Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
Press Release
OSCE Implementation Meeting - Statement on Greece, Freedom of Expression

Press Release by the Greek Helsinki Monitor

Among the countries with long democratic tradition, Greece is regrettably the one with the least respect for the freedom of the press, as shown by a 2000 report of the international organization Freedom House. On a scale 0 [total freedom] - 100 [no freedom at all], Greece scores 30, which is the worst score a free country can get: from 31 start the partly free countries (and from 61 the not free ones). Almost all new democracies of Central Europe and the Baltics score better than Greece. In the OSCE area, only most (but not all) Balkan and former Soviet countries are worse off. The complete entry for Greece that explains this score is: "Though the courts frequently convict journalists of libel for insulting officials, the press is generally free of government control. Many journalists were charged and sentenced this year for defamation. Self-censorship was common, particularly during the NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia. One radio station was raided and closed by the police."

In its report on Greece part of the 1999 World Press Freedom Review , International Press Institute (IPI) notes:

"The press climate in Greece continues to be clouded by criminal charges brought against journalists and newspapers in cases of libel and defamation. The publication of leaked official documents is also bringing the media into direct confrontation with the authorities. Minister of Justice, Evangelos Yannopoulos, has repeatedly attacked and insulted journalists or other politicians who have been vocally critical of him, including by bringing charges against them.

As IPI and other organizations have regularly pointed out, criminal charges brought against journalists constitutes the main threat to press freedom in Greece. It is considered essential for a functioning democracy to have a free and vocal press. Issuing prison sentences in libel and defamation cases, suspended or otherwise, impedes the free flow of opinions and ideas. Any person who feels exposed to false, harmful reporting should have the right to bring a case before a civil court, and if proved right, be able to demand a public apology or retraction, and financial compensation for demonstrable damages. This is not yet the case in Greece. As the catalogue of selected cases listed above indicates, Greek journalists face a barrage of litigation, which can only ultimately serve to stifle freedom of expression.

When IPI approached the Greek authorities for comment on this issue, a spokesman said: "Criminal proceedings for members of the press are identical for all those exercised for all other citizens who come into conflict with the law. Therefore, any case of incorrect or slanderous information issued via the press is subject to the general legal provisions governing slander." While IPI is an organization that promotes press freedom, it does not seek preferential treatment for journalists. The institute holds that slander, libel and defamation should be covered in the civil code and that no citizen, be they a journalist or otherwise, should face the prospect of a criminal record and a prison sentence for what they say or write. The spokesman went on to say that "-in legal practice, courts are often seen to be more lenient in their sentences in cases involving the press, than otherwise. This further confirms not only the sensitivity of Greek justice, but also of Greek jurisprudence in general, when applied to the principle of the freedom of the press."

"If the cases listed [herein], along with the astounding array of cases documented in recent years, point to a 'sensitivity' of any kind, it is surely to the sensitivity of public figures who - counter to international standards and practices - do not feel they should receive more scrutiny or accept more criticism that private individuals."

In the detailed report submitted to this meeting, in the respective section, we list eight examples of criminal convictions on libel and defamation charges. Moreover there are references to a ban of a radio station, a case of book censorship and a ban of a concert in solidarity with the opposition forces in Serbia on the eve of that country's recent crucial elections. In addition, there are cases of journalists harassed by mobs uninhibited by police presence and of Macedonian and Turkish journalists and writers banned from entry to Greece or to a particular minority area considered still "restricted zone."

We sincerely hope that the Greek authorities will finally distance themselves from illiberal practices of criminal convictions for libel and toleration or actual harassment of journalists whose views they deem unpleasant or critical of state policies.