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South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
World Press Freedom Review - Greece

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2004 World Press Freedom Review

By South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

 

During 2004 there were local reports that some journalists are receiving payments from public sector sources and, at the same time, working as journalists reporting on the same public sector sources.

On 9 March, following the victory of the "New Democracy" party in national elections, new Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis announced the abrogation of the Ministry for Press and Mass Media. Theodoros Roussopoulos became the new government spokesperson, succeeding Christos Protopapas of the PASOK party.

On 31 March, ESIEMTH stopped working for three hours in solidarity with the nationwide 24-hour strike declared by the Pan Hellenic Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), demanding the signing of the National Collective Labour Charter.

On 4 May, the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) denounced the decision by Greek state TV ET-3 to cancel the showing of the documentary "The other side," scheduled for 11 p.m. on 3 May. The documentary, produced by the same TV station, presented the events of 1963-1974 in Cyprus from the angle of Turkish-Cypriots and received an honourable mention in the Sixth International Festival of Thessaloniki in March 2004. As the daily Elefherotypia reported on 3 May, the cancellation was the result of pressure from "nationally correct-minded" persons, who consider the documentary "anti- national."

On 25 May 2004, two political parties, Vinozhito/Rainbow and ultra-left OAKKE, left a round table, which was supposed to settle how the media would cover parties participating in upcoming European Parliament elections. They were protesting the participation of the ultra-nationalist/fascist "Patriotic Front" in the talks, which threatened to violently stop the first Vinozhito/Rainbow congress, scheduled for the 30 May in Thessaloniki. Minister of Internal Affairs Prokopis Pavlopoulos had rejected Vinozhito/Rainbow's request that the "Patriotic Front" be barred from the proceedings.

On 4 June, police stopped transmissions by radio station Makedonikos Ikos (Macedonian Sound) in Naoussa/Negush, northern Greece. They also arrested and fined owner Aris Vottaris for not having a broadcasting license.

SEEMO has urged the Greek government to avoid discriminatory acts and to speed up the distribution of regional broadcasting licenses. The incident led to a common intervention over the licensing issue from both the Greek ombudsman and the Republic of Macedonia. The charged station broadcasts in Macedonian and frequently transmits traditional songs in Macedonian.

On 15 July, a serious dispute between the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Journalists (POESY) and media ownership unions about salaries and working conditions lead to continuous strikes in newspapers, TV and radio. On 5 August 2004, journalists and media owners signed an annual salary raise of 6.5 per cent over the next two years. No agreement has been reached regarding other issues (such as prior debts, working conditions, overtime etc.). On 31 August, almost all media companies reported a rise in their revenue, operational and net profits for the first half of 2004.

On 28 July, an AFP photographer, who took photos in the tourist district of Athens, was held under arrest for several hours. This was one of several examples of "Olympic games chaos," as one local reporter said.

On 2 August, two journalists from a TV station in Mexico were arrested, together with local translators, and were then beaten by members of the coast guard.

On 3 August, four journalists from Mexico were under arrest for several hours, after they were found working near a military base in Athens.

On 15 October, the International Publishers' Association (IPA) expressed its concern over blasphemy charges (made by the Greek Orthodox Church) directed at a number of booksellers because of Gerhard Haderer's artistic comic book "The Life of Jesus," from the Oxy Publishing House. IPA condemned the confiscation of the book. It was the second protest reaction; the first was in 2003. The book was previously published in seven other countries, including Austria, where the author lives.

On 18 October, Philippos Syrigos, sports editor of the Athens daily Eleftherotypia and famous radio and TV presenter, was attacked and stabbed by two men (yet to be arrested) in a parking lot near the Super Sport FM radio station, while going to his car.

The men managed to escape. Syrigos was rushed to hospital and operated on. In a press conference, which he gave few days after being able to return home, he stated that stories about doping during the Athens Olympics and about various businessmen could be the possible cause for the attack. SEEMO has urged Greek authorities to intensify efforts to find and bring to justice the responsible parties.

In October 2004, the Thessaloniki Court of Appeals has confirmed an original decision of the Thessaloniki Court of First Instance against a publisher, who victimised journalist Haralambos Babis Bikas. The court ruling from 2004 No 1976/2004 provided important safeguards for journalists in Greece.

On 23 April 2003, Babis Bikas, editor of Makedonia daily in Thessaloniki, was fired after returning to Greece from Iraq. Two days previously, Babis Bikas had announced during an ethics committee meeting of the Union of Journalists of Macedonia and Thrace (ESIEMTH) that his report from Baghdad had been censored, adding changes had been made to his report, which was published on 10 April 2003.

Newspaper staff, backed by ESIEMTH, held a 24-hour strike in support of press freedom on 13 May 2003. A letter of protest was handed to newspaper management. Five different journalists' associations and unions in Greece supported Babis Bikas.

In decision 12705 of 15 May 2003, the court rejected the appeal of the publishing company to pronounce the strike on 13 May illegal. The decision ruled the dismissal of Babis Bikas illegal, and stated that abuse of journalists' texts is an unduly excessive practice beyond the competence of managing editors, adding freedom of the press is a superior good, beyond any private interest.

The Court of First Instance of Thessaloniki gave Babis Bikas his job back. SEEMO supported Babis Bikas in his fight. As a "victory for editorial independence in Greece" SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic commended the triumph of Bikas.

In December 2004, the Minister of Defence decided to limit the rights of journalists to visit the Ministry of Defence. The Minister of Defence, Spilios Spiliotopoulos, gave an order, that journalists would need special permissions from the Ministry of Defence for visiting the building.

For more information about media developments and press freedom in Greece, please see the SEEMO Media Handbook 2005.

*****

2003 World Press Freedom Review

By South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Journalists' working conditions are still a problem in Greece. Many journalists have short fixed-term contracts, with a salary lower than that of other colleagues. At the beginning of 2003, for example, there were more than 500 journalists working with short fixed-term contracts in the public broadcaster ERT.

