CSOs working on refugee rights face attacks & restrictions; Fake news law a concern

CSOs working on refugee rights face attacks & restrictions; Fake news law a concern
Solidarity action for two HRDs facing charges for a search and rescue operation (Photo by Ayman Oghanna/Getty Images)

Background

The number of COVID-19 infections experienced a steady and sharp rise during the Fall in Greece, reaching over 6,000 daily infections in November 2021. The restrictions introduced on 6th November 2021 by the Greek government included mandatory vaccination certificates or proof of a negative COVID-19 test in order to access public services and places such as restaurants, cafes, shops and banks. Moreover, all unvaccinated workers are required to provide a negative test twice a week.

In early December 2021, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that by mid-January, unvaccinated citizens over the age of 60 (the people most likely to end up in intensive care when getting the virus) would be fined €100 (approx. $113) per month. The fines would be collected automatically and used to fund the public health system.

On 14th December 2021, Greece recorded130 fatalities resulting from the coronavirus. This was the country’s highest death toll since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, from 19th December 2021, Greece required all visitors travelling to the country (including vaccinated visitors from other EU countries) to present a recent negative PCR test.

Association

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, in the last few years, several measures implemented by the Greek government have been aimed at discouraging the work of civil society organisations in the field of human rights and migration. On 26th August 2021, the Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), a civic non-profit organisation that aims to provide free legal aid to refugees, released a statement requesting the withdrawal of the Greek Deportations and Returns Bill since it does not comply with international and EU asylum law. The measures included in the bill, and in Article 40 precisely, contribute to further restricting the operations of NGOs who are active in the asylum and migration field, envisaging criminal and substantial financial sanctions for individuals and institutions. In September 2021, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, also commented on the issue, underlining how the legislative proposal, which lacked prior public consultation, would hamper the crucial activities undertaken by Greek NGOs.

“The Greek parliament should reconsider a legislative proposal currently being discussed, which would seriously hinder the life-saving work carried out at sea by NGOs, and their human rights monitoring capacities in the Aegean,”- Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović

On 5th October 2021, the hostile conditions that organisations operating in the fields of migration and asylum seekers are facing was brought before Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. Frequent cases of criminalisation of solidarity activities and a strong presence and recent surge in legislative and bureaucratic measures, such as the NGO registry, that hamper the operation of their activities were identified in a hearing with several human rights defenders. It was also pointed out how several activists are often victims of violent and non-violent harassment and of threats by far-right supporters as well as local authorities.

In a related development, the trial of two humanitarian activists, Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder, who were detained and released on bail in 2018, which was supposed to be held on 18th November 2021 at the Mytilene Misdemeanor Court in Lesbos, was adjourned. Mardini and Binder were investigated in the context of a case involving 22 other humanitarian workers and the search-and-rescue NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). The activists are facing several charges including fraud, smuggling and espionage for activities undertaken by the activists between 2016 and 2018. Reacting to the adjournment, Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Senior Campaigner on Migration for Amnesty International said:

“These trumped-up charges are farcical and should never have resulted in Sarah and Seán appearing in court. Today’s adjournment means that having already waited over three years, this ordeal will continue to drag on for Sarah and Seán, leaving them in limbo. We call for the Greek authorities to uphold their human rights obligations and drop the charges against Sarah and Seán.”

In another related development, the Refugee Support Aegean’s (RSA) application for registration in the newly established NGO Register of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum was rejected. On 26th November 2021, RSA announced that the authorities' reasoning for rejection, that supporting people under deportation is unlawful, is contrary to international, EU and national law and that they will be “challenging this decision, as an alarming move to exclude civil society from assisting refugees and migrants in accessing their rights”. According to an RSA press release dated 13th December 2021, the Ombudsman called on the administration to re-examine the rejection of registration on the grounds that it contravenes the “acquis of international, EU and national law”.

Additionally, on 27th October 2021, draft legislation by the Ministry of Interior was put out for public consultation. The new legislation would aim to establish a single catalogue of registered NGOs, instead of nine separate databases, which intends to provide transparent information about funding. Moreover, the draft envisages the inability of NGOs to receive government subsidies amounting to more than 40% of the organisations’ operational budget or state loans.

