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Greek civil defamation reform bill step in the right direction

REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

This statement was originally published on freemedia.at on 16 November 2015.

New draft legislation intended to combat the abuse of Greece's civil defamation law in cases involving journalists marks a step in the right direction, but must be complemented by the repeal of criminal defamation, the International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) said today following a joint three-day visit to Athens.

The bill, introduced by Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos and currently undergoing an open consultation period, would reform Greece's Law on the Press, widely known in the Greek journalistic community as the “press killer”. Paraskevopoulos told the IPI/SEEMO delegation that the proposed changes would scrap the law's minimum limit for compensation in defamation cases and institute a mandatory 20-day pre-trial period during which the impugned media outlet would have the opportunity to publish a retraction. If a retraction is published, plaintiffs would be barred from pursuing damages in court except in the case of material harm, which is generally difficult to prove.

Paraskevopoulos said that the minimum compensation requirement “does not conform to the proportionality principle” and he described the retraction period as a way to combat the “ease” of taking journalists to court.

IPI and SEEMO representatives welcomed the proposal as a move in the right direction.

“The low threshold for filing defamation claims against journalists in Greece's civil courts is producing a industry of vexatious claims against the press at a time in which the country needs investigative journalism and a watchdog media more than ever,” IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen, who led the mission, said. “We are grateful to Minister Paraskevopoulos for recognising this problem and for taking concrete steps to combat it. At the same time, we urge lawmakers to closely involve journalists and civil society in the drafting process so that their concerns and further suggestions are taken into account and that the changes will actually amount to an improvement in practice.”

However, during audiences with both the Justice Minister and with the Hellenic Parliament's Standing Committee on Justice, Order and Transparency, IPI and SEEMO representatives underscored that any reform of Greece's defamation laws will be inadequate unless it includes the repeal of the country's criminal defamation laws, which continue to be used actively against the press.

In March 2015, a court sentenced investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis to a suspended prison term of 26 months over an article that analysed a prominent businessman's alleged involvement in the 2012 to 2013 Cypriot financial crisis. Following the verdict, which Vaxevanis has appealed, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic reiterated a standing call on Greece to remove defamation from its penal code.

Members of the Standing Committee on Justice defended existing criminal laws, pointing out that no journalist has gone to prison for defamation in recent memory. They also noted that in practice all prison sentences for crimes against honour are either suspended or converted into a fine according to Greek penal law.

But Griffen countered that those arguments “do not survive scrutiny”, commenting: “Numerous human rights bodies as well as the European Court of Human Rights – including in a case involving Greece – have already determined that prison sentences for defamation are prima facie disproportionate regardless of whether they are actually carried out. Moreover, those convicted are still burdened with a criminal record.”

SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic added: “IPI and SEEMO call on Greece to fully repeal its criminal defamation laws, which are not acceptable in a modern democracy. There is no reason that Greece cannot follow the lead of other European states that have already done so, such as Cyprus, Ireland, Norway, Romania, Serbia and the United Kingdom. Greek lawmakers should consider both the chilling effect that the threat of imprisonment can have on Greek citizens' right to freedom of expression as well as the negative example that its laws set for other states.”

IPI and SEEMO's visit to Greece was prompted in part by concerns that the country's overly plaintiff-friendly defamation laws were allowing powerful figures to punish or suppress unwanted media investigations through the threat of financial ruin. Civil lawsuits claiming hundreds of thousands or even millions of euros in damages are not uncommon, journalists from various print and web outlets, as well as representatives of the country's national federation of journalists' unions, told the IPI/SEEMO delegation.

Defence lawyers are often successful in beating back claims against the press. But the IPI/SEEMO delegation was also presented with troubling examples of court rulings that appear to ignore standards on freedom of expression. In one case, a group of journalists from the coastal city of Volos was sued by a local businessman and his wife for €3 million over an article that the national federation says relied on official police and judicial documents. In 2007 an appeals court sentenced each defendant to pay damages of €45,000, a decision whose consequences continue to reverberate. One of the journalists involved told the delegation he was still paying off an emergency loan from the national federation that had prevented his home from being seized upon execution of the verdict.

Griffen and Vujovic were joined in Athens by Boris Bergant, former vice-president of the European Broadcasting Union and a member of the SEEMO board, and Radomir Licina, editor of the Serbian daily Danas and a former IPI Executive Board member. In addition to defamation laws, the mission also focused on police violence against reporters and photojournalists; thorny questions of ownership and trust in the Greek media landscape; and governance of the country's revived public broadcaster. An analysis on these and other issues will be published in the coming weeks.

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