No progress at all has been made on the issue diversity of reporting in the mainstream media. The minority position is still a taboo in much of the media, although some media have made steps towards a better treatment of the Roma people. There have been reports on their problems and way of life, traditions, music, among others, but stereotypes remain.

The most characteristic example of this type of behaviour is the double cancellation of the congress of "Vinozhito-Rainbow". This is an officially recognized political party representing the Macedonian minority in Greece. The congresses were supposed to be held in Edessa. But the threats, demonstrations and violence on the part of a few ultra-nationalists and neo-fascist extremists caused them to be cancelled.

Because of the threats the offer to use the Congress Hall was withdrawn. The ultra-nationalist position was supported by two newspapers, both closely linked to the ultra-right -- Stohos-Target and Ellinikos Kosmos-Greek World. Both used headlines like, "Throw the Slavs out of Greece" and "Crush the Skopjan Gypsies."

On the other hand, none of the mainstream media, with the exception of some dailies such as Eleftherotypia and Express, have carried even a short report on the incidents. This, despite the fact that the cancellation of the congress caused an international reaction, varying from the European Parliament to organizations like the Council of Europe, Minority Rights Group International, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor, among others.

The issue of homosexuality still poses major problems for the media. The TV station Mega Channel was fined 100,000 Euros by the National Council of Radio and Television ("NCRT") for transmitting, on 6 October, pictures of two men kissing as part of the late-night TV programme "Klisse ta matia" ("Close your eyes"). The Council considered the kissing scene to be "vulgar and unacceptable" and claimed "it could damage young people by making them too familiar with vulgarity."

Alternatively, the state itself does not seem very willing to solve the problem of the proper operation of TV and radio stations. Recently, 15 companies applied to the NCRT for a permanent nationwide TV license. The final results are not expected until 2004. Up to now, existing TV stations were operating with provisional licenses or no license at all. The same applies with regard to regional licenses, both for TV and for radio stations. The only difference is that the screening procedure has not yet started so it is impossible to estimate when it will be eventually finalized.

The most serious press freedom violation was the one concerning the journalist -- author Gazment (Gazi) Kaplani. Mostly known to the Albanian community in Athens, Kaplani was semi-employed by the biggest daily newspaper in Greece Ta Nea and has also worked for the state radio station NET 105.8, as well as for the Albanian daily Koha Jone.

Just before Christmas 2002, he wrote an "open letter" on behalf of all Albanian immigrants, and addressed it to Prime Minister Simitis and the Greek people. In it, he simply tried to describe Christmas from the immigrants' point of view, using sarcasm, which was directed against himself, as well as humour.

His problems started at the beginning of 2003, when the Greek ministry of Public Order told Kaplani that the application for renewal of his working permit for Greece was rejected and that he would be deported from the country. Asked for a reason, the ministry claimed that he had not paid any insurance for his motorbike since 1997. Later the ministry spokesman admitted that Kaplani was considered unwanted in Greece due to "reasons of security and public order."

The Athens Journalists' Union ("ESIEA") strongly protested. The ESIEA board stressed that Kaplani was a journalist and writer ''who has been working in Greece since 1991, is insured, submits tax returns and since 2001 he had a Greek state scholarship for his Ph.D. studies at Panteion University. The social and personal life and action of Gazi Kaplani is legal and transparent." ESIEA also called on the public order ministry to make public ''the confidential report on the journalist, from which it stems that he is dangerous for public order and security and which places him in constant danger of deportation."

SEEMO reacted on 16 May with a protest letter to the Minister of Public Order and Interior Minister. SEEMO received an answer instead from the Ministry of the Interior, Public Administration and Decentralisation, with the information that "as long as this case is linked to issues regarding public order and national security" it does not fall under the competence of this Ministry. "In this case, the competent authority is the Ministry of Public Order," the letter sent to SEEMO on 25 July stated. The Ministry of Public Order did not respond to SEEMO's letter in 2003.

On 23 April, Babis Bikas, editor of Makedonia daily in Thessaloniki, was fired after returning to Greece from Iraq. Two days previously Bikas had announced during a meeting of the Ethics Committee of the Union of Journalists of Macedonia and Thrace ("ESIEMTH") that his report from Baghdad had been censored. Changes were made in Babis/ report published on 10 April. The staff of the newspaper, backed by ESIEMTH, held a 24-hour strike in support of press freedom on 13 May. A letter of protest was handed to the management of the newspaper. Five different Journalist Associations and Unions in Greece supported Bikas.

In its decision 12705 of 15 May the Court rejected the appeal of the publishing company to pronounce the strike on 13 May illegal. The decision stated that the dismissal of Babis Bikas was illegal, that abuse of journalists/ texts is an excessive practice beyond the competence of managing editors and that the freedom of the press is a superior good beyond any private interest. Bikas was given his job back.

In September, the journalists' unions were active in overturning the decision to layoff their former member and active union leader Dimitris Aspropoulis, who was dismissed from the Antenna broadcasting station after working there for fourteen years. The layoff took place after the management had expressed disapproval of his union activity and his presence. According to the management, Aspropoulis was being laid off because the station's news programme had to be replaced by a music programme. This was strange, because the broadcasting permit for the station had been granted on the basis of its news programme.

On 29 September, a group of unknown assailants threw a homemade incendiary device at the front door of Anna Panayotarea's house in Athens, causing damage but no injuries. Panayotarea, a presenter with the TV station Alpha, told the police that she had been threatened several times in the past by anonymous phone calls. She linked these calls and also the attack on her home to her investigations into the activities of the "17 November" terrorist group. For the same reasons, anarchists verbally and physically attacked Nikos Kakaounakis, an editor at the radio station Flash and owner of the weekly newspaper Karfi.

