Press Release

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GREEK HELSINKI MONITOR

P.O. Box 51393, GR-14510 Kifisia, Greece

Tel. 30-1-620.01.20; Fax: 30-1-807.57.67;

E-mail: office@greekhelsinki.gr http://www.greekhelsinki.gr

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REPORT ON GREECE TO THE 1998 OSCE IMPLEMENTATION MEETING

27 October 1998

Freedom of expression

Introduction

Greek press is largely free, but courts frequently sentence journalists to prison in libel cases, most of which involve articles that could not be considered anything more than harsh criticism of public officials. Such convictions help intimidating the press, especially the provincial one, already in a weak position, as it has limited means. In some cases, the government is playing an active role in these prosecutions.

Minister of Justice Proposed Retrograde Amendments to Libel Laws

Greece is the only traditionally democratic European country in which journalists are punished with prison and not fines for such crimes. This alarming phenomenon was aggravated by the announcement of a proposed amendment to introduce prison sentences of at least two years in cases of insult and defamation through the electronic media. On 18 August 1998, Minister of Justice Evangelos Yannopoulos announced his intention to introduce an additional paragraph to articles 361 (on insult) and 362 (on defamation) of the Greek Penal Code, as follows:

"A newscaster or broadcaster of a television or radio station who broadcasts, reads or allows the broadcasting of messages with insulting or defamatory content is punishable with imprisonment of at least two years. The supervising Director of the employee, who gave the order for the broadcasting or reading of that message or allowed its broadcasting is punished as instigating principal or secondary accessory depending on the case.”

The Minister added that the prosecution of such cases will be at the discretion of the public prosecutors without requiring prior complaint by the persons allegedly offended. Moreover, he stated he was considering introducing also fines up to 5,000,000 drs. ($17,000) for such “crimes;” and compelling the electronic media to broadcast full identity data of all individuals whose messages will be broadcasted. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), on 25 August 1998, joined Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group - Greece in condemning the proposed amendments to the Greek Penal Code that will severely limit freedom of speech in the electronic media.

Seven Journalists Convicted to Prison Sentences for Libel

On 1 April 1998, an Athens court sustained on appeal the prison sentence of four years and two months for “libel” and “publishing a false document” against Makis Psomiadis, journalist and owner of the daily “Onoma”, and ordered that he be incarcerated. This sentence occurred following an article which appeared in February 1996, in which the journalist accused the Minister of Environment and Public Works, Costas Laliotis, of having been paid a commission for awarding a German company the construction of the new international airport in Athens. Psomiadis actually served a few months before being released from prison for health reasons.

On 3 September 1998, Giorgos Kondyloudis, journalist and publisher of "Eolika Nea", a daily on the island of Mytilini (also known as Lesbos), was convicted by a three-member Misdemeanor Court to 8 months in prison for insulting deputy Franklinos Papadelis. He was sentenced in connection with a letter to the editor, published on 16 June 1997, which called the deputy’s views "childish" and "politicians [in general, not the deputy] unworthy persons, who disgust people." He appealed the verdict, so the sentence is currently suspended pending the appeal. Insult carries a maximum sentence of one year, but usually the sentences do not exceed two months. Or, if the defendant wants to appeal, four months - the minimum sentence to have the right to appeal. Eight months for insult is an unusually stiff sentence.

On 3 September 1998 again, Yannis Tzoumas, journalist and publisher of "Alithia", a daily on the island of Chios, was convicted to four months’ imprisonment for defamation. He was charged for an August 1997 article with which he was accused of defaming Minister Stavros Soumakis. Initially, he was charged with aggravated defamation for having claimed the Minister, when visiting Chios, was staying at the house of a ship owner who was under investigation; the journalist also claimed the minister had managed to get tickets for himself and his wife on the eve of the 16 August 1997 Olympic Airways flight (this flight is always fully booked three months in advance.) The paper called him "minister of the ship owners ... who sunbathes at the villas of the ship owners." During the trial, the facts were confirmed as accurate, but the court considered that the "harsh style" of the article was an act of defamation.

On 17 September 1998, journalist Makis Triantafyllopoulos was convicted and given a suspended sentence of eight months for the defamation of Minister of Justice Evangelos Yannopoulos, in an article in the daily "Kalimera" on 8 January 1998. In the article, he had argued that the Minister was interfering with justice in a case implicating the governor of the Social Security Fund, Gregory Solomos, to seek favorable treatment of the latter.

