Greece: A tougher climate for press freedom

Marilena Katsimi, journalist and general secretary of Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA)

Marilena Katsimi, journalist and general secretary of Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA)

Freedom of information and media’s role as a “watchdog” has deteriorated in Greece over the past six to seven years, as a result of the economic crisis and the fiscal agreements signed by the Greek government.

Marilena Katsimi, journalist and general secretary of Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) — the largest journalist union in the country — was targeted in October 2012 for commenting on air about the response by Nikos Dendias, ex minister of public order, to an article published in the Guardian. The article mentioned allegations of police brutality against protesters.

Katsimi with her colleague Kostas Arvanitis were suspended for voicing mild criticism, sparking reactions in the journalistic community and on social media.

Index on Censorship spoke with Katsimi about how censorship is exercised in Greece, and to what extent journalists are allowed to report on social struggles in the country.

Index: How would you describe the media censorship in Greece in recent years?

Katsimi: Listen, I want to be clear. There was always censorship in most of mainstream media in Greece (TV, newspapers, radio). It appeared mainly with the form of self-censorship; we all knew for whom we were working for and what we were “supposed” to say or to report.

However, as a reporter for the international news desk of ERT (Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation), the ex state-owned broadcaster, I have experienced a high degree of freedom in reporting. I can’t recall any incident of being targeted at my time there, even when I took a firm stand on certain news reports.

When we were working for the morning news magazine, together with my colleague Kostas Arvanitis, I tried to be fair and balanced according to the journalistic principles a public broadcaster should adhere to: objectivity, plurality etc. In this context, I managed to speak my personal opinion several times without being censored.

However, since the fiscal agreements between the Greek government and the troika and the austerity measures that followed up, we clearly saw that much was about to change.

Initially, the duration of the broadcast was cut by two hours with no convincing explanation. Later on, we were suspended because we commented on the response of Nikos Dendias, ex minister of Public Order, to an article published in the British newspaper The Guardian.

And then came the closure of ERT. In my opinion, it was a move by a suppressive regime that wanted to manipulate public opinion and exclude any opposition voice.

Index: Could you give us some other examples of censorship?

Katsimi: As a general secretary of ESIEA, Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers, I am responsible for the new members that join the Union.

While discussing censorship issues with the 70 new members about to register in ESIEA, I was informed that “censorship pressure was unbearable”. Editors-in-chief, media executives and other managerial staff told journalists in an overt way that “this is the proper way” of reporting while expecting from them “a certain political twist” in stories.

Let me give you another example, the one of privately-owned ANT1 TV. On the eve of the Euro elections in May, the main news bulletin of the station reported unsubstantiated information on opposition party SYRIZA’s alleged internal disagreements about getting out the vote from Golden Dawn (neo-nazi party) sympathisers! At the same time, the bulletin overemphasised that a possible outcome in favour of SYRIZA would destabilise the country and it would be a serious political accident.

After some contacts I made with journalists from privately owned ANT1 TV, I was told that there was a straightforward message on how to “report” the news and “shape” these stories. However, there has not been a single official complaint because many fear of losing their job.

For years, in privately owned media, journalists struggled to express their own voice and criticism through their reports — but now things have gotten much worse.

Index: Can you say something about the conditions in the newspaper sector? It seems that censorship comes always with a great loss of jobs.

Katsimi: Yes, this is true, up to a certain point. From 2005 until 2012 the newspapers’ sales numbers declined by 50% — consequently, there was a great loss of jobs. According to data regarding ESIEA members, the number of unemployed journalists from 2009-2014 is 749 while from 2003-2008 the same number was 69.

Let me say that as a union we do our best so that nobody stays unemployed, however, we have to face this grim reality in the media sector. In consultation with journalists’ assemblies and their representatives we try to push employers to pay on time and pay back compensation that they owe to media workers.

Because of the economic stalemate, there is a huge difficulty for most of the media to take loans from banks and continue to be viable. This in turn, functions as an excuse for media owners to put all sorts of pressure on journalists. They are often being threatened with layoffs in case they refuse a salary reduction; and bear in mind that those still with a job have already seen their salary vanish.