Peaceful Assembly

Several demonstrations have taken place in the country, particularly in the months of October and November 2021.

  • On 17th October 2021, activists attempting to display a banner and a Tibetan flag from the Acropolis in Athens in protest against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics were arrested “for violating the law on protection of archaeological sites”. The protesters intended to exploit the occasion of the traditional Olympic torch lighting and transmission ceremony to demonstrate against the human rights abuses enacted by the Chinese government and the decision of the International Olympic Committee to stage the Games in Beijing. Three individuals were arrested and later released, including a Tibetan student and a Hong-Kong exiled activist, and their court hearing was scheduled for January 2022. Another protest against Beijing 2022 occurred during the actual ceremony on 18th October 2021, when activists interrupted the flame lighting ceremony by showing a banner reading “No genocide games”. The activists were arrested by police. Additionally, in another incident, four pro-Tibet activists who were waiting outside the Olympic torch ceremony area were briefly detained.
  • On 25th October 2021, a demonstration took place in Athens to protest against the shooting of a young Roma man who was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle and who was shot by police officers during a car chase on 23rd October 2021. Police used tear gas and flash grenades to disperse the protest. During the protest, Maria Apatzidi, a Member of Parliament for the MeRA25 party, was subjectto a violent assault by a police officer, who hit her in the eye with an elbow after she declared that she was an MP.
  • On 5th November 2021, a demonstration was organised by the Association of Seasonal Firefighters outside the Ministry of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection in Athens to demand their employment beyond the fire season. The protest resulted in a clash with the police, who reacted by resorting to using tear gas, a water cannon and flash grenades against protesters. Five people were arrested. One individual was injured in the hand, potentially hampering his ability to be employed as a firefighter.
  • On 17th November 2021, tens of thousands marched in Athens and in Thessaloniki celebrating the anniversary of a 1973 student revolt against a US-backed junta.
  • Several anti-vaccination protests were held in the country. At the end of August 2021, an anti-vaxx rally in Athens, involving around 8,000 people, led to the detention of 47 protesters, five of whom were arrested. Another rally occurred on 11th September 2021 in Thessaloniki, resulting in nine people being arrested. In both cases, clashes between demonstrators and the police were violent, involving the use of tear gas and water cannon.
  • Further protests and strikes against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for health professionals were organised by healthcare workers on 26th August 2021, 21st September, 21st October3rd November 2021. Members of the medical staff who refuse to vaccinate will face suspension from their jobs.
  • Several strikes and protests involved Greek teachers demonstrating against the mandatory evaluation of the teaching staff, schools and learning introduced in September 2021. At a protest held on 1st October 2021 in Athens, police responded with tear gas and a water cannon. In addition, a 24-hour strike and a rally were held on 11th October 2021 by teachers’ unions and federations, despite a court ruling, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Minister of Education which condemned a prolonged strike as illegal.

Expression

Update on Giorgos Karaivaz case

Little progress has been made in the investigation into the murder of the investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, which occurred in Athens in April 2021, with no arrest made for the murder. In October 2021 both Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Press Institute (IPI) urged for increased attention to the case from the local authorities, and not to leave the crime unpunished.

“We call on the government to keep its promises and to make all possible resources available so that this investigation can be successfully concluded. We will continue to follow this case. Solving Giorgos Karaivaz’s murder is vital for the security of Greek journalists.”- Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.

On 7th October 2021, a statement was released by the Greek authorities in response to an alert by the Council of Europe. The statement sought to re-state the government’s strong commitment and efforts to prioritise the case and to protect the rights of journalists and freedom of the media. However, no suspects have been identified yet, despite significant amounts of evidence, including videos, phone records and statements, which are yet to be analysed. Moreover, little information was provided to the public about developments in the investigation and responses to IPI from the Greek authorities described the investigation as being “still at the preliminary examination stage”. Both organisations emphasised how the impunity for such crimes encourages violence against journalists.