From the point of view of observers, in the case of the trial of the "17 November" group members, the press in general followed the government's line uncritically. They were being used to encourage the public to denounce terrorists to the police. On the other hand, there have been accusations concerning the way the press covered the terrorist group members' trial that ended on 8 December 2003. The fact remains that several journalists were verbally and sometimes physically attacked for the way they covered the story, both in 2002 and 2003.

ET3 was in the spotlight on 8 December. During a working table held by the Ministry of Press and Mass Media, ET3's editor Thanassis Houpis claimed that the chairman of the European Bureau for Less Used Languages ("EBLUL" -- a semi-official institution of the European Union) in Greece is a dangerous person who has publicly stated that Greek Macedonia should become independent only to be united at a later stage with the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia ("FYROM"). Such a statement was never made and Houpis' point caused an official protest to ET3 from both Parissis and EBLUL President Bojan Brezigar.

On 17 December, the International Publishers` Association ("IPA") expressed its concern about charges of blaspheming the Greek Orthodox Church and the Christian religion made against Gerhard Haderer, the author of the artistic comic book "The Life of Jesus," and also against the Oxy publishing House. IPA condemned the confiscation of "The Life of Jesus." The book was published in 7 other countries, including Austria, where the author lives.

In the second half of 2003, the Thessaloniki-based Greek state television ET-3 withdrew funding for a documentary on Max Merten, a war criminal who was tried in 1959 and convicted of responsibility for the Holocaust relating to Greek Jews during World War II. The Greek Helsinki Monitor ("GHM") pointed out on 21 December in a letter to the Deputy Interior Minister Nikos Bistis that "the fact of going back on such a decision is tantamount to censorship and does not augur well for the first commemoration of Holocaust Day." Bistis had recently introduced a Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Simon Wiesenthal Center also urged the Greek State television to reinstate its financial backing for the documentary on the Nazi Holocaust.

On 28 December, the TV station Alter sent its reporter Antonis Papadopoulos, a member of the ESIEA, along with a camera crew, to the public Nikea General Hospital, after it received several telephone calls from relatives of patients hospitalised there. They claimed that due to the large number of patients needing medical treatment and a shortage of appropriate rooms, the patients were put on so-called "rantza" beds in the corridors of the hospital, where they were kept in poor conditions.

Papadopoulos and his crew went to investigate and were able to enter the hospital without any problem. They even filmed the situation, which proved to correspond to the accusations made by the patients/ relatives. Soon people from a private security company, who are responsible for order in the hospital, arrived and attacked the crew. Papadopoulos was beaten repeatedly. His clothes were torn, his bag taken. He was forced to go to the basement of the building where he was questioned. Those who questioned him had no right to do so.

The police arrived later and took Papadopoulos and the persons who had beaten him to the neighbouring police station, where they all gave evidence. The tape on which the beginning of the incident was filmed was returned to Alter and shown nation-wide. SEEMO sent a letter of protest, asking the authorities in Greece to carry out an immediate and thorough investigation and to bring to justice those responsible for the attack.

*****

2002 World Press Freedom Review

By the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

The way the main media carry out news coverage and the fact that certain well-known journalists stray from the journalism code of ethics is a distinct problem for the media in Greece. Furthermore, it is obvious that the big media groups are closely tied to various political and economic power centres, causing an oligopolistic situation.

Besides government control of the state media there are many accusations that the owners of the media are connected with politicians and political parties. As underlined in the "Report for the Corruption in Greece" by an investigative body of the Council of Europe, "There are great dangers because of the relations among politicians, media groups and economic interests... "

For example, an editor can work for a political party or state/private company while covering the same area of news. In electronic media, mainly television, there is a growing commercialisation. This phenomenon dominates the media, annulling the basic role of the press and leading to a lack of real information and a misunderstanding about the reality of certain situations.

One event stands out as an example of this situation. During the summer, an armed group was arrested, and the reports on this issue reflected all that is negative about the media. Its members were accused by the police of being part of the revolutionary organisation "17 November". Since 1974, the group has assassinated 23 high ranking politicians, businessman, police and army officers and bombed political, economic and foreign targets.

On this topic, the public witnessed the media desire to produce "yellow journalism". Well-known journalists played the role of prosecutors, reporting the names of those about to be arrested and using information given by the police, the antiterrorist unit, the ministry of public and also information from the British and American embassies and secret services.

Starting on 29 June, most TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers, devoted more time to the so-called "dismantling" of the terrorist group than any other news event since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974. It was something that had to be expected, though, and to a certain point this extended coverage made the public familiar with all sorts of details, concerning the lives of the people arrested. The media continued highlighting the event over the summer presenting "exclusive terrorist stories" in order to cover space. But these stories were beginning to sound false. The same journalists and politicians appeared as daily guests on TV shows and began to annoy the public. As a result, the rights of the victims of the organisation, the arrested and their families were brutally violated by an "invasion" of reporters seeking the so-called "truth behind the scene(s)".

During a march on the United States' embassy in Athens on 26 September, protesters destroyed a truck belonging to the private television channel Mega, causing minor injuries to a reporter and two technicians. Several news photographers and cameramen had their equipment destroyed. Messages of support for 17 November were found written on walls.

On 2 October, some 20 helmeted individuals, apparently members of an anarchist group, attacked the Athens offices of the daily newspaper Apogevmatini, tossing Molotov cocktails and setting fire to several vehicles.

The newspaper's staff were in the office at the time but no one was injured. The assailants all fled before the police arrived. The newspaper, whose owner Nikos Momfertos, was murdered in 1985 by 17 November, had come out in favour of cracking down on the terrorist group. On 7 October, RSF voiced its concern about the recent attacks on Greek journalists and news organisations that have taken place against a backdrop of controversy over the arrests of members of the 17 November terrorist group. "The use of violence against journalists is never justified", RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard said, urging those who take issue with coverage of the 17 November arrests to voice their criticisms verbally in forums for public debate. "Those who accuse the press of bias on this issue should use democratic means to bring their case forward."