On 21 September 1998, a three-member Misdemeanor Court of Salonica sentenced "Avriani" newspaper publisher George Kouris, editor George Tsiroyannis and journalist Stelios Vorinas to 4 years and 11 months of prison. They were convicted for aggravated defamation and insult of Yannis Raptopoulos, owner of "Express Service," a roadside assistance company; Raptopoulos also owns the Salonica newspapers "Makedonia" and "Thessaloniki", while Kouris owns the rival newspaper "Nea Makedonia". The incriminating articles were published on 31 December 1997, 2 January 1998 and 3 January 1998. Raptopoulos’ lawyers told Greek Helsinki Monitor that Kouris had previously been convicted to huge fines by civil courts for articles deemed defamatory, but he has always managed to avoid paying them because of the hazy and ever changing legal ownership of his newspapers.

Harassment of Minority Journalist

In another case, on 2 September 1998, Abdulhalim Dede, a journalist of the Turkish minority, was sentenced by the Xanthi court in northern Greece to 8 months in prison for trying to install a radio antenna for "Radio Isik" in his back yard. He was arrested on 1 September, kept at police headquarters overnight and sentenced the next day under the flagrante delicto procedure, rarely used for charges such as building without a permit. Such procedure has also rarely been used against journalists. Dede was released after entering an appeal; the sentence is currently suspended pending appeal.

Other cases pending against Dede for illegally operating radio stations, due to be heard on 22 October 1998, were postponed because of municipal elections. He was charged in February 1996 for launching the radio station "Radio Isik" without a broadcast license. In 1997, Dede was given a six-month suspended sentence for defamation of an ultra-nationalist activist from Thrace; he was charged in connection with an article published in Thrace’s Turkish minority newspaper "Trakyanin Sesi". Dede has recently won a 1998 Hellman/Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch for all that harassment. Over three thousand radio stations operate in Greece without licenses, several of which have also installed antennae without permission.

International Reaction to These Convictions

The aforementioned six cases and the Minster’s proposed amendments have led to a series of reactions by leading international NGOs like, in chronological order, Reporters Sans Frontieres (3/4/1998, 10/9/1998, 28/9/1998), International Helsinki Federation (25/8/1998), Article 19 (28/8/1998), World Press Freedom Committee (31/8/1998), World Association of Newspapers (7/10/1998), Amnesty International (16/10/1998). They have all mentioned that such Greek practice is in violation of many international documents guaranteeing freedom of expression Greece is party of, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). It is also in violation of the related principles of the OSCE’s Charter of Paris and various other documents: Paragraph 9.1 of the Copenhagen Document, as well as Paragraphs 36 and 37 of Chapter VIII of the Budapest Document. Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the ECHR, as well as the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, recognize a wide latitude for robust criticism of government officials.

Foreign Ministry’s Unsuccessful Attempt to Have Journalists Indicted for Disclosure of State Secrets

On 21 October 1998, the Council of Appellate Judges of Athens acquitted journalists George Harvalias, Noni Karayanni, George Papathanasopoulos of "Eleftheros Typos," and Manolis Kottakis of "Apogevmatini" from charges of disclosure of state secrets. They were initially brought against them with the active contribution of the Greek Foreign Ministry after they had published, in three different occasions in 1997, classified documents of the latter on matters of foreign policy. A Council of First Instance Judges had likewise acquitted them earlier in 1998, but a prosecutor had appealed that verdict: it was widely believed he had acted with the encouragement of the Foreign Ministry.

Impediment of the Work of Foreign Journalists

A Macedonian Television (MTV) crew was refused entry visas by the Greek Liaison Office in Skopje. The crew intended to cover the trial of the Macedonian minority party Rainbow; on 15 September 1998, Rainbow was on trial in Greece for the use of the Macedonian mother tongue. The Greek authorities had been formally informed of the request on 9 September through a MTV letter. Two weeks prior, the same crew was given visas in a matter of hours to cover Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Buzlevski's visit to Greece. One can conclude that, this time, Greek authorities were simply trying to limit coverage of the embarrassing trial, which ended with the acquittal of the Rainbow leaders and the implicit recognition of the right to henceforth freely use the Macedonian language, both orally and in writing.

On 10 October 1998, Lutfu Karakas of the Turkish Hurriyet Press Agency (a Turkish citizen), along with Mucahit Dukkanci (a Greek citizen), journalist and at the time candidate for mayor in the Turkish minority community of Myki (Thrace), were taken to custody by local police. They were told that the village is in a restricted zone where foreigners are not allowed without special permit granted by the Greek Defense Ministry. Greece announced, in 1995, the abolition of the 10 km-deep zone (inside the Greek-Bulgarian border but only in the area inhabited by the minority). Xanthi District Police Director informed them that in fact the abolition applied only to Greek citizens. He also asked the journalist to stay within the limits of the city of Xanthi. The next day the journalist returned to Turkey. During all his stay, the Turkish journalist was followed by security agents, "for his protection" as they stated.

