Saddled with a long list of woes brought on by an economic crisis, debt-stricken Greece now finds itself tackling a different kind of austerity than the one implemented by its European creditors: this time it is press freedom, not public budgets, on the chopping block.
Journalists claim their working environment is deteriorating so rapidly that Greece will soon top the list of European countries with the worst press freedom indicators.
Already the country meets all the negative criteria included in a resolution on media freedom passed by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament last Thursday.
The resolution focuses heavily on the protection of independent journalists and media outlets, both of which have watched their freedom wane rapidly over the last five years.
According to the 2013 Press Freedom Index, issued by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym RSF), Greece dropped 14 places – down to 84th – on a list of 179 countries, which the organisation termed “a disturbingly dramatic fall”.
At the beginning of the economic crisis in 2009 Greece was ranked 35th on the index – its plunge represents the most dramatic deterioration among European countries.
In addition to frequent intimidation of reporters, the rights group noted, “The social and professional environment for journalists, who are exposed to public condemnation and violence from both extremist groups and the police, is disastrous.”
The New Year opened on a bad note for reporters here: the night of Jan. 10 saw home-made bombs lobbed into the residences of five journalists working for mainstream private TV channels and public media.
The attacks were allegedly the work of left-wing radicals who regarded the journalists as “pawns” in the corrupt relationship between media moguls and corporate interests that unquestioningly support the ruling authorities as well as the actions of the Troika, the three European institutions responsible for implementing what many Greeks see as a devastating austerity plan.
But though such incidents represent a worsening of the environment for journalists, the issue of press freedom here is not a new one.
Even before the financial crash hit Greece, capitulation of the majority of mainstream media to elite interests had become a thorn in the sides of citizens and independent media practitioners.
As a 2006 U.S. Embassy cable, made public last year by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, explained, “The private media outlets in Athens are owned by a small group of people who have made or inherited fortunes in shipping, banking, telecommunications, sports, oil, insurance, etc. and who are or have been related by blood, marriage, or adultery to political and government officials and/or other media and business magnates”.
All major private TV channels in the country are corporate-owned. Most major publications and radio stations also have direct links to private corporations.
Reports indicate that 500 to 600 journalists are currently, or have been, on government payrolls.
Independent journalists hounded
For the past year the few existing independent investigative journalists in the country have experienced severe aggression from government authorities, as well as a host of other difficulties including death threats, stalking and defamation and denouncement by a domestic media that experts say is increasingly submissive to corporate agendas.
Just one example of the hostile environment journalists are forced to operate in came earlier this year, when UNFOLLOW magazine published a cover story on oil smuggling involving Aegean Oil, a major private multinational company, and Hellenic Petroleum, a private-public energy conglomerate.
The story explained how the companies buy oil at reduced tax rates and channel it back into the market at the normal price; the exposé also contained two reports by the 7th Piraeus Customs Authority, detailing the practice.
The day after the story’s publication, Lefteris Charalabopoulos, the reporter in charge of the investigation, received a phone call at the magazine’s office from a person going by the name of Dimitris Melissanidis, head of Aegean Oil.
The reporter told IPS the entrepreneur initially threatened legal measures against the magazine, then went on to issue a stream of invective, shouting, “Screw you and the authorities. You will not be able to sleep. You will not be able to go out, I’ll be your nightmare. Fear of me will haunt you. They will come to your house and blow you up in your sleep.”
When Charalabopoulos answered back, the caller warned, “I want you to tell me that with a gun to your head.”
Though a spokesperson for the company subsequently denied that such a phone call had taken place, Charalabopoulos told IPS, “When the number of the call was traced back it was easily identified as a number registered with the central offices of Aegean Oil.”
“I have no doubts about the identity of the person I spoke with on the phone,” he said, adding that almost all mainstream media ignored this incident of blatant intimidation.
When the centre-left opposition group, Syriza, brought the issue to the Greek parliament, Makis Voridis – a popular MP with the ruling New Democracy Party – made dismissive remarks about a “superfluous opposition that annoys parliamentary proceedings with legally insignificant issues like an intimidation case between two private entities.”
In another example of the government’s unfriendly stance towards independent media, Kwstas Vaxevanis, a popular investigative journalist, was brought to trial last November when his magazine ‘Hot Doc’ published a copy of the hitherto unseen Lagarde List.
The document contained over 2,000 accounts of possible tax evasion by individuals or mirror companies, amounting to hundreds of millions of euros.
The argument that Vaxevanis had violated the “privacy” of those on the list fell apart, but when the acquitted journalist walked out of the courthouse, he was greeted only by a flock of major international media – the domestic mainstream stayed far away from the case.
Despite international denunciation of the whole issue, Vaxevanis is now pending re-trial.
“In Greece the law is abused by politicians and media practitioners who try to protect their tycoon patrons against anyone who dares to speak up against them,” Vaxevanis told IPS. “During the …dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974), press freedom was targeted in the name of national interests.
“Today, press freedom is (jeopardised) by manipulation of the law. Unfortunately this country is governed today by a closed group of professional politicians, businessmen and celebrity journalists,” he added.
Meanwhile, experts say intimidation is also spreading.
Nikolas Leodopoulos, a Thomson Reuters reporter involved in investigating major banking scandals, is regularly pictured by news outlets with ties to elite and corporate agendas as a “fake reporter” or as a suspect of “criminal deeds”.
The last four years have witnessed at least three attacks on journalists by security and police personnel that caused serious harm.
Many less serious attacks, as well as widespread intimidation by radical leftists or neo-Nazis, are regularly reported during strikes and riots.