Increased legal attacks on journalists through SLAPPs
In March 2022, accelerated by the emergence of coronavirus variant BA.2, the coronavirus spread rapidly throughout Europe. Like many other countries in Europe, Greece eased COVID-19 restrictions recently. Tourists no longer need to fill out a Passenger Locator Form when entering the country and people are not expected to wear masks outdoors. However, the unvaccinated are still barred from entering most shops if they cannot show a recent negative test result.
UNHRC condemns migrant crisis
On 21st February 2022, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), released a statement condemning Greece’s handling of migrants and asylum seekers, citing multiple reports of violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks at various entry points to the EU. Since the beginning of 2020, the UNHCR has recorded almost 540 incidents of pushbacks, many of which occurred at the Greek-Turkish border.
“What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop. Protecting human life, human rights, and dignity must remain our shared priority.”
The center-right administration in Greece has hardened its stance on migration in recent years, making the journey to or through Greece more dangerous for migrants. In early February 2022, the Interior Minister of Turkey announced that the bodies of 19 migrants had been found near the border and accused Greek patrol guards of stripping off their shoes and clothes and sending them into Turkey in freezing temperatures. A few weeks later, an investigative report published by the Guardian, Lighthouse Reports, Mediapart and Der Spiegel highlighted an alleged pushback in September 2021, in which at least two migrants drowned. According to the investigation, authorities in Samos had detained 28 recently arrived migrants, including a baby, a young child and a pregnant woman, loaded them onto a coastguard boat, had driven them out to sea and left them adrift on two life rafts. The Ministry of Migration in Greece has denied both allegations, accusing Turkey of spreading fake news.
Alleged pushback by Greece blamed for double drowning of migrants. https://t.co/f6R3hGxobL— Felipe González Morales (@UNSR_Migration) February 17, 2022
Critics say that these practices by the Greek government violate the core principle of non-refoulment in international and human rights law, which prohibits states from returning refugees to countries or territories in which their lives and freedom are in peril. At this point, smugglers based in Turkey have begun sending refugees and migrants to Italy instead, a longer and more dangerous route which, in the past three months alone, has resulted in the deaths of dozens of people.
Additionally, Greece is also accused of purposefully instigating a hunger crisis in refugee camps. On 23rd December 2021, the Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) published a report on migrants’ experiences in coping with the hunger crisis. More recently, on 1st March 2022, RSA and PRO ASYL filed a complaint with the European Commission, urging it to launch infringement proceedings against Greece for repeatedly violating its migration policy and arbitrarily rejecting asylum applications. Speaking with the Guardian earlier this year, Minos Mouzourakis, a legal officer at RSA, averred,
“What is absolutely clear is that the hunger crisis unfolding in Greece is the direct result of the conscious policy choices of the government.”
The Migration Ministry of Greece has denied there being any hunger crisis in camps and accuses NGOs of fabricating it.
Farmers protest rising energy costs
Throughout February 2022, farmers in central Greece blocked roads and highways to demonstrate against soaring energy costs in the country. On 4th February, they parked hundreds of tractors on a national highway near the city of Larissa, and, for the next several weeks, tractors were parked along highways across the region, with drivers threatening to stop the traffic. On 13th February 2022, they once again shut down a major highway and poured cans of milk onto the ground.
While the Greek government has attempted to minimise the worst of the fallout of the inflation caused by the soaring energy prices in Europe by providing people with subsidies and tax cuts, protesters say that it has not taken adequate steps to find long-term solutions.
“They don’t solve the basic problems that we have to maintain our farms and villages. We ask for substantial measures that will give a real solution to our problems,” saidKostas Tzelas, head of the agricultural association in the city of Karditsa in central Greece.
In particular, farmers demanded that the government lower sales taxes for fuel and abolish the electricity price adjustment clause, which is meant to reflect changes in the price of energy imports. They also called for additional aid to help pay their costly electricity bills.
Opposition to new refugee shelters on islands
On 8th February 2022, protesters on Lesbos tried to halt construction work on a new refugee shelter in a remote location at Plati, about 30 kilometres north of the island capital Mytilene. Police prevented about 500 protesters from getting to the site, but a small group managed to break through the barriers and set fire to a truck and some machinery owned by the construction company. Authorities arrested and charged five people with, among other things, arson, property damage, attempted assault and violence against officials.
The camp in question is set to open by September 2022 and will be able to house up to 3,000 asylum seekers. Residents on Lesbos and local NGOs have long raised the alarm over these island camps, frequently comparing them to prisons and demanding they be shut down. In a statement on 13th January 2022, the solidarity group “Movement for Human Rights – Solidarity with Refugees” noted the detrimental effects of the camps on refugees’ mental health:
“Some are dropping out of school, others are seeking psychiatric medication[…] How can we tolerate the torture of people, young people, children, by putting them in barbed wire next to us?”