The general elections in municipalities and prefectures, held on 13 October, showed that the Greek media are still reluctant to give space or time to people who support smaller political parties. TV shows only had candidates who support the two main parties, PASOK and New Democracy. This was a common picture and other parties protested this without success. The example of the Macedonian political party "Vinozhito-Rainbow" is characteristic of this problem.

The minority question is still a topic for foreign observers in Greece. For many of the media, the position of minorities is still a taboo subject. Some media have campaigned for a better treatment of the Roma people and there have been articles on their problems and the way of life, traditions, music etc, but stereotypes remain. The Turkish-speaking minority in Thrace is still called a "Muslim minority" by almost all of the media following the official line. However, there are media who are critical of the policy of the Greek state and who report on the social-economic problems of this minority.

Still, some media accuse the Turkish minority of being the "instruments of Ankara". For the people who describe themselves as "Macedonians" in the Greek region of Macedonia (North Greece), there are also obvious problems. There is the continued denial that such a minority exists and some activists are accused of being "spies of Skopje". Concerning the Albanian immigrants, the "Albaniaphobia" of the 90s has decreased, but some stereotypes remain.

There have been cases of inciting racial hate and anti-Semitism in several Greek print media. However, defamation cases against journalists continue in the country. This led the Greek Helsinki Monitor, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, to state that "among the countries with a long democratic tradition, Greece is regrettably the one with the least respect for press freedom". On the other hand, RSF published an Index of press freedom for the period September 2001-October 2002, where Greece received rank 19 from 139 countries worldwide, placing it before other countries in the European Union.

During 2002, the SEEMO help line and database registered 6 cases of press freedom violations in Greece.

*****

2001 World Press Freedom Review

Greece continues to be one of the few countries within the European Union (EU) that has consistently brought criminal defamation suits against journalists. IPI and other press freedom organisations have long campaigned for the repeal of such repressive laws, pointing out that handing down prison sentences in defamation cases impedes the free flow of information and ideas and the threat of imprisonment deters free and critical reporting. In addition, criminal defamation is in contradiction to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which all EU members, including Greece are bound by law.

However, representatives of the Greek government deny that criminal defamation, as applied in Greece, constitutes a threat to freedom of expression. At a meeting on Freedom of Expression in Europe, organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on 12-13 March and attended by IPI, a Greek government representative said that Greek journalists prefer the current system since it is cheaper for them. The Greek delegate said that it in common practice, if an individual is found guilty of defamation, prison sentences are bought off for a small amount of money. As such, it is cheaper for the convicted than if a verdict were reached in civil court.

After being presented with an IPI paper at the conference listing a number of press freedom violations in Greece, the Greek representative said that press freedom organisations have a biased picture of the situation for Greek journalists and that many of the reported incidents are not press freedom violations at all. IPI pointed out that, in practice, criminal defamation criminalizes free speech which goes against a number of international declarations and that the use of it in Greece reveals a deep-seated suspicion on part of the Greek authorities against a free and unfettered media. The attitude of the Greek representative was also evident in a protracted court case which dragged on last year.

On 2 February, Sotiris Bletsas, a member of the Society for Aromanian (Vlach) Culture, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined the equivalent of US $1,400 by an Athens court for disseminating false information under Article 191 of the penal code. Bletsas appealed the sentence and was set free pending the appeal. The charges were brought by a deputy with the conservative party New Democracy, Eugene Haitidis, and concern leaflets distributed by Bletsas in 1995 which he deemed defamatory to the Vlachs, since they referred to the Vlach language as a "minority language". In addition, the court said the leaflet, published by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, could cause "fear and anxiety among citizens." The case has been appealed.

The trial has been criticised by several human rights organisations and critics maintain that Greek authorities are particularly reluctant to acknowledge the existence of a number of minority languages in Greece and that the sentence provides further evidence for this. Greece has been criticised for failing to provide minorities with sufficient rights, which are considered to be of extra importance since Greece is a centre for immigrants from the Balkan region.

Elsewhere, the American embassy in Athens refused to grant a left-wing journalist a visa at the beginning of the year. Christos Papoutsakis, editor of political weekly Anti, was denied the visa needed to go to an event organised on 1 February by the Columbia School of Journalism on dissenting journalism. The Greek Helsinki Monitor, a human rights organisation, protested the decision. It is believed a possible reason for the denial is that Papoutsakis's name remains on security lists dating from the Cold War. Papoutsakis has long been a critic of U.S. foreign policy.

On 9 April, Greek journalists went on strike demanding a pay-rise and better pension plans. The journalists' union released a statement saying the journalists in print and electronic media want "decent wages" and that they would strike for one day to achieve this aim.

On 8 June, a group of Greek students forcefully entered a public television station in the city of Thessaloniki. The students, all with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, demanded they be allowed to state their views on education reform, a demand which was granted by the manager of ET3 television.

In Greece, pirated entertainment products remains a problem. On 22 March, U.S Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the U.S. has resolved a three-year long trade dispute with Greece over illegal broadcasting of movies and television shows made in the U.S. The two countries reached an agreement after Greek officials said they would crack down on individuals dealing in pirated goods and that the necessary legislation to deal with the problem would be passed. Much like in neighbouring Albania, many smaller TV stations air copyrighted material without the necessary permission to do so.

*****

2000 World Press Freedom Review

Greek journalists and media outlets have long been wary of politicians bearing gifts. More often than not, such "gifts" are legal writs inviting the journalist or media organisation to appear in court to defend a charge of defamation. Furthermore, independent journalists in the country have repeatedly denounced the use of criminal defamation in the country to silence the media; however, so far the Greek government has been deaf to the pleas of the media organisations and has failed to heed the application of article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Although paragraph 2 of article 10 of the Convention states that there are restrictions to freedom of expression by, "penalties as are prescribed by law" this is ameliorated by the statement, "that are necessary in a democratic society". It is this statement that the Greek government has failed to fully appreciate. As IPI has consistently made clear, the failure of any society to uphold the principles of press freedom means that the label "democracy" has only a veneer of legitimacy.

