rely on the threat of violence to intimidate journalists, however. The past two years, in particular, have seen a dramatic increase in cases of censorship and attempted censorship, while access to public information has in some cases also been curtailed.
One such egregious example came last October. In a violation of privacy principles enshrined in the Greek constitution and Greek law, prosecutors apparently used transcripts from dozens of phone calls that it likely wiretapped, between members of a so-called “criminal organization” protesting the mining activities of Canadian company Eldorado Gold and its Greek subsidiary Hellas Gold (partially owned by media and business mogul Giorgos Bobolas, part-owner of Mega Channel, among other outlets) and Greek and international journalists, including journalists from ERT and other major outlets. Prosecutors used these transcripts in their case against the alleged “criminal organization.”
Lawsuits, or the threat of a lawsuit, are another weapon in the arsenal of politicians and business figures who seek to squash inconvenient stories about themselves.
In another case involving open access to government activities, journalist Tasos Tataroglou was placed on trial in December for releasing video of an openly held municipal council meeting, in the municipality of Nea Ionia, a suburb of Athens, during which a council member made allegations against the journalist. And in October 2013, municipal officials in the city of Karditsa sought to ban journalist Froso Pavlou from the worker-run ERT from attending local city council meetings, claiming that ERT was operating “illegally.” Meanwhile, journalists were barred from ERT’s headquarters, located on public property, when riot police raided the premises in November, evicting the workers who had kept ERT operating following its official shutdown in June.
A new precedent was set this past February, as part of an incident where military law was invoked against a journalist. Popi Christodoulidou was charged under articles 143, 144, and 195 of the military’s penal code for publishing “sensitive information” on her blog pertaining to coast guard divers being used to guard potential targets on land, even though this information had also been publicized in the openly accessible government bulletin. Indeed, one of the specific charges against Christodoulidou pertained to the dissemination of military information during a time of war!
Lawsuits, or the threat of a lawsuit, are another weapon in the arsenal of politicians and business figures who seek to squash inconvenient stories about themselves. In October 2012, then-Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias threatened to sue The Guardian over a report that it had published about a group of protesters who had been allegedly tortured by police officers following their arrests. Following this incident, Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi, the two hosts of ERT’s televised morning news program, were removed from their positions by Emilios Liatsos, who was then ERT’s general news director, after they made critical comments about Dendias and his reaction to the report, which appeared in The Guardian.
While Arvanitis and Katsimi were later reinstated by ERT, their contracts were not renewed in 2013. Following Arvanitis’ and Katsimis’ on-air statements regarding Dendias, the outspoken and prominent former government minister Theodoros Pangalos stated, on his radio show, which airs on Vima FM in Athens, that the two journalists “should have kept their mouths shut,” while also describing Arvanitis as “talentless.”
Further incidents have followed. In February, then-Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis filed charges against a Twitter user by the name of “@kopriths” and called for his anonymity to be lifted, after the user repeatedly questioned Georgiadis regarding a report in Hot Doc magazine alleging that Georgiadis had met with an executive from a pharmaceutical company just prior to a vote pertaining to pharmaceuticals in the Greek parliament.
Another incident came in October 2013, when anti-memorandum newspaper To Xoni and two of its journalists were sued for €8 million by business mogul Vardis Vardinogiannis, after the paper published a report alleging that Greece’s military junta, in the 1970s, transferred ownership of previous public lands in the region of Halkidiki to the Vardinogiannis family.
Political influence is often used as a tool to stifle reporting, which is seen as inconvenient.
The open online encyclopedia Wikipedia has not been exempt from targeting by politicians. In February, politician Theodoros Katsanevas, founder of the “Drachma” political party and a former prominent member of PASOK, who is also the son-in-law of former prime minister Andreas Papandreou, sued a Wikipedia administrator for €200,000 and one years’ imprisonment, claiming that a section of the Wikipedia article about him was defamatory. Specifically, the section in question referred to an alleged description of Katsanevas as a “disgrace” in a controversial handwritten will left by Papandreou. Notably, this was not the first time that Katsanevas had sued a journalist for publishing this claim. The administrator identified in the lawsuit, who has not been named publicly, had allegedly first been contacted by Katsanevas in 2009, while it has not been revealed how Katsanevas was able to determine the administrator’s identity to file the lawsuit.
Outright manipulation and censorship has also become an increasingly prominent feature of Greece’s media landscape in the past few years.
Internet domain names legitimately registered by private individuals in Greece have not escaped censorship either. In late 2013, the Greek state, via the supposedly independent Hellenic Telecommunications and Post Commission (EETT), was able to take over control of the “eu2014.gr” domain name, which had been registered in 2005 by Kostis Lympouridis to criticize the Greek government in advance of Greece taking over the European Union’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2014.
