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World Press Freedom Review
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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