Amid continuing silence from the European Commission, international media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders has asked both the EU executive and the European Parliament to “firmly denounce” Greece’s new defamation law as “an attack on press freedom.”
In November, the Greek parliament passed a law criminalising “fake news which may cause anxiety and fear to the citizens”.
Rather than decriminalising defamation and similar offences, in line with international best practices and EU recommendations, the Greek authorities have made this vaguely defined offence punishable by a large fine or up to five years in prison.
Despite several rounds of questions from EURACTIV, the Commission provided only vague comments, without addressing the Greek law.
In a statement published on Wednesday (1 December), RSF said: “While it is legitimate to combat false information, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, prison sentences have no role to play in the quest for the truth. The Greek authorities should instead promote reliable news and information at the national, European and international levels. The necessary tools are already available to them.”
They urged the EU and the Commission to intervene and called on the “Greek government to overhaul” the law.
Under article 191 of the Greek Penal Code, disseminating either in public or online information that causes fear or anxiety or “disturbs public confidence in the national economy, defence, or public health” is now a criminal offence. If the offence is repeated, the minimum sentence increases from three months to six months.
The provisions also apply not just to the individual who disseminates the information but to the owners and directors of the media and anyone who shares the links.
RSF noted that the law does not clearly define “false information”, therefore leaving the Greek authorities to “prosecute any journalist whose reporting is not to their liking.”
They also noted Greece’s track record regarding the “influence and control” they wield over the media by way of funding and putting public television under its control.
“These press freedom violations, together with the obstacles journalists covering the migration crisis regularly face, is the subject of a mission to Greece by several NGOs, including RSF, in the first half of December.”
The organisation called on the government to repeal the law and engage in dialogue with the media to combat disinformation.
Bark but no bite
Earlier this year, RSF called out the EU for failing to tackle declining media freedom within the European Union and in candidate countries. Pavo Szalai from RSF said the EU remains a big dog without much of a bite for these issues.
When called on by thousands of Western Balkan journalists and activists, the EU also failed to take action to intervene in Albania’s declining media freedom environment.
The Albanian package, which would bring all online media under the ex-judicial supervision of a government-appointed body with the right to dole out significant fines and block access to certain sites, was initially condemned by the Commission.
But when they asked that the withdrawal from the parliament of the “anti-defamation package” be made a condition of continuing EU accession, the Commission refused.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that Greece is being allowed to pass laws that go against core European values, while other countries, such as Albania and even Malta in 2016, were told otherwise.
At a time when attacks on journalists are increasing within Europe, and Greece has yet to solve the murder of investigative crime journalist Giorgos Kariavaz, gunned down outside his home in Athens in April, this new law adds to a growing list of concerns over media freedom in the country.
On the topic of the new law, RSF concluded that “prison sentences have no role to play in the quest for the truth. The Greek authorities should instead promote reliable news and information at the national, European and international level. The necessary tools are already available to them.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]