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Economic crisis – challenge to free speech in Greece

Index on Censorship and ARTICLE 19 are concerned about recent attacks on freedom of expression in Greece, where, at the time of the economic crisis, the authorities are attempting to limit criticism of the government. It is not an appropriate response for a democratic European government to limit press freedom in order to protect political power, the NGOs say.

Sunday, 04 November 2012, by HRH London, based on Article 19, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders information.

In March 2012 Human Rights House wrote about the impact of the financial crisis on the freedom of expression in Belarus. As Belarus is an undemocratic country and Greece is the nominal birthplace of democracy, the influence of the economic hardship in these countries differs a lot. While the crisis may have a positive impact on free speech in Belarus, the situation in Greece is more worrying.

Attack on free speech – attack on democracy
In recent months Greece has recorded multiple instances of censorship and attacks on the press. ARTICLE 19 says that the government’s attempts to increase control over the media in Greece should be viewed as a direct attack on democracy which must not be tolerated.

Recent sanctions against three journalists present clear signs of attempts by the authorities to control the media.

Greek journalists Asteris Masouras and Veroniki Krikoni state that systematic efforts to curtail media freedom are taking place against the backdrop of rising police brutality used to quell anti-austerity protests and mounting neo-Nazi violence against journalists, immigrants, and homosexuals linked to rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party, which gained 18 seats in June’s parliamentary elections.

“They are after me instead of the truth”
On 28 October, National Day in Greece, Kostas Vaxevanis, left, the editor of an investigative magazine Hot Docs went on trial for allegedly breaching the privacy of several individuals by publishing a list of wealthy Greeks that the government has yet to investigate for possible tax evasion.

The arrest warrant was issued to Vaxevanis after he had published a list of around 2,000 suspected tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts. The list is of unclear origin but is known as the Lagarde List because it is said to closely match the list which then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde gave to her Greek counterpart in 2010.

“They are after me instead of the truth”, Vaxevanis stated in a video uploaded on the night before his arrest.

A New York Times editorial slammed the Greek government for being “shamefully quick” to attack the messenger and strip basic social services from the country’s most vulnerable citizens but shamefully slow at probing possible tax evasion by the well-connected.

Journalists publication absolutely reasonable
ARTICLE 19 finds that Vaxevanis was acting in the public interest in publishing this list. Against the backdrop of the financial crisis – it is absolutely relevant that this information be made public; the existence of the list and its contents should be considered as a matter for public debate.

In the absence of any action from the government for two years, it was in public interest to publish the list to ensure that this information was not neglected and that the matter was given proper attention. Publication was the reasonable thing to do in the situation.

ARTICLE believes that the Greek government ought to be responding to the information rather than punishing the person who brought it to public attention.

“A government is supposed to serve its people. The role of a free media is to act as a watchdog for democracy. It is the responsibility of the press to publish information which is in the public interest and to scrutinise the operation of the state. We must not allow censorship to stop the truth emerging or repress ideas. This is an inexcusable attack on freedom of expression”, said Agnès Callamard, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.

Cases of attacks on free speech
On 26 October, ERT3 state TV reporter Christos Dantsis, assigned to cover the celebrations of the liberation centenary of Thessaloniki, “disappeared” on screen, after reporting on citizen protests against the Greek Prime Minister and President of the Republic outside St Dimitrios’ church and the heavy police presence that had descended on the city. His substitute was ordered to present a more amicable image of festivities.

On 28 October, a 35-year-old man arrested in Corfu for posting photos of police and Golden Dawn party on Facebook during the Ochi Day parade, was reportedly charged with breaching privacy, defamation and “spreading false news with the intent to destabilise the state”.

The following day, two journalists, Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi, above, had their morning news show on Greek state TV (ERT) cancelled, after analysing claims by the Guardian of police torture of Greek anti-fascist protesters in Athens, and criticising the Greek Minister of Public Order.

On 9 October, the Guardian published a report on torture allegations made by anti-fascist protesters arrested after a clash with Golden Dawn members on 26 September, in which detainees spoke of being subjected to tortures at police headquarters in Athens.

Threat of self-censorship
ARTICLE 19 finds it outrageous that two journalists were suspended for criticising a minister. Katsimi and Arvanitis were questioning the attitude of the minister. In democratic states, politicians must be tolerant and open to criticism and public scrutiny.

They were merely making a comment about the minister’s attitude to the matter. This is a standard practice and it is the role of the media to raise such issues.

Suspending the presenters immediately violated standards on freedom of expression. Even if concerns that ethical journalistic standards were violated, a breach of this nature would not warrant such a severe sanction as immediate suspension.

According to Agnès Callamard, these dismissals send out a dangerous message to other journalists, who might now be cautious about criticising the government for fear that they will face reprisal themselves.

“The suspension of the presenters could give way to self censorship by other journalists”, added Callamard.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Greek authorities to refrain from muzzling the voice of the media and violating the right to freedom of expression. The media must be allowed to criticise the government. Public scrutiny is a vital part of democracy.

Worrying trends in Greece
Masouras and Krikoni say the overt press censorship is banned by the Greek Constitution, but systematic efforts to curtail press freedom have intensified in recent years, as unpopular austerity measures, corruption scandals and police violence are fueling frequent protests and dissent.

Greece plummeted 35 ranks in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in 2010, in large part due to the assassination of online journalist Sokratis Giolias, left, allegedly because of his work on an undisclosed corruption story, and targeted police attacks on photojournalists covering protests.

International human rights organisations have repeatedly chastised the Greek state, urging a “zero tolerance” approach to police violence. Threats and abuse against journalists by newly-elected politicians from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party prompted CPJ to remark that the party “casts a shadow on Europe’s press freedom”.

Kostas Vaxevanis says: “Greece gave birth to democracy. Now it has been cast out by a powerful elite”.

HRH London, based on Article 19, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders information.

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