Amid the prosecution of two journalists over the Novartis scandal, the European Commission has again urged the Greek government to integrate into national law a directive on the protection of persons who report breaches of corruption, EURACTIV has learned.
The EU’s whistleblower directive provides protection to whistleblowers across the block and replaces an “uneven and fragmented approach” at the national level. It was adopted in October 2019, and member states had until December 2021 to transpose it into national law, something Greece has failed to do.
“As guardian of the Treaties, the Commission will take all necessary measures to ensure the effective enforcement of the directive. On 28 January 2022, the Commission addressed a letter of formal notice to Greece for failure to communicate the measures taken to transpose the directive by the deadline of 17 December 2021,” EU Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said in response to a formal question by a Greek EU lawmaker.
Leftist MEP Stelios Kouloglou informed the EU executive not only had the deadline been missed, but much of the preparatory work was also incomplete.
“The relevant parliamentary committee has not completed its work, and public consultation with civil society and stakeholders has not progressed,” Kouloglou said.
The MEP added that although the opposition and NGOs have urged for transparency, the conservative New Democracy government (EPP) has unjustifiably delayed the process by constantly postponing it.
When most other member states failed to meet the deadline for implementation in December, Jourová implored them to do so without delay. Since then, many have either adopted the law or made progress, but Greece is not among them.
“Whistleblowers are brave people willing to bring illegal activities to light – often at great risk to their career and livelihood – to protect the public from wrongdoing. They deserve recognition and protection for their brave actions. I call on the member states to transpose the new rules without delay.
The package of initiatives creates a comprehensive legal framework for whistleblowers, including creating accessible reporting channels, reinforcing the obligation of confidentiality, forbidding retaliation against whistleblowers, and establishing targeted protection measures.
Journalists under attack
Jourová’s response comes amid the prosecution of two journalists and one judge who unveiled the much-discussed Novartis scandal.
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.
In January, Kostas Vaxevanis and Ioanna Papadakou, who revealed the Novartis scandal some years before, were accused of involvement 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.
Conservative MEP Giorgos Kyrtsos also slammed the government over the prosecution of journalists and criticised Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for not seeking compensation from the company, as is the case in the US.
“Novartis has reached an agreement with the US Government to pay $345 million to the relevant US authorities to Resolve Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Cases”.
After his statements, he was expelled from the party.
Vaxevanis faces four charges, including participation in a criminal organisation, breach of duty, and two counts of conspiracy to abuse power.
“As the Novartis corruption scandal has shown, public interest witnesses are not only not protected in Greece but have been publicly attacked,” Kouloglou told the Commission.
Protecting journalists against ‘abusive lawsuits’
Referring to the Novartis case, Jourová said the Commission follows developments but emphasised that the administration of justice belongs to member states.
However, her political message was clear, saying investigative journalists play a crucial role in combating organised crime, corruption and extremism.
“Their work carries particularly high risk of physical threats and attacks, which may result in the most tragic cases in assassinations, as seen in Europe in recent years,” the Czech politician said.
“The Commission is preparing an initiative to protect journalists and rights defenders against abusive lawsuits and will propose a European Media Freedom Act to safeguard media freedom in the EU,” Jourová said.
Re-opening the Pandora’s Box?
Vaxevanis, who is testifying this week, said there is a clear political motivation behind his prosecution.
But it appears that his prosecution may re-open the “Pandora’s Box” of the scandal as he allegedly submitted to prosecutors recorded conversations proving that the people who denied any involvement and the existence of the scandal were actually his sources at the early stages of his investigative reporting.
He also wrote in his Documento journal that he called on the prosecutors to keep a close eye on these people as he projected that they might flee abroad.
The Novartis case stirred memories of the Siemens scandal in 2009, which remains an open wound for Greek-German relations.
Michalis Christoforakos, who was accused of being involved the scandal, fled to Germany and a total of three European arrest warrants have been issued against him.
However, he was never extradited to Greece as it was blocked by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court.
In her reply, Jourová also referred to media freedom in Greece in general, saying the executive monitors developments concerning media pluralism and media freedom in the member states, including Greece, in the context of the annual Rule of Law Report and its follow-up.
“The 2022 Rule of Law Report will pay particular attention to developments pertaining to the press freedom and the safety of journalists,” Jourová said.
Greece is ranked 70 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
In an interview with EURACTIV last month, Pavol Szalai, RSF Head of EU/Balkans Desk, said, “The situation of press freedom in Greece is becoming comparable to the one in Hungary”.
In response, the Greek government said there is no such an issue considering that citizens are free to pick the media they want to get informed by.