The EETT claimed that the state obtained “distinctive rights” to the domain name when it registered a similar name, “eu2003.gr,” prior to the country’s previous rotating presidency in 2003. Furthermore, Greece’s foreign ministry, with the help of the Hellenic Police’s cyber crimes unit, was apparently able to take over the Twitter account “@GreekPresidency,” also created by Lympouridis.
Tough Questions are Punished
Political influence is often used as a tool to stifle reporting which is seen as inconvenient, as was seen in an incident which occurred just before the European parliamentary elections in May, when journalist Katerina Polizou was demoted from her position as morning show host on local television station Nea Tileorasi in Crete, after an interview with Aphrodite Al-Saleh, a candidate with the “Elia” coalition, in which PASOK was a prominent participant in the European elections.
In this interview, Al-Saleh was questioned about how she is able to reconcile PASOK leader Evaggelos Venizelos’ position in favor of military action against Syria, when she is partially of Syrian descent. Following this interview, Polyzou was demoted to the station’s support staff by Nea Tileorasi’s owner, Giorgos Papakonstantis, himself a candidate in the European parliamentary elections with Elia. This was apparently also not the first incident in which a journalist claimed to have been threatened with intimidation by Al-Saleh; in May 2013, ERT3 journalist Theodora Avgeri made such claims following an interview with Al-Saleh.
Outright manipulation and censorship has also become an increasingly prominent feature of Greece’s media landscape in the past few years. The National Council for Radio-Television (ESR) has figured prominently in many of these incidents. In January 2013, the ESR issued a directive to television stations, prohibiting the broadcast of images of homeless or deeply impoverished individuals. Similarly, this past February, the ESR banned television stations from showing footage of a boat carrying mostly Afghan migrants and which capsized in the Aegean Sea while being towed by the Coast Guard, resulting in the deaths of at least 22 migrants.
Moving beyond the ESR, an additional case of news manipulation came in February 2013, when it was revealed that the photographs of four young suspects who had been arrested in the city of Kozani on charges of robbery had been digitally altered by the police prior to being released to the news media. The digital alteration took place to conceal any sign of the beatings and torture the four suspects faced while in custody.
In June 2013, journalist Frangiska Megaloudi alleged that private radio station Vima FM, owned by the powerful Lambrakis Publishing Group, refused to air her interview, which cited her research regarding an increase in illegal drug use in downtown Athens, allegedly because this issue was considered politically sensitive, while in March 2013, ERT’s news director Emilios Liatsos censored a politically sensitive news story to air about a forthcoming increase in electricity rates.
Outright criticism of the troika and the German government has also been stifled by the ESR and by the Greek government. In at least two separate cases, in 2012 and the 2013, the ESR levied fines of €25,000 and €20,000 against leading radio station Real FM for broadcasting commentaries with allegedly disparaging remarks made against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In May, just prior to that month’s European and local elections, the Union of Pharmacists of Athens was prohibited from airing a radio advertisement critical of the government’s health-care policy, following a ministerial decision recently passed prohibiting the broadcast of advertisements deemed to be of a “political nature” during the pre-election period.
Favoritism and partisanship often manifests itself on the air.
In a similar incident in January, a television advertisement for a natural gas company was “edited” to remove a reference to the troika, allegedly again due to government interference. And in April, following Merkel’s one-day official visit to Greece, the semi-official ANA news agency was reportedly pressured by government officials to remove any reference to the term “austerity measures” in its translation of a statement issued by the German chancellery regarding Merkel’s visit. The term was replaced by the milder phrase “consolidation measures.” It should be noted that the ANA’s wire service reports are frequently reproduced verbatim by Greek and foreign news outlets. The original term, “austerity measures,” used in the German chancellery’s report, however appeared on the website of the German embassy in Greece.
This was not the first time that the ANA was accused of outright manipulation in its reporting of the news, due to alleged government pressure. In October 2012, the general manager of the ANA, Ilias Matsikas, was removed from his position, allegedly by then-government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, reportedly as a result of publishing two wire service reports deemed “inaccurate” by the government. One of the two reports pertained to the so-called “Lagarde List,” while the other referenced a recent nationally televised speech given by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
It was found that 65 percent of the political coverage on the station’s newscasts was devoted to coverage of the governing parties or the government in general, over four times the amount of coverage afforded to main opposition party Syriza (16 percent).
In general, many media outlets in Greece are usually seen as being close to various partisan interests, and in particular, the interests of the two parties that comprise the governing coalition, New Democracy and PASOK. This favoritism and partisanship often manifests itself on the air. Despite policies in place by the ESR concerning the proportional representation of political parties on the airwaves, these policies are rarely and haphazardly enforced. This can be seen, for instance, in a recent study of the programming of Athena 9,84 FM, the municipal radio station of the city of Athens (whose mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, is supported by both governing parties).