Elsewhere, the Greek authorities denial of entry to a Macedonian author and the arrest and harassment of a Turkish television crew also point to an unwarranted sensitivity on the part of the government. This behaviour further reinforces the view that although outwardly appearing to accept the obligations that are attendant with its membership of the European Union, Greece is having difficulties in coming to terms with the conditions necessary for a free and open society.

In another defamation case that had implications for freedom of expression, on 7 March, composer Manolis Rasoulis was given a 12-month prison sentence for defamatory statements he made in an interview to the daily newspaper Exousia on 14 April 1998. Under Greek law, the sentence can be "bought off" by paying US $4.50 for each day that the individual is sentenced to prison. Rasoulis was convicted by the three-member First Instance (Misdemeanor) Court in Athens for "aggravated defamation" of singer Yorgos Dalaras. The Court considered defamatory the statement made by Rasoulis that, "Dalaras did not give the benefit concert in Cyprus for free but was paid by "Alpha Sound". Rasoulis was tried in absentia as he left Greece on the eve of the trial "forever," as he declared. The Court also acquitted the newspaper.

On 30 May, writer Vasko Karadza, a citizen and resident of Skopje, Macedonia, was denied entrance into Greece at the Greek-Macedonian border because he was "registered [on] an inadmissible list". The refusal of entry occurred even though he held a legal visa issued by the Greek Consulate in Skopje on 29 May. Karadza had previously visited Greece in 1998, when he was invited by a state National Book Centre to participate in the Balkan Writers Laboratory.

According to the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), on 8 June, journalist Panos Lambrou of the weekly Epochi was attacked by a crowd led by members of the municipal council in Nea Kios. Police, who were apparently present at the scene, failed to intervene and assist the journalist. Lambrou was participating in a visit by 40 members of an antiracist group, members of political parties and other organisations, who came from Athens to Nea Kios. The group had assembled in an act of solidarity with the local Roma community which has been facing racist attacks by local citizens and authorities. According to the authorities, the visitors were seen as undesirable "for [exhibiting a] lack of good intentions". Without any police interference, local citizens impeded the group's movement and harassed the journalist in front of the city hall.

On 15 July, three journalists were temporarily arrested by Greek police officers while travelling on the road between Xanthi and Echinos. Those arrested were journalists Beyza Guducu and Didem Ozbahceci and cameraman Alihan Sonmez, all of whom work for TGRT-TV. They were accompanied by Ayca Guducu, Guducu's sister and the Greek driver of their rented car.

The media workers had come to Greece to prepare a documentary on Greek people who had moved to the Echinos region in 1923, following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. They had also intended to interview members of the Turkish minority living in the area. Written permission from the Greek Ministry of Mass Media had been obtained prior to their visit.

On their way to Echinos, two plainclothes policemen followed them in an unmarked vehicle. After travelling around eight kilometres, they were stopped by another official police vehicle which appeared to be waiting for them. They were told that they were not allowed to proceed any further, as they did not have the proper license for entering the restricted zone. The journalists showed the police officers their documents, which were written in both English and Greek, but the officers told them that this was insufficient to allow them to proceed.

The group were then advised over the telephone by legal defenders Mehmet Dukkanci and Aysel Zeybek of GHM's Thrace Office to return to police headquarters in Xanthi and ask for an official explanation of the incident. However, the policemen refused to let them go and illegally held them in custody for 45 minutes. During this time, a number of other policemen arrived, increasing the number of police vehicles to five and the total number of officers to 10. Policemen then checked and confiscated the passports of the media employees. After this examination, they were forced to drive to the Xanthi police station with a police escort in front of their vehicle and two unmarked police vehicles behind them.

Upon reaching the Xanthi police headquarters, the journalists' team leader, Guducu, was taken into the building and then questioned by four policemen. One of the officers said, "Why are you here? What are your purposes?" The journalist then explained the reason for the group's visit and displayed his written permission; however, he was told that this was not enough and that the region was restricted. In addition, Guducu was told that a special permit was needed from Athens and that the process, "takes at least three days".

The journalists were finally released from custody, after being illegally held for one hour and 45 minutes. After being released, the journalists remained under surveillance by plainclothes officers throughout the rest of their stay in Xanthi. The documentary project was shelved and they returned to the Greek-Turkish border.

Evidence of the Greek authorities unwillingness to allow journalists from Macedonia and Turkey into the country continued in the late summer. On 25 August, Slavko Mangovski, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Makedonsko Sonce, published in Skopje, was denied entry into the country. It is thought that the Greek authorities denied Mangovski entry on the basis that he has a reputation for defending the rights of Macedonian minorities in the Balkans.

As Mangovski wrote in a complaint he filed to the Greek ombudsman, "I wanted to enter Greece through the Evzoni border crossing on the afternoon of 25 August to visit a village festival in northern Greece. I was informed by the border authorities that there was a problem with my status after the computer check and that if I wanted to wait they would send a fax to the Central Police station in Athens and verify whether I could gain entry. After a prolonged wait, I decided to return rather then spend hours waiting."

Furthermore, Mangovski went onto say, "on 28 August , I attempted entry at the border crossing of Niki in order to visit another village festival. After the routine computer check, I was advised to wait and after approximately 10 minutes was summoned to the office of what appeared to be the chief of the police and given a Notification Certificate for the Refusal of Entry specifying 'other reasons' as grounds for the refusal. At the same time, a crossed stamp was placed in my US passport, apparently in order to alert border authorities that I'm effectively banned from ever entering Greece."

Although no reason was provided, GHM believes that Mangovski (born in Bitola, Macedonia) is on a list of "undesirables".