At the moment 400 journalists — members of ESIEA have already contacted our legal department to exercise their right of labor lien. All these cases refer to the three years between 2011-2014.

Index: Let’s get back to content issues. How would you describe media reporting on the major social and political problems in the two years before the EU parliamentary elections in May?

Katsimi: I think that news criteria in Greece vary according to the interests of the particular media outlet. For years, there were hardly any “quality” papers which tried to criticise government policies in an honest and healthy manner. At the same time there were plenty of “tabloids” which reported on the basis of populism and sentimentalism.

However, in my opinion, mainstream media and especially those that supported government policies without doubts or second thoughts, are the ones that did not give space to the social struggles in the form of strikes, anti-fascist rallies, demonstrations and confrontations with the police.

When it came to major news stories like the mining conflict in Skouries, Northern Greece, most of the media failed to report the amount of dissent and the size of the demonstrations that took place in that area and in other big cities. The story of Skouries was by all means a “scoop” of citizen, grass-roots journalism — it rang a “bell” to those who still carried on with a “journalistic consciousness”.

Another example is the Golden Dawn case. Not until international organisations and media outlets shed a light on the role of the neo-nazis, did mainstream media “discover” the phenomenon and attempt to report on it.

I’ d like to add that several social issues like the right to citizenship or human rights abuses against immigrants, asylum seekers and other minorities, were not reported at all or they were downplayed by “right wing” newspapers.

Index: So, what about the future?

Katsimi: After the public broadcaster’s shutdown and the launch of the new state-run broadcaster NERIT, all I see is that the government succeeded in suppressing alternative opinions and controlling, more than ever, public broadcasting.

On the other hand, there is still hope in citizen journalism and in new media collectives that are not bound to big economic interests and are free to report on social issues mainstream media neglect.

This article was published on Wednesday, 24 Sept 2014 at

Greece: When satire cannot be tolerated


On 16 January, Greek blogger Filippos Loizos, responsible for the satirical Facebook page of Elder Pastitsios, was convicted for “malicious blasphemy and religious insult” and sentenced to 10 months in prison, suspended for three years.

Loizos has set up the page mocking a well-known deceased Greek Orthodox monk — Elder Paisios — by intentionally combining his name with a popular Greek food called “pastitsio”, a pasta based dish with béchamel sauce.

His arrest in late September 2012, came after Christos Pappas, an MP from the now-banned neo-fascist party Golden Dawn, posed a parliamentary question calling for the blogger’s arrest on the basis of the country’s anti-blasphemy laws.

Pappas is now facing charges of being involved in a criminal organization.

“My prosecution was somehow expected. At the time I drew a lot of attention on social media. The neonazi party saw ‘a chance’ in accusing me as a blasphemer, satisfying a very conservative society and inspiring strong national sentiments,” Loizos told Index on Censorship.

Loizos explained that the court did not understand his intentions — delivering a stinging rebuke for what he perceived as the monk’s dangerous nationalism and intolerance.

“The judges were very aggressive and did not want to understand my argument. They insisted on saying my intention was to insult because I hadn’t censored any posts of visitors which were considered blasphemous or vulgar. I would never do that. In a democracy we are all ‘condemned’ to disagree,” says Loizos.

Reactions in the press and on the internet after the blogger’s conviction were immediate and vociferous. Far-right publishing and Orthodox websites were gloating, while Loizos’ sympathisers and free speech advocates argued it was “a blow to freedom of expression”.

On 20 January 2014, Amnesty International expressed serious concerns over the case, while calling on Greek authorities to “repeal the anachronistic anti-blasphemy legislation”.

The Hellenic League for Human Rights (HLHR), the oldest human rights organisation in Greece, had earlier issued a press release, stating its “unfortunate certainty of an institutional and ideological setback that does not seem to end”.

“Today’s decision shows that freedom of speech, a fundamental pillar of social consistency in a state with ‘rule of law’, is being challenged not only by the enemies of democracy but by the judicial institutions,” according to the release.

