Why 'independent media are cornered' in Greece

Greece ranks the lowest of all EU countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders’ Pavol Szalai outlines why the situation in the southern European country is ‘problematic’ – and how the EU could help.
Demonstrators in Syntagma Square hold a banner in June 2014 that says no the closure of ERT the Greek Public Brodcaster. A rally organized by unions marking one year since the sudden closure of state broadcaster ERT (Greek Radio-Television) by the government, The decision had stunned the nation and caused widespread reaction among the journalism community.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

07 May 2024

Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) latest World Press Freedom Index ranked Greece 88th out of the 180 countries and territories analysed. Despite climbing up from spot 107 in 2023, the southern European country is ranked the least free for press out of all EU member states – for the third year in a row.  

Each year, RSF analyses five indicators of press freedom – including the political, economic, legal, and social environments of a country, as well as the security of journalists operating there. The countries are divided into five categories: good, satisfactory, problematic, difficult, and very serious.  

Greece falls under “problematic” – along with fellow EU countries Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.  

Meanwhile, the three countries with the most press freedom – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – are all in northern Europe. The most repressive countries for journalists were Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea.   

In the case of Greece, big media companies have squeezed the editorial independence of their journalists, experts say. At the same time, powerful business leaders and politicians often target journalists with so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to intimidate them from publishing critical work. Moreover, the assassination of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz made headlines after he was shot outside his Athens home in 2021 – and the murder has yet to be solved.  

But those are not the only reasons for Greece faring so poorly compared to most of its EU counterparts, Pavol Szalai, head of the EU-Balkans desk at RSF, says in an interview with The Parliament.  

Could you provide a brief overview of the media landscape in Greece?  

I would say that in the Greek media landscape, independent media and independent journalism are cornered. So, you have big media, audiovisual media, which are owned by wealthy families, businessmen with interests mostly in the shipping industry, and who have objectively problems with a lack of editorial independence.  

I'm not saying all of these media are not free. Certainly, there is good journalism in some of these media. And there are very good journalists working in some of these media. But the fact is that, even if you speak to these journalists, they will admit that there is a certain pressure coming from the owners. This is the endemic problem of journalism in Greece.  

It exists also in other countries…but the extent to which this has grown in Greece is unprecedented in the EU, without comparison.  

What are the main reasons for Greece ranking this low in the World Press Freedom Index?  

This is the third year that Greece is the last in the EU and the third year that press freedom there is in a “problematic” situation. And the reason is that none of these systemic problems have been addressed. Not only is there an issue with the independence of many media, but also, there is a lack of justice for crimes committed against journalists. And here I speak about the surveillance scandal. More than ten journalists and, of course, other political personalities, were wiretapped with Predator [spyware]. We know that many of these people were also under surveillance by the secret service of Greece.  

And there are other legitimate reasons to believe that this illegal use of spyware – even the Greek authorities admit that it’s illegal – has a political background. Unfortunately, in 2023, no justice was served for this illegal surveillance, which is really, an extreme attempt on the confidentiality of journalistic sources, which is a cornerstone of press freedom.  

And even beyond that, we saw an attempt to politically sabotage the investigation into ‘Predatorgate.’  

The other crime is the killing of Giorgos Karaivaz, a Greek journalist, in 2021. So far, only two persons were arrested. It's progress that they were arrested last year. However, the investigation is way too slow and way too opaque.  

And there are other systemic issues, like SLAPPS, abusive lawsuits when journalists are targeted with defamation complaints with the objective to silence them. We even had the case of a journalist being condemned for spreading fake news. It was Franco-Canadian journalist Romain Chauvet. There was very little evidence for his conviction.  

Moreover, the legal framework hasn't really been improved. On the 1st of May, the new criminal code entered into force in Greece, which allows [the government] basically to imprison a journalist [who is] convicted of defamation in the first instance and awaiting an appeal trial.   

Why did Greece’s press-freedom ranking improve compared to last year?  

Twenty twenty-three is the reference year for this new index. No extremely grave press freedom violations occurred. Giorgos Karaivaz was killed in 2021 and ‘Predatorgate’ made the headlines in 2022. So, 2023 was relatively calmer, but the word ’relative’ is key because Greece remains the last in the EU. I would characterize last year as a year of inaction in Greece. There was inaction in terms of responding to these systemic challenges.  

How could the EU play a role in advancing a free press in Greece?  

I think actually the EU is now the key player for improving press freedom in Greece because, unfortunately, we have seen that under the government of [Prime Minister] Kyriakos Mitsotakis the national institutions have been failing to address these systemic issues. So, we, as RSF, also with our partners, decided to address our demands more to the EU. And, the first success was the vote [on a resolution] by the European Parliament on the rule of law in Greece [in February 2024].  

Press freedom in Greece is not only important for the Greeks, but for the whole EU.

And the next key moment will be the publication of the rule of law report. Every year, the [European] Commission publishes a report on the state of the rule of law in every member state and it’s a non-binding evaluation.  

We expect the Commission to issue a tough report on Greece. And then, we expect the Greek government to respond to the recommendations that are in this report. And if there is no significant progress, we have to discuss sanctions for Greece by the EU because it's not sustainable in the long term that the Greek citizens should be discriminated when it comes to the rule of law in this regard. They deserve better.  

The EU recently passed the European Media Freedom Act as well as the Anti-SLAPP Directive. Do you think these acts might improve the situation in Greece? 

It's definitely a good opportunity for Greece and for the EU to improve press freedom. Press freedom in Greece is not only important for the Greeks but for the whole EU. EU citizens have the right to know what's happening, in relation to migration in Greece, what's happening in relation to the fiscal policy of Greece, to the defence policy. We need independent information from Greece in the European public interest.  

So, it's a good opportunity, but now we need [the] Commission to have the political will to address these rule-of-law shortcomings based on these new legal instruments.