Protests against the construction of new refugee shelters have been taking place on multiple Greek islands for the past several months. In early January 2022, residents on Chios assembled at the port of Mesta to block a ship from unloading construction equipment for a new camp on the island. When the same ship instead tried to dock in Lesbos, protesters received it with an equally warm welcome, chanting, “not on Lesbos, not anywhere! Islands are not concentration camps!”
Still, the federal government in Greece has announced its plans to carry on with the construction of camps on Lesbos, Chios and Samos. The authorities on Lesbos, however, are threatening to challenge the government in court over the new camp at Plati.
Concerns over gender-based violence grow
In late December 2021, women’s rights activists staged a protest outside the parliament building in Athens after two women were murdered within five days of one another. Femicide in Greece has become an increasingly urgent issue for activists. In 2021, 17 women were killed by their current or former intimate partners, a sharp rise from previous years and in part due to confined living conditions under the pandemic.
Feminists and #MeToo activists in Greece want the government to label femicide as an extra offence in the country’s penal code, distinct from murder. With this change, they claim, male perpetrators would no longer be able to base their defence on a case of “crime of passion”, which ends in a lighter sentence. At the time of reporting, the Greek government has still refused to consider the proposals to make the amendments submitted by activists. So far in 2022, one more femicide and several violent attacks against women have been picked up by news outlets.
In January 2022, women’s rights activists staged another protest, this time in support of a 24-year-old woman named Georgia Bika, who told the police that she had been gang-raped by three men at a luxury hotel in Thessaloniki on New Year’s Eve. Bika and her lawyers accuse the authorities of neglect for refusing to conduct any blood tests and for waiting too long to take a urine sample. Women’s rights activists on social media speculated that the police’s mishandling of the case may have had to do with the high profiles of the alleged perpetrators, two of whom are brothers in the Leventis family, which runs the International Foundation for Greece (IFG) in London. At the time of writing, no arrests have been made and no charges have been brought. Early in January 2022, activists organised a rally in Athens in support of Bika, holding up placards reading “We are full of rage.”
From December 2021 to March 2022, several other protests have taken place across the country.
- On 12th December 2021, the Greek Communist Party urged labour unions to stage a protest in front of the parliament building in Athens during a budget debate for the following fiscal year. The 2,000 protesters demanded that their wages and pensions return to the same level as before the Greek debt crisis from 2009 to 2018. For the time being, the government has halted any drastic increases in the minimum wage (758.33 Euros per month at the time of the protest), emphasising the need to prioritise healthcare services and income support during the pandemic. The new budget, which includes a two percent increase in the minimum wage, came into effect on 1st January 2022.
- On 25th January 2022, about 120 people protested vaccination requirements in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. The crowd marched to the Serbian consulate to show support for the star tennis player Novak Djokovic, whose visa for the Australian Open was cancelled when state officials in Victoria deemed his medical exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine illegitimate. “We are all Djokovic!” the protesters chanted.
- On 6th February 2022, around 400 people gathered in central Athens to demonstrate against the country’s pushback of migrants into Turkey. In the previous week, Turkish authorities blamed their neighbour for the deaths of 19 migrants found near the border, claiming that Greek border guards had taken their shoes and clothes and pushed them back in freezing temperatures. Half of those demonstrating were reportedly migrants.
- On 13th February 2022, thousands assembled in front of the Parliament in Athens to protest vaccination requirements in the health sector. In September 2021, the Greek government imposed a vaccination requirement for those working in healthcare, meaning that unvaccinated workers or those not fully vaccinated would no longer receive remuneration. According to the organisers of the protest that Sunday, the number of unvaccinated healthcare workers in Greece is about 5,000, many of whom were present at the protest. Some expressed solidarity with the truckers’ uprising in Ottawa, Canada.
Update on the trial of Beijing Olympics protesters
On 5th February 2022, the trial of three activists, who interrupted the traditional Olympic flame lighting ceremony last October 2021 to demonstrate against human rights abuses in China, was postponed to 1st December 2022. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the individuals in question had unfurled the Tibetan flag alongside a banner reading “No genocide Games” in front of attendees at the ceremony. Ultimately, they were arrested and charged with trying to “pollute, damage and distort” a historical monument, which could result in a prison sentence of up to five years. Human rights lawyers dismiss these charges as groundless and accuse Greek courts of having postponed the trial until after the Olympics in Beijing in order to spare the Chinese Communist Party any discomfort. The trial of the activists who tried to display a Tibetian flag from the Acropolis in Athens in protest against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics a day earlier was also postponed. In the past, Greek officials have been rather reluctant to speak out against human rights abuses by the Chinese government. Critics are quick to note China’s hefty investmentin Greece during its debt crisis from 2009 to 2018 and the fact that the Chinese shipping firm COSCO owns a majority stake in the port of Piraeus in Athens, the largest port in Greece.