Dimitris Christopoulos, an assistant professor of state and legal theory at the Department of Political Science and History at Panteion University in Athens, and vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights, told Index that “this decision is a message on how justice perceives political coexistence in society. It’s like saying ‘when you talk about God in a way we do not like, you will be punished’. In other words, people can joke about everything they want, except religion”.

Contrary to some allegations that the judges suffered social media illiteracy because of their age, Christopoulos told Index on Censorship that they were young and seemed to “fully understand the role of social media”.

In late September 2012, when Loizos was arrested, Vassilis Sotiropoulos, a lawyer and blogger specialising in internet legislation, told Index: “The legislature refuses to address the issue of internet censorship, thereby allowing law enforcers — prosecutors, police officers, judges and lawyers — to freely interpret and utilise the existing legal tools (…) the case of Elder Pastitsios provided perhaps the first example in Greece of an internet company disclosing information to the government in order to identify an individual accused of ‘alleged offences relating to religious satire’.”

However, it is not the first time cases regarding religious blasphemy have reached the courts. In 2012, controversial theatrical play “Corpus Christi” resulted in the legal prosecution and public harassment of the play’s director and actors by Golden Dawn members and Orthodox religious groups.

Legal experts told Index that there are several ongoing cases involving blasphemy  in Greece and that the country should follow the Council of Europe’s recommendations and reports on abolishing “the offence of blasphemy”. According to these recommendations, freedom of thought and freedom of expression are being limited by blasphemy laws.

Loizos said he is going to appeal the verdict “for reasons of dignity”.

“We should abolish this blasphemy law in order to protect free expression,” he said.

This article was published on 23 January 2014 at

Greece: Freedom of expression takes a beating

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

As Greece prepares to take on the presidency of the Council of the European Union on January 1, the country continues to grapple with the free expression fallout from its financial crisis.

The Greek constitution protects freedom of expression in Article 14, a very lengthy provision detailing the rights and restrictions. As set in the first paragraph of Art. 14 “every person may express and propagate his thoughts orally, in writing and through the press in compliance with the laws of the State”.

Aside from domestic legislation, Greece cooperates with a number of international organizations and is a contracting party to treaties related to freedom of expression, civil/political rights and access to information, for instance the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

However, the heavy austerity measures imposed since 2010, after the fiscal agreements between the Greek government and the “troika” (IMF, European Commission, European Central Bank), resulted in serious violations of human rights including freedom of speech. Cuts in government spending forced impoverishment upon large segments of society and came with a heavy price of social exclusion and marginalization.

Reports from various intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and civil society groups are raising alarms about policies followed by the Greek state. Human rights such as free expression, free thought, free movement, right to work, equal treatment, access to decision-making and right to protest are being systematically attacked.

On 16 April 2013, Nils Muižnieks, the  Commissioner  for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, published a report on human rights issues. Muiznieks urged the Greek government to use all legal instruments, domestic and international, to combat hate speech and racist crime, largely attributed to the rise of the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn.

Government Transparency: call for social justice

Looking at the evidence coming from official institutions and NGOs, the “pillar” of government accountability is characterized by corruption and maladministration.

Although “micro-corruption” is less of a problem, mainly due to economic problems, Greece is still perceived as the most corrupt nation in the European Union. In a total of 177 countries worldwide, Greece ranks 80, although some progress has been made from last year.

According to the 2012 annual report of the Greek Ombudsman, a constitutionally sanctioned independent authority investigating administrative actions regarding personal rights, “the call for social justice is the main feature of people’s complaints, reflecting the existing social fatigue.”

After evaluating the significant increase in the number of complaints, the Ombudsman reported that citizen encounters with the administration have intensified, while the explosive social conditions have lead to greater loss in human rights protection.

Press Freedom: under attack

Greece’s dramatic fall in the ranking of 2013 World Press Freedom Index, is evidence of the oppressive environment journalism is practised. Since 2008, Greece has fallen from 31 place to 84.

In the past three years, mainstream media have been experiencing a significant deterioration in their “watchdog’ role, as a result of the crisis and of long-term weaknesses and practices.