Regarding freedom of expression, the protracted trial of Sotiris Bletsas, a member of the Society for Aroumanian Culture, also raised concern. The legal case of Bletsas has been postponed a number of times. In 1995, Bletsas was indicted for distributing a publication of the European Union's Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (in which Sotiris Bletsas was the Greek "observer") which mentioned minority languages in Greece. The prosecution for dissemination of false information, article 191 of the penal code, was triggered by charges laid down by the deputy Eugene Haitidis of the party of New Democracy. During the trial, the prosecution's witnesses included the leader of the Panhellenic Union of Vlach Associations. They considered the reference to the Vlach language as a minority language defamatory to the Valchs. The trial was last postponed. l

The Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) was a primary source for the above article.

*****

1999 World Press Freedom Review

The press climate in Greece continues to be clouded by criminal charges brought against journalists and newspapers in cases of libel and defamation. The publication of leaked official documents is also bringing the media into direct confrontation with the authorities.

Minister of Justice, Evangelos Yannapoulos, has repeatedly attacked and insulted journalists or other politicians who have been vocally critical of him, including by bringing charges against them. On 5 January, 2000 a Three-Member Appeals Court of Athens convicted Prefect of Athens Theodore Katrivanos to 15 months in prison for aggravated defamation of the Minister, because he had challenged the latter's controversial resistance record during the Second World War. During the long trial, the Minister insulted veteran journalist Yannis Voultepsis calling him a "stool;" and brought charges against the communist daily Rizospastis for aggravated defamation along with a civil suit for 500 million drs. The newspaper had published Katrivanos' arguments challenging the Minister's record.

On January 21, 1999, journalist and publisher of the daily Alithia, Yannis Tzoumas, was acquitted of defamation charges. Tzoumas had been convicted on September 3, 1998, to four months' imprisonment for defaming Minister Stavros Soumakis saying that the Minister had stayed at the house of a ship owner who was under investigation. Tzoumas also claimed that the Minister had managed to get tickets for himself and his wife on an Olympic Airways flight in 1997, a flight that is always booked out three months in advance. After appealing, the court found the facts to be correct and that there was no intent to defame the Minister but only to criticise his behaviour, albeit in a harsh style.

The Greek supreme court overturned a 1998 verdict this year by the Single Member First Instance Court of Salonica which had ordered the removal of an entry in the Dictionary of Modern Greek Language that read as follows: "Bulgarian (...) 2. (abusive) the follower or player of a Salonica team (mainly PAOK)." The Supreme Court said that the entry did constitute an offence but that the offence was not against the law.

On March 7, the Chief Prosecutor of the First Instance Court of Athens, G. Koliokostas, brought criminal charges against all those responsible for the publication of alleged state secrets in the nation's largest daily Ta Nea. The charges are punishable with up to ten years' imprisonment under article 146 of the penal code. Ta Nea had published a report written by the Greek Ambassador to Kenya that contained information of the capture of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan was captured by the Turks following 12 days under the secret protection of Greek diplomats in Kenya. The indictment brought against Ta Nea stated that the publication of the report was an illegal act since it contained "information which the interest of the state required to be kept secret from foreign governments." Greek newspapers came down hard on the government after Ocalan's detainment, with some papers calling for the resignation of Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos. Some editorials said that the Greek government had collaborated with the Turkish secret service. The right-wing tabloid Vradyni called Prime Minister Costas Simitis a "Turkish Quisling."

On May 4, a Misdemeanor Court convicted Greek Helsinki Monitor Spokesperson Panayote Dimitras to a suspended sentence of 5 months in prison for defamation of minority lawyer Orhan Hadjiibram. Dimitras was not properly summoned but was nevertheless tried in abstentia. The court considered a GHM statement defamatory which was critical of Hadjiibram's handling of the stateless issue, even though it stated that the facts therein were true. The court did not specify which words, phrases or sentences were defamatory, but considered that there was intent to defame the lawyer. On January 12, 2000, an Appeals Court acquitted Dimitras, stating that there was no defamation.

Greek media has also been criticised this year for being unscrupulous and biased. Veteran columnist Richardos Someritis said in a protest letter to the Athens Journalist Union (ESIEA) on March 31 that "many Greek journalists...behave like soldiers in the front: they have chosen their camp, their uniform, their flag...all journalists with a point of view different than the dominant one or who dared offer the information that others refused are being threatened or humiliated." The main criticism stemmed from the reporting of the Kosovo conflict where, in some cases, Hitler was portrayed as rising from the tomb to lead Nato tanks in Yugoslavia. Te Nea also published cartoons of Nato planes drawn with swastikas on their wings and Vradyni regularly referred to "Adolph Clinton."

On May 18, editor and publisher of the daily Adesmeftos Typos Dimitris Rizos was convicted and given a five-month suspended sentence for insulting George Papazoglou, a former staff member of the newspaper. On May 21, Rizos was convicted by a three-member appeals court to twelve months in prison for repeated aggravated defamation of four members of the board of directors of the rival daily Eleftheros Typos. Rizos had presented unsubstantiated allegations of embezzlement of funds. Rizos bought off the sentence and was set free [In Greece, for sentences of less than 24-months there is generally an option of serving them or paying instead: the term used is "buying off"].

On May 19, editor and publisher of the weekly Enimerosi Charalambos Triantafyllidis was convicted and given a five-month suspended sentence for insulting Florina's (NW Greece) then prefect-elect Pavlos Altanis on November 11, 1998. The article touched on the alleged revengeful actions of the prefect. Triantafyllidis was also sentenced to pay a fine of 500,000 drs. (approximately US$ 1,635) for damages.

The publisher of High magazine, Vicky Bataya, was convicted on June 1 for aggravated defamation of singer George Dalaras. Bataya was sentenced to 18 months in prison but is free pending appeal.