Courts Censor Dictionary

On 13 July 1998, a Salonica court ordered "the removal from the "Dictionary of Modern Greek Language", in every future reprint or edition (...) of the entry "Bulgarian (...) 2. (abusive) the follower or player of a Salonica team (mainly PAOK)." It also threatened the book’s author (Professor George Babiniotis) and publisher with a fine of 2,000,000 drachmas (US$6,500) each, and -the former- with a month’s detention if the order was not applied. The court ruled that the entry in question offended the personality of the plaintiff (lawyer and elected City Councilor of Salonica Theodore Aspasidis), and that "it creates confusion about the national origins of the players and the followers of PAOK (a soccer team based in Thessaloniki, northern Greece) and more generally the Macedonians."

The verdict stated that the abusive meaning should not have been included in the dictionary as its use is occasional and not sustained. It was based on the following explanation, quoted by the judge in his verdict: "A good dictionary does not simply record linguistic reality but also aims at instructing the reader. We turn to it to learn. For that reason, linguistic reality recorded therein, i.e. the use of a particular word, must be the one that has in some way been consecrated in Greek society, that is has been generalized and sustained. Occasional or isolated use is not enough. The aforementioned word ‘Bulgarian’, in its abusive meaning, has been probably used by an insignificant portion of football fans from Southern Greece, in fact more as a slogan than with the meaning of the word." Regrettably that argument was first made by Professor Mihalis Stathopoulos, chairman both of the newly formed in 1998 "National Human Rights Commission" in Greece and of the non-governmental organization "Citizens Against Racism."

A second case against that dictionary was heard on 20 July, by a similar Salonica court, for the entry of the abusive meaning of the word "Pontic." "Pontics" is a term which refers to Greeks from the Black Sea who were "repatriated" at various times during the 20th century and also has a pejorative meaning of "very naive, stupid." The court’s verdict had not been published by late October.

The only positive development was the motion to the Supreme Court by its Prosecutor, Panayote Dimopoulos, released on 24 July, asking for the cassation of the verdict. In this motion, the Prosecutor reverses the verdict’s rationale, in relation to both the offense to the personality of the plaintiff and the criteria for the entries in the dictionary. Furthermore, P. Dimopoulos added that the Court made a "spurious and erroneous interpretation of the related articles of the civil code, instead of defending freedom of expression and scholarly research." The Supreme Court had not deliberated on this motion by the end of October 1998.

On 24 July 1998, Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group - Greece wrote to the President of the Supreme Court stating their disagreement with that verdict’s rationale and interpretation of the laws, and requesting that the Supreme Court instructs the lower courts how to avoid such erroneous interpretations in this and in other similar cases which are shattering the credibility of the courts in Greece. No reply had been received by the end of October 1998 and no such action was apparently taken.

Greek Helsinki Monitor, in anticipation of the presentation of this report to the 1998 OSCE Implementation Meeting, has submitted a complimentary copy to the Greek Foreign Ministry on 27 October 1998.

WRITTEN PRESENTATION

TO THE 1998 OSCE IMPLEMENTATION MEETING

Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) was founded in late 1992, by members of Minority Rights Group - Greece (MRG-G), following the encouragement of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF). A year later, in December 1993, the latter’s General Assembly accredited it as its Greek National Committee with an observer status; in November 1994, the General Assembly elevated Greek Helsinki Monitor to full membership. In April 1998, Greek Helsinki Monitor also became member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).

Since 1994, GHM has worked on all national, ethnolinguistic and major religious minority communities in Greece and in the Balkans, in close cooperation with MRG-G. Its main work is the comprehensive monitoring of human rights violations in general (especially human rights related trials) in Greece and, to a lesser extent, in the Balkans. It brings them to public attention through public statements, alone or along with other NGO’s. On the most recent crucial trial, GHM, along with MRG-G, published, both in Greek and in English, Greece Against its Macedonian Minority: the Rainbow Trial (ETEPE, 1998).

Occasionally, GHM lobbies with governments for the solution of such problems. It has also participated and often coordinated the monitoring of Greek and Balkan media for stereotypes and hate speech. Its major related publication, along with the IHF, is "Hate Speech" in the Balkans (ETEPE, 1998).

In 1997, GHM in cooperation with MRG-G and the European Roma Rights Center started a Roma Office. The three NGOs have jointly made, in May 1998, a fact-finding mission to some 40 Roma settlements in Greece. That office has also followed cases of police violence against Roma, including offering the victims legal advice and continuous support.

In 1998, GHM along with MRG-G, the Institute on South East Europe (ISEE) of the Central European University and the Center of Documentation and Information on Minorities in Europe (CEDIME) based in Montpellier (France) launched a Balkan-wide project to create a web site to cover human rights issues in the region and include comprehensive and comparable presentations of all minorities in the region.

All the reports mentioned here, the statements (co-)issued by GHM, as well as the articles and books published by its members can be found in the web site http://www.greekhelsinki.gr.

O?oeio

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