The Greek media market is shaped by media groups owned by magnates, shipowners and big contractors. Having vested interests in profitable industries, these tycoons have been working closely with every regime to ensure their dominance at any cost.

In additiona, the financial crisis has led to closures and severe cutbacks at print and broadcast outlets while hindering effective reporting and quality journalism.

Ιndex on Censorship has thoroughly reported on politically motivated firings or suspensions at both state and private media.

The case of investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis is an indicative example of the governments’ approach to press freedom. Vaxevanis was arrested and prosecuted after publishing a list of more than 2,000 suspected tax evaders, the so called “Lagarde list”.

Moreover, Reporters Without Borders, in a special investigation report dating from September 2011, suggested that a crisis of confidence in journalism has resulted to a devaluation process of the profession. RWB highlighted the risks entailed in reporting at street demonstrations and violent clashes with the police: “Working conditions during demonstrations are nowadays rather like in a war zone”.

During the crisis, the need for more investigative reporting led several bloggers and online activists to form independent media collectives.

While mainstream media failed to report on the social struggle, these collectives managed to report complaints and publicise dissent. But not without a cost. On April 11 2013, Indymedia, an anti-authoritarian internet collective, had its plug pulled by the government for reporting on police brutality cases and exposing the deeds of neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

In late September 2012, the case of Elder Pastitsios showed that online satire cannot be tolerated. A 27-year-old man, who published a Facebook post mocking a well known Orthodox monk, was arrested on charges of malicious blasphemy and religious insult.

It’s perhaps the first time an internet company disclosed information to the Greek authorities in order to identify an individual accused of an alleged offense relating to religious satire.

LGBTI: Living in a conservative society

Several incidents of state censorship and social discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illustrate the mentality of an oppressive society.

According to IGAL’s Annual Review Greece ranks 25 among 49 European countries. A wave of violence has been recorded against LGBTI activists and supporters, from conservatives, extremists and supporters of the Golden Dawn party.

In 2013, (ex) Greek State television ERT decided to censor a kissing scene between men from the TV drama Downton Abbey. Following the reactions from the LGBTI community and the intervention of Greek Ombudsman, the broadcaster issued a communiqué apologizing for the “unfortunate decision”.

It is worth noting that Greece has been found violating the European Convention of Human Rights, regarding its decision to exclude same sex couples from the institution of civil partnership. Although the government plans to extend the legislation to same sex couples, there are continuing pressures from conservatives as well as from the Church.

The impact of orthodox religion to Greek society is so strong that sometimes it can be an obstacle in the perception of artistic attempts. Recently, it lead to the intimidation and persecution of a theatrical play whereby homosexuality was used as a narrative technique.

Migrants, asylum seekers, Roma: the most vulnerable

Human rights abuses against immigrants, asylum seekers and other minorities in Greece have escalated dramatically. The approach of the Greek government — together with the racist attacks organized by Golden Dawn — suggests a police-regime with almost no respect to human life.

Under stricter requirements of acquiring citizenship and with an inadequate asylum system, immigrants and refugees are “trapped” in a country with substandard detention conditions at camps and prisons. Despite reported improvements at the appeal level of the asylum procedures, Greece has made very little progress in establishing a fair and humane system.

Police mistreatment and xenophobic behaviuor from the authorities is a key factor in depriving immigrants and refugees of basic human rights. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment have been largely reported and condemned by international courts and human rights organizations.

Although the anti-racism bill, which is under discussion in Parliament, holds provisions/sanctions for hate speech and incitement to violence, it does not address problems regarding the reporting of racist incidents and the prosecution of racist violence.

Last, but not least, the fundamental right to education for all citizens is not yet granted. The country has been found discriminating against Roma children by segregating them in separate schools.

Women and children

The harsh economic conditions imposed upon Greek population seem to affect women and children more than others.

Even though the number of complaints from women is consistently low, both at a national and European level, documented domestic violence has increased by 47% in recent months. Verbal abuse, economic blackmail and sexual humiliation are among the most common types of violence against women.