On June 11, the private Mega Channel censored its mandatory pre-electoral programme devoted to presentations by small parties, by removing the presentation of "Rainbow," the Macedonian minority party. The station ran all other presentations including the one made by the extreme-right "National Front". Despite the illegality of this censorship, the National Radio and Television Council took no action. This was not the only instance during the year when the National Radio and Television Council failed to fulfil its legal obligations. On July 28, PASOK Deputy Stelios Papathemelis reportedly made defamatory references to the GHM Spokesperson Panayote Dimitras during a televised interview on TV Channel Seven. Dimitras formally applied to the Council (Request 1448/13-8-1999) for a copy of the programme, in order to ascertain the exact content of these remarks and possibly take legal action. The Council did not take the action prescribed by law.

In November 1999, the Public Prosecutor of Mytilini indicted two journalists for defamation and aggravated defamation (articles 362 and 363 respectively) after charges were brought by the police of Lesvos. The two journalists, Stratis Balaskas and George Kondiloudis, had written an article in the Eleftherotypia newspaper. The article referred to alleged relations of police officers of Lesvos with smugglers in a local olive press.

On December 2, twelve police officers raided the administrative offices of the non-profit association 'Biblical Circle' running Channel Station 2000 Radio, and arrested 73-year-old retired pastor Lakis Regas, who was working as a technician on the premises when the police arrived. Regas spent the night in jail. He was released the next day by a judge's order. Greek authorities accused Channel Station 2000 of not having the proper operating license, despite the fact that it is well known that no private radio station has ever managed to get one. A trial was set for 31 January 2000. In 1994, the government shut down Greece's only Evangelical television station, Hellas 62.

On December 6, a three-member Misdemeanor Court of Athens convicted Dimitris Rizos, publisher of Adesmeftos Typos, for aggravated defamation of Costas Mitsis, publisher of another newspaper with the same name, Adesmeftos Typos. He was sentenced to ten months in prison but is free on appeal.

On October 21, two journalists from Halkidiki's Super Channel were beaten by a mob led by Mayor Costas Papayannis, in Kasandra, Halkidiki (Northern Greece). Costas Glykos and Michalis Katsamiras were covering the mob's attempt to prevent the local Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) from starting the construction of their house of worship; construction that had been authorised by the authorities. During the violent incident, JWs as well as two representatives of the Ombudsman's office were harassed by the mob. The two journalists and the JWs pressed charges against the mayor and some alleged accomplices. On October 22, the prosecutor formally indicted the mayor and his accomplices for crimes that included inciting to religious hatred. Nevertheless, neither during the incident, nor in the ensuing forty-eight hours, did the police arrest the alleged perpetrators of the crimes as called for by the code of criminal procedure.

As IPI and other organisations have regularly pointed out, criminal charges brought against journalists constitutes the main threat to press freedom in Greece. It is considered essential for a functioning democracy to have a free and vocal press. Issuing prison sentences in libel and defamation cases, suspended or otherwise, impedes the free flow of opinions and ideas. Any person who feels exposed to false, harmful reporting should have the right to bring a case before a civil court, and if proved right, be able to demand a public apology or retraction, and financial compensation for demonstrable damages. This is not yet the case in Greece.

As the catalogue of selected cases listed above indicates, Greek journalists face a barrage of litigation, which can only ultimately serve to stifle freedom of expression. When IPI approached the Greek authorities for comment on this issue, a spokesman said: "Criminal proceedings for members of the press are identical for all those exercised for all other citizens who come into conflict with the law. Therefore, any case of incorrect or slanderous information issued via the press is subject to the general legal provisions governing slander." While IPI is an organisation that promotes press freedom, it does not seek preferential treatment for journalists. The institute holds that slander, libel and defamation should be covered in the civil code and that no citizen, be they a journalist or otherwise, should face the prospect of a criminal record and a prison sentence for what they say or write.

The spokesman went on to say that "...in legal practice, courts are often seen to be more lenient in their sentences in cases involving the press, than otherwise. This further confirms not only the sensitivity of Greek justice, but also of Greek jurisprudence in general, when applied to the principle of the freedom of the press."

If the cases listed above, along with the astounding array of cases documented in recent years, point to a "sensitivity" of any kind, it is surely to the sensitivity of public figures who - counter to international standards and practices -- do not feel they should receive more scrutiny or accept more criticism that private individuals.

The Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) was a primary source of information for the above piece.

*****

1998 World Press Freedom Review

The Greek authorities are using draconian libel legislation to muzzle critical journalists. Despite the fact that Greece has signed and ratified several international treaties guaranteeing freedom of expression, the country is quickly isolating itself from its fellow European Union member states by punishing journalists with prison sentences. The European Court of Human Rights has pronounced on several occasions that public figures must accept a greater level of scrutiny and criticism than private individuals; only a vociferous press can adequately stimulate the public debate and perform the role of public watchdog. Furthermore, it is widely accepted in functioning democracies around the globe that press offences should be dealt with in the civil code. A person who feels wrongfully harmed can seek redress through the civil courts in the form of a retraction, apology or compensatory payment for demonstrable damages. Issuing prison sentences to impede the free flow of ideas and opinions is not compatible with democratic principles.

Minister of Justice Evangelos Yannopoulos announced his intention in August to introduce an additional paragraph to Articles 361 on insult and 362 on defamation of the Greek Penal Code, which would allow for at least two years' imprisonment in cases of insult and defamation through the electronic media.

The proposed text reads: "A newscaster or broadcaster of a television or radio station who broadcasts, reads or allows the broadcasting of messages with insulting or defamatory content is punishable with imprisonment of at least two years. The supervising Director of the employee, who gave the order for the broadcasting or reading of that message or allowed its broadcasting is punished as instigating principal or secondary accessory depending on the case."

The Minister added that the prosecution of such cases will be at the discretion of the public prosecutors without requiring prior complaint by the persons allegedly offended. Moreover, he stated he was also considering introducing fines up to 5,000,000 drs. (US$17,000) for such "crimes"; and compelling the electronic media to broadcast full identity data of all individuals whose messages will be broadcasted.

The Greek Helsinki Monitor, an independent organisation which monitors human rights abuses in the region has documented several disturbing cases this year.