Fake news legislation

Several partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) signed a request, published on 12th October 2021 by the International Press Institute (IPI), to the Greek Ministry of Justice to take a step back on the proposals for amendments to Article 191 of the Criminal Code. The amendment would envisage serious penalties, from financial sanctions to imprisonment, for journalists and media outlets accused of the dissemination of fake news that creates public concern or weakens “public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defence capacity or public health”. IPI highlighted that the broad and vague definition of “false news” would open the application of the law to misuse and could lead to watchdog journalism being targeted by political opponents:

“Media in Greece already face threats from abusive litigation and jail sentences for criminal defamation. Strengthening Article 191 would only create an additional avenue for journalists to face prosecution and jail time. Even when not applied directly, the potential for self-censorship under such legislation is enormous”.

Legal harassment

On 19th October 2021 an executive of the Greek gold mining company Hellas Gold filed a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation) suit against the media outlet Alterthess and the journalist Stavroula Poulimeni, asking for financial compensation amountingto €100,000 for damages caused by an article published on the website in October 2020. The article reported on the trial and criminal conviction of Efstathios Lialios, the author of the filed lawsuit, and on the then CEO of the mining company, for environmental degradation due to water pollution resulting from the company’s toxic waste material in the 2012-2014 period. According to Lialios, personal data was illegally used in the publication released by Alterthess. However, the news outlet commented that the article reported only on facts that came out in a “public and open trial”, labeling the lawsuit as a mere act of intimidation and attack on the freedom of journalists. Since she started covering this case, Poulimeni has also faced a social media smear campaign.

Another Greek news outlet, DIMOKRATIA, was sued by the President of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan for a headline published in September 2020, and the editors could receive a prison sentence of up to five years in Turkey. It is reported that the managing editor of the newspaper, Dimitris Rizoulis, stated their refusal to appear “before a Turkish court to give credence to Erdogan’s bid to defy free speech and, most importantly, the political claims he makes in the legal prosecution”. Rizoulis emphasised how the reaction and support provided by the Greek government has been limited, considering that the paper is the first outside of Turkey to face legal action from the Turkish President.

Attack on journalist

On 5th November 2021, while covering the firefighters’ protest organised outside the Ministry of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection in Athens, Greek photojournalist Orestis Panagiotou was hit by a water cannon used by the police to disperse the protesters and was consequently hospitalised with a diagnosis of a fractured toe. According to Panagiotou who spoke to IPI, he attempted to move away to avoid being hit by the overly close water jet. Nevertheless, an operator directed the jet at Panagiotou from a distance of 10-15 metres, eventually hitting his foot. An investigation will be carried out into the issue by Greek police on the use of excessive violence from the police in the context of protests.

Journalist leaves Greece after harassment

On 9th November 2021, during a joint press conference by the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, Prime Minister Mitsotakis engaged in a debate with a Dutch journalist on the allegations concerning refugee pushbacks enacted by Greek authorities. The exchange escalated as the journalist, Ingeborg Beugel, asked: “Prime Minister Mitsotakis, when, at last, will you stop lying. Lying about pushbacks, lying about what is happening with the refugees in Greece?”. To these allegations, the Greek Prime Minister repliedthat direct accusations about non-supported facts were not acceptable. Consequently, Beugel was subject to a smear campaign aimed at discrediting her by government-friendly media outlets as well as by online hate and harassment. Moreover, the Mayor of Hydra, George Koukoudakis, stated his intention to sue the Dutch journalist for the comments made on the city and on its inhabitants during the same press conference and further interviews.

In June 2021, Beugel was already involved in a case that led to her arrest and detention for “facilitating the illegal stay of a foreigner in Greece”, risking one year of imprisonment and substantial fines.

Beugel has been living in Greece for 40 years. On 17th November 2021, she announced that due to fear for her safety, she needs to leave the country.

“Journalists fulfilling their watchdog role and asking uncomfortable questions – however pointedly – about a matter of clear public interest should never face such extreme intimidation. The shameful and coordinated attempt to discredit Beugel’s work and bully her out of the country raises yet more worrying questions about press freedom in Greece,”- IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.