Those in Power Dominate
In a one-week sample of programming, representatives from New Democracy, PASOK, and former coalition partner DIMAR (“Democratic Left”), along with representatives from a new (and since disbanded) political movement known as the “movement of 58,” comprised mostly of ex-PASOK members, dominated the station’s airtime and its political coverage, while representatives from main opposition party Syriza, as well as other political parties, were heard infrequently, at best.
In another example, well-known economist Yanis Varoufakis, who is known to be critical of government policy, alleged in June 2013 that he had been shut out of ERT’s broadcasts in the two years prior to its shutdown, claiming that he had been warned by celebrity newscaster Elli Stai that if he spoke on air about his well-known views that the Greek debt must be written down, that he would no longer be allowed back on the air. After defying this warning and discussing these views on air, Varoufakis was apparently barred from future appearances on ERT. This situation apparently remained unchanged after the shutdown of ERT and the much-promised emphasis on “transparency” in Greece’s new national public broadcaster.
In a recent study of airtime of “Dimosia Tileorasi” (DT), the interim “public” television station which operated until April and which served as a temporary replacement for ERT, it was found that 65 percent of the political coverage on the station’s newscasts was devoted to coverage of the governing parties or the government in general, over four times the amount of coverage afforded to main opposition party Syriza (16 percent). This percentage surpassed the coverage of the government and the governing parties on the major private television stations, such as ANT1 (60 percent), despite those stations’ strong reputations for being unabashedly favorable towards the government and its policies.
The pre-election period is often seen as a time where the media’s pro-government, pro-New Democracy and pro-PASOK biases are most pronounced and acute. One notable example came just two days prior to the June 2012 parliamentary elections, when ANT1 TV aired a widely-advertised “documentary” hosted by news reporter Maria Houkli, regarding the disastrous consequences that a departure from the Eurozone and a return to a domestic currency would purportedly mean for Greece. Similar propaganda was seen again prior to the 2014 European parliamentary elections in May.
For instance, focusing once again on ANT1, captions seen on its main evening newscasts would often warn viewers of the disastrous consequences of voting for any parties other than those of the governing coalition, and in particular, voting for Syriza. These captions, which went far beyond anything that could reasonably be considered objective news reporting, included warnings such as “the overthrow which Syriza is evangelizing may lead to a prolonged period of instability,” “a political ‘accident’ resulting from casually voting may lead to catastrophe,” and “Alexis Tsipras’ goal of overthrowing the government will be accomplished if the status quo remains and voters don’t come together to support New Democracy and Elia.” Many of these captions were accompanied by images of opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, reinforcing the message that was being sent to voters.
While several of Greece’s major television stations have repeatedly been able to get away with the presentation of blatantly pro-government viewpoints and opinions on what are supposed to be objective newscasts, a new draft law before parliament as of this writing seeks to curtail the broadcast of any allegations against parliamentary candidates which do not directly pertain to their campaign, for the duration of the official pre-election period. This law, if passed, would apply to radio and television stations in Greece and effectively shield parliamentary candidates from potentially damaging allegations that may call into question their fitness to obtain and hold public office.
It is evident that the past few years have seen a disturbing amount of incidents involving censorship of the media, as well as efforts to manipulate news stories or to threaten and intimidate journalists in a number of different ways. Perhaps, however, the greatest “chilling effect” of all has resulted not from any of the aforementioned cases, but from the self-censorship practiced by journalists on their own. This is indeed often identified as one of the primary obstacles to press freedom in Greece, as journalists, without being told, are aware of which news stories are “off limits” and “out of bounds,” while also tailoring their coverage of other issues in such a way that is understood to be acceptable to the ownership and management of the media outlets where they are employed.
Despite all of the aforementioned incidents, the past few years have seen a marked increase in the amount of alternative media outlets, particularly on the internet. These include blogs, news portals, magazines, alternative newspapers, online radio and television stations, many of which also make heavy use of social media tools. At times, these outlets have played instrumental roles in breaking stories that were not covered by the mainstream media, as well as disseminating information and photos direct from protests and other major news events.
These outlets, however, face a number of limitations, both external and self-imposed. Their lack of reach, in part due to economic limitations and also due to the relatively low levels of internet penetration in Greece compared to the countries of Northern Europe, limits, in part, the impact of these outlets. The plethora of online media outlets which has sprung up in recent years has also led to a dilution of the available audience. Additionally, these outlets operate under the constant threat of legal (or extra-legal) action, as outlined above, while many outlets have not been able to shed the political affiliations and biases which characterize mainstream media in Greece, even if these outlets tend to generally favor any of the various opposition political parties in the country. These political affiliations, as well as the suspected backdoor economic affiliations of some of these outlets, often mean that even reporting that is of a critical or opposition nature is censored if it is viewed as being contrary to particular interests.
More so than any overt actions on the part of media owners, politicians, or prominent business personalities and public figures, self-censorship may be the biggest impediment to the free and unfettered flow of news and information. Nevertheless, the above incidents signal a disturbing downward trend with regards to press freedom in Greece.