On April 1, an Athens court sustained on appeal the prison sentence of four years and two months for "libel" and "publishing a false document" against Makis Psomiadis, journalist and owner of the daily Onoma, and ordered that he be incarcerated. This sentence occurred following an article which appeared in February 1996, in which the journalist accused the Minister of Environment and Public Works, Costas Laliotis, of having been paid a commission for awarding a German company the construction of the new international airport in Athens. Psomiadis actually served a few months in prison before being released from prison for health reasons.

Giorgos Kondyloudis, journalist and publisher of Eolika Nea, a daily on the island of Mytilini (also known as Lesbos), was convicted on September 3 by a three-member Misdemeanor Court to 8 months in prison for insulting deputy Franklinos Papadelis. He was sentenced in connection with a letter to the editor, published on 16 June 1997, which called the deputy's views "childish" and "politicians [in general, not the deputy] unworthy persons, who disgust people." He appealed the verdict, so the sentence is currently suspended pending the appeal.

On the same day, Yannis Tzoumas, journalist and publisher of Alithia, a daily on the island of Chios, was convicted to four months' imprisonment for defamation. He was charged for an August 1997 article with which he was accused of defaming Minister Stavros Soumakis. Initially, he was charged with aggravated defamation for having claimed the Minister, when visiting Chios, was staying at the house of a ship owner who was under investigation. The journalist also claimed the minister had managed to get tickets for himself and his wife on the eve of the 16 August 1997 Olympic Airways flight (this flight is always fully booked three months in advance.) The paper called him "minister of the ship owners...who sunbathes at the villas of the ship owners." During the trial, the facts were confirmed as accurate, but the court considered that the "harsh style" of the article was an act of defamation.

On September 17, journalist Makis Triantafyllopoulos was convicted and given a suspended sentence of eight months for the defamation of Minister of Justice Evangelos Yannopoulos, in an article in the daily Kalimera on January 8. In the article, he had argued that the Minister was interfering with justice in a case implicating the governor of the Social Security Fund, Gregory Solomos, to seek favourable treatment of the latter.

A three-member Misdemeanour Court of Salonica sentenced Avriani newspaper publisher George Kouris, editor George Tsiroyannis and journalist Stelios Vorinas to 4 years and 11 months in prison on September 21. They were convicted for aggravated defamation and insult of Yannis Raptopoulos, owner of Express Service, a roadside assistance company; Raptopoulos also owns the Salonica newspapers Makedonia and Thessaloniki, while Kouris owns the rival newspaper Nea Makedonia. Raptopoulos' lawyers said that Kouris had previously been obliged to pay huge fines by civil courts for articles deemed defamatory, but he has always managed to avoid paying them because of the hazy and ever changing legal ownership of his newspapers.

In another case, on September 2, Abdulhalim Dede, a journalist of the Turkish minority, was sentenced by the Xanthi court in northern Greece to 8 months in prison for trying to install a radio antenna for Radio Isik in his back yard. He was arrested on September 1, kept at police headquarters overnight and sentenced the next day under the flagrante delicto procedure, rarely used for charges such as building without a permit. Such procedure has also rarely been used against journalists. The sentence is currently suspended pending appeal.

Other cases pending against Dede for illegally operating radio stations, due to be heard on October 22, were postponed because of municipal elections. He was charged in February 1996 for launching the radio station Radio Isik without a broadcast license. In 1997, Dede was given a six-month suspended sentence for defamation of an ultra-nationalist activist from Thrace; he was charged in connection with an article published in Thrace's Turkish minority newspaper Trakyanin Sesi. Over three thousand radio stations operate in Greece without licenses, several of which have also installed antennae without permission.

In October, the Council of Appellate Judges of Athens acquitted journalists George Harvalias, Noni Karayanni, George Papathanasopoulos of Eleftheros Typos, and Manolis Kottakis of Apogevmatini from charges of disclosure of state secrets. The charges were brought after the papers published classified foreign policy documents.

A Macedonian Television (MTV) crew was refused entry visas by the Greek Liaison Office in Skopje. The crew intended to cover the trial of the Macedonian minority party Rainbow. On September 15, Rainbow was on trial in Greece for the use of the Macedonian mother tongue. The Greek authorities had been formally informed of the request on September 9 through a MTV letter. Two weeks prior, the same crew was given visas in a matter of hours to cover Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Buzlevski's visit to Greece. It was widely believed that the Greek authorities were simply trying to limit coverage of the embarrassing trial, which ended with the acquittal of the Rainbow leaders and the implicit recognition of the right to henceforth freely use the Macedonian language, both orally and in writing.

On October 10, Lutfu Karakas (a Turkish citizen) of the Turkish Hurriyet Press Agency, along with Mucahit Dukkanci (a Greek citizen), journalist and (at the time) candidate for mayor in the Turkish minority community of Myki (Thrace), were taken into custody by local police. They were told that the village is in a restricted zone where foreigners are not allowed without special permit granted by the Greek Defence Ministry. Greece announced in 1995 the abolition of the 10 km-deep zone (inside the Greek-Bulgarian border but only in the area inhabited by the minority). Xanthi District Police Director informed them that in fact the abolition applied only to Greek citizens. He also asked the journalist to stay within the limits of the city of Xanthi. The following day the journalist returned to Turkey. All during his stay, the Turkish journalist was followed by security agents, "for his protection" as they stated.

A Greek court slapped a temporary injunction on sales of a dictionary following a dispute over an allegedly insulting definition contained in the book. On May 26, court officials in Thessaloniki confirmed the decision, made in response to complaints by a local conservative politician over one of the dictionary's definitions for "Bulgarians."

The dictionary states that "Bulgarians" is used in Greek slang as a pejorative term for supporters or players of sports teams in Thessaloniki, which is near the Bulgarian border. Fans of soccer and basketball teams from Athens and the rest of the south often taunt northern fans and players, especially from the PAOK team, with the term.

 

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