Criminal proceedings launched against two journalists
On 19th January 2022, Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of the Greek newspaper Documento, testified in front of the Special High Court on four criminal charges of conspiracy to abuse power. The charges against him were brought in response to Documento’s reporting on the so-called Novartis scandal, a case of bribery by the multinational pharmaceutical company that allegedly involved ten former prime ministers and ministers from both New Democracy and its main rival at the time. If found guilty, Vaxevanis could face a prison sentence of five to twenty years.
The following week, journalist Ioanna Papadakou was due to appear in court on separate but related charges, but the hearing was later rescheduled to February 2022. Besides working on the Novartis scandal, in her reporting, the former investigative journalist and TV host disclosed the names of several prominent business people and politicians who may have avoided paying taxes by setting up undeclared bank accounts with a Swiss bank, the so-called “Lagarde List.” She now stands accused of fabricating news stories for the benefit of the opposition party, which has asked for the scandal to be investigated more thoroughly. Papadakou maintains that this was not the reason for the investigation, as her reporting has exposed thousands of influential and wealthy Greeks involved in the scandal.
On 13th January 2022, the Panhellenic Federation of Journalists’ Union (POESY – PFJU) released a statementcondemning the increased legal attacks on press freedom with Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs). The following week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Press Institute (IPI), and six other journalistic associations signed an open letter responding to these criminal proceedings.
“Our organisations are already increasingly concerned about the challenging climate facing independent journalism in the country, including the vexatious lawsuits against journalists. Greece is firmly in the spotlight in terms of threats to media freedom. We sincerely hope these cases will not become a matter of major international concern.”
In recent months, several journalists and media outlets in Greece have been subjected to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
- On 20th December 2021, HopeTen, an organisation working with immigrants, sent a pre-litigation legal notice to the investigative platforms Solomon and Reporters United. In November 2021, the two platforms, which specialise in issues of migration and asylum, had asked the NGO to comment on a story they were working on concerning the allocation of funds to provide asylum seekers with housing. In its letter, HopeTen called the behaviour of Solomon and Reporters United “unethical, biased, and in bad faith” and ordered them to immediately refrain from any action that could damage HopeTen’s prestige and reputation. Solomon commented that this was not the first time it had received such warnings and stated that it would continue its coverage regardless. Kostas Koukoumakas, a journalist and member of Reporters United, told BIRN the Ministry of Immigration, which was accountable for managing the money, unofficially advised their team to “be careful” about publishing because lawsuits may be filed against them.
- On 13th January 2022, journalist Thodoris Chondrogiannos attended a court hearing over a lawsuit filed against him and his former employer by a recycling company. In February 2020, Chondrogiannos had published an article in which he described Rewarding Packaging Recycling’s close ties to Greece’s Ministry of Environment as well as its failure to recycle packaging. The company is claiming 80,000 Euros plus legal interest on charges of defamation.
- On 10th February 2022, Tasos Sarantis, a journalist for the daily newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton (EFSYN), appeared in court on charges of publishing false stories about renewable energy company WRE Hellas and its plans for building a wind farm in the Peloponnese. Responding to his article entitled “Wind farms birth an industry of persecutions”, the company is accusing Sarantis of defamation and plans to sue for 225,000 Euros. EFSYN dismisses WRE Hellas’ claims and has refused to remove the article from its website.
Physical and verbal attacks on journalists
Several recent instances of harassment and assault towards journalists have been recorded by Mapping Media Freedom.
- On 12th January 2022, two journalists were attacked at the Athens University of Economics and Business (ASOEE). Vangelis Goumas, a journalist for Star Channel, was interviewing students about an attack on a professor that had taken place the day before when a group of hooded individuals started shouting and throwing paint at him. The same group also assaulted journalist Elina Kolyva from the state broadcaster ERT and her cameraman, hurling bottles and trying to snatch her microphone. In the end, the police arrested six individuals.
- On 15th January 2022, journalist Chris Avramidis was shooting videos of a protest in Thessaloniki when he was surrounded by a group of police officers, who asked him to turn his phone off. Avramidis showed them his press pass, but the officers started insulting and threatening him, emptied his bag and inspected his equipment. On Twitter, Avramidis later posteda video of the incident.
- On 1st February 2022, the home of journalist Dimitris Kampourakis in Eastern Greece was the target of a gas attack. Kampourakis, who works for the private media outlet SKAI, was awoken at 2:30 AM by the explosion of a gas cannister, which, according to video footage of the incident, had been left there by an unknown person in a black hoodie. Only the door of his house was damaged. Kampourakis has previously received threats over e-mail as well.
Journalists, media outlets, and journalistic associations are noting with concern a decline in media freedom in Greece. In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Greece fell five spots from 2020, ranking in 70th place out of 180 countries. It is currently ranked behind Poland.
Civic Space Developments