Unemployment and precarious employment affect women more than any other social group. There are documented cases of work discrimination during pregnancy and maternity.

Unfortunately, marginalization of Greek women does not stop there. The unprecedented shocking story of 31 women, forcibly tested for HIV and prosecuted for intentionally causing grievous bodily harm, is strong evidence of a police-state that shows no respect to medical confidentiality and above all human dignity. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Greece of violating human rights in the case.

The state of children in Greece is in no better position, in fact it is in a critical status. Almost 600.000 are living below the poverty line, while half of them lack the basic nutritional needs. Things are far worse, when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers: both women and children have been victims of xenophobic violence.

This article was originally published at

Greece: murder of anti-fascist prompts protest

Tributes to murdered activist Pavlos Fyssas

Tributes to murdered activist Pavlos Fyssas (pic: Christos Syllas-Dellis)

Thousands of protesters gathered on Wednesday evening in Athens near  the place where Pavlos Fyssas, a 34 year-old antifascist hip hop artist was murdered by a Golden Dawn supporter.

“The blood is running, it seeks revenge”, they shouted, a slogan echoing the December 2008 riots , when 15 year-old student Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two policemen.

The 45 year-old man who carried out the stabbing has told police that he was a supporter of far-right party Golden Dawn. This was clearly a politically motivated killing, added to a sequence of intimidation events and attacks carried out by Golden Dawn against immigrants and asylum seekers.

On 17 January, Shehzad Luqman, an immigrant worker from Pakistan was lethally stabbed by two men. Police later found pre-election pamphlets of Golden Dawn in the house of one perpetrator.

In December 2012, Amnesty International reported on this issue. In addition, Human Rights Watch has found that there is evidence connecting the attackers on immigrants with members of or affiliated with far-right groups such as Golden Dawn.

No matter how useful these findings may be, they were clearly not at the “agenda” of the rally at Keratsini. Young and old antifascists, together with immigrants, have been increasingly struggling with Golden Dawn vigilantes in the past five years. The murder of Fyssas comes as no surprise. A lot of people somehow anticipated the tragic event.

“The regime, in co-operation with Golden Dawn is clearly escalating the confrontation with political dissidents. This is why we’re here today. And we have to step up the intensity of this political struggle. Everywhere,” said a demonstrator, local resident of Keratsini.

Some 3,000 – 4,000 members of an organised anarchist block was heading towards Golden Dawns’ offices in Nikaia, while at the same time, demonstrators attacked Keratsini’s police station. Almost instantly clashes began: Riot police squads tried to disperse groups of demonstrators with the typical use of excessive force.

In an alley, the head of a police squad was heard shouting  “Come on, let’s go and fuck them up”. Middle-aged people from the neighborhood curesed them, while young antifascists threw Molotov cocktails and stones.

Keratsini district, a working class neighborhood, was established after Greek refugees fled Asia Minor on 1922. The greater area of Piraeus (Nikaia, Perama, Keratsin), known for its anti-Nazi struggle, was historically affiliated with the political left.

This picture though seems to be fading away. According to polling company “Public Issue”, Golden Dawn has doubled its electoral influence on these areas. Moreover, it has worked its way on socially penetrating existing political views.

On June 2012, Egyptian fishermen were attacked in Perama after an inflammatory and racist speech by Golden Dawn MP Yannis Lagos, who said that the party would hold them accountable for their actions. A few days ago, again in Perama, members of the Communist Party (KKE) were brutally attacked by Golden Dawn’s supporters  while putting up posters for an upcoming festival.

Last nights’ clashes have led to a total of 130 detentions and 34 arrests while tweeters were reporting a demonstrator had been heavily injured by a direct teargas shot. Questions about the way police responded at the place of the assassination remain unanswered. Witnesses on TV broadcasts this morning said that police were reluctant to involve at the fight before the stabbing.

There were protests against the murder throughout the country. Latest reports suggest that there have been discussions on emergency legislation to ban Golden Dawn’s acts.

This article was originally published on 19 Sept 2013 at