When press freedom is threatened from within

When press freedom is threatened from within

The punishment of seven well-known journalists by the Athens Journalists’ Union (ESIEA) last week, because they supported a “Yes” vote in last year’s referendum, raises serious questions regarding press freedom in our country. As far as I know, it is the first time that ESIEA has punished members purely for their political opinions. This is one more dangerous step on the slippery slope that ESIEA has been on for the last few years regarding members that do not share its ideological beliefs.

The reprimand issued three years ago to Kathimerini journalist Paschos Mandravelis for criticizing a strike by state broadcaster ERT employees was for violating his obligation toward “professional solidarity.” The same applies to the striking off the journalists’ register of Simos Kedikoglou because, as government spokesman, he had “supported” the closure of ERT in 2013. Skai Radio journalist Aris Portosalte, who was one of the seven who fell foul of ESIEA last week, was also condemned in 2014, because he was on the air during a work stoppage called by ESIEA. In last Wednesday’s ruling against the journalists, however, because they supported one side in last year’s July 5 referendum, ESIEA’s disciplinary committee did not feel the need to carry on pretenses.

At the time this comment was written, the decisions were not available – not even to those affected by them. I can guess with certainty, however, that the accused were condemned for violating some or other of the obligations set by articles 1 and 3 of ESIEA’s “Code of Conduct.” The first article, with dangerous and ambiguous wording, describes information as “a social good and not a commercial product or means of propaganda.” Article 3, after proclaiming the obvious, that equality before the law and diversity of opinion are “the oxygen of democracy,” warns that these principles are threatened not only by the state’s monopolistic control of mass media, but also by the “concentration of [mass media] ownership in gigantic for-profit companies which see the public as a consumer and try to control thoughts, habits and, in general, the public’s behavior.”

The state and media groups are seen in the same light, in other words. And this in a country which not so long ago experienced state censorship. The recent judgments provide a small example of the absurdity toward which such declarations can lead. Experienced journalists of the previous generation are responsible, as they institutionalized these grandiose declarations, with unforgivable frivolity in 1998, succumbing to the ideological stereotypes of their youth despite persistent warnings from many of us.

The latest condemnation of journalists by their colleagues takes on even greater importance when combined with the current government’s overt attempt to affect and, to the extent that it can, manipulate the press and mass media. I am referring, of course, to the elimination of the National Broadcast Committee (ESR) and other independent authorities, the provocative move by the state minister to take over ESR’s authority to award licenses, and the audits conducted into press and mass media companies, which barely hide the attempt at political control. And all this against a backdrop of ever more open pressure applied to judicial officials. In other words, one has the feeling that fundamental principles of the state are threatened by today’s governing coalition, to such an extent for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1974.

The danger is that this effort is aimed not only at immediate political benefits, like the appointment of cronies. It has a deeper aim of establishing an anti-European ideology in service of a vague nationalistic vision. An ideology which, in the name of the “anti-memorandum” struggle, can barely hide its revulsion for institutions, Western parliamentary tradition and political liberalism. Is it any wonder that a senior minister in this government described as “shadow boxing” the dispute between the Church and the government at the time over erasing religious affiliations from identity cards? And is it any wonder that, after the failure of the committee which SYRIZA had set up in 2013 to reform the political system, the party and constitutional law experts who are close to it have fallen silent?

This is not the time to show up the great contradiction in SYRIZA, which despite all this wants to appear as a “normal” parliamentary party – a contradiction which the cooperation with the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks has led to