Conservative MEP: Greece is heading toward ‘Orbanisation’

The lawmaker’s comment comes in response to the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech at the Greek House when he described as a “gang” two journalists who unveiled the Novartis scandal. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

As declining press freedom in Greece is already under EU scrutiny, the government is heading toward “Orbanisation”, Giorgos Kyrtsos, an EU lawmaker from the ruling New Democracy party (EPP), said.

The lawmaker’s comment comes in response to the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech at the Greek House, where he described two journalists who unveiled the Novartis scandal as a “gang”.

The scandal saw ten high-ranking politicians from opposition parties indicted over allegedly receiving bribes from the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis. The politicians denied the claims and said it was politically motivated.

Last month, Kostas Vaxevanis and Ioanna Papadakou, who revealed the Novartis scandal some years before, were accused of involvement in the case and summoned to appear before a Supreme Court special court investigator.

The journalists’ prosecution has triggered the reaction of several EU and global journalist associations.

Vaxevanis faces four charges, including participation in a criminal organisation, breach of duty, and two counts of conspiracy to abuse power.

Greek reporter after death threats: journalism targeted by business-politics ties

Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis has recently denounced a death contract against him. Less than a month ago, another well-known investigative journalist was murdered in a mafia-styled execution in Athens. EURACTIV has interviewed Vaxevanis to find out about the deteriorating conditions of independent journalism in the country.

Vaxevanis and the main opposition Syriza party, see government intervention behind the case saying New Democracy wants to silence journalists who unveiled the scandal.

“When there is an ongoing prosecution, you do not intervene. What Mr Mitsotakis did by characterising the persecuted journalists as a ‘gang’ is interference in the judiciary and outside the European context,” Kyrtsos told The Kokkino radio station.

Kyrtsos said he was surprised that the Greek state had not taken any action against the company for compensation when the US had received €350 million.

Unlike the US and other countries that faced a similar scandal, Greece has decided not to seek compensation for the loss of public money.

For its part, the government says the justice acts independently.

Greek MEP from ruling New Democracy party (EPP), Giorgos Kyrtsos. [EURACTIV.GR]

Kyrtsos said press freedom in Greece is already under EU scrutiny, and the country is heading towards “Orbanisation”, a term often used to describe press crackdown in Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

“In any case, I disagree with the persecution of journalists […]. Does the Greek government know that Orbán does not get money from the EU?” Kyrtsos wondered.

EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn said on 25 January that the EU executive could propose freezing EU structural funds for Hungary and Poland over concerns for the rule of law.

The Commission has already separately frozen billions of euros in grants to Budapest from its post-pandemic recovery fund, citing the same concerns.

The discussion over press freedom in Greece has been a well-known secret in Brussels for quite some time as it ranked even worse than Poland in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, where it fell five places from the previous year.

Issues raised in the report included police brutality and arbitrary detentions of media workers, censorship and pressure from the government on media portals, and manipulation of the media through the allocation of state funding, advertising, or tax rebates.

The only EU countries scoring worse than Greece were Hungary and Bulgaria.

Greek media landscape raises eyebrows in Brussels

Member states’ legislation that aims to fight fake news during the pandemic, should not hinder the practice of journalism, nor should it act as a deterrent for “sources” to speak to journalists, a Commission source has told EURACTIV Greece, as …

What the Commission says

In an interview with EURACTIV.cz in late 2021, European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová admitted for the first time that Greece is considered a “problematic country” when it comes to press issues.

Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission official “for now” declined to comment on the specific case of the two journalists “since there are ongoing judicial proceedings on these cases, and we never comment on individual judicial proceedings in our member states”.

However, the EU official made it clear that media freedom and pluralism is one of the four key areas covered by the rule of law report and referred EURACTIV to the 2021 report on Greece, which expressed concerns over the safety of journalists operating in the country.

The country is still to solve the assassination of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz in Athens in April 2021. The veteran police and crime reporter was executed outside his home with ten bullets in his head and chest, by someone on a motorbike.

Mitsotakis called for swift action and the then Minister of Citizen Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis said the culprits “would be caught soon by the Greek police as is the norm”, yet almost a year later there is no known progress in the case.

There have also been calls on Greek authorities to repeal changes to the law that would see journalists fined or even jailed for publishing “fake news”.

“We believe the draft law’s vague definition and punitive sanctions would undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece”, the Media Freedom Rapid Response said in a statement.

EU media watchdogs and associations urge Greece to protect press freedom

Greece is urged to withdraw proposed amendments that would introduce fines and jail sentences for journalists found guilty of publishing “false news”.

The European Commission has set out strategic guidance for implementing the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) in its 2021 Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy (ASGS).

A source close to the matter told EURACTIV that the ASGS explicitly mentions that “Particular attention should be paid to supporting sectors, which play a key role for our democracies, especially the media sector where support should be provided in a way that respects and promotes media freedom and pluralism”.

The same source added that several member states had included measures in their recovery plans to help support the media sector to promote media freedom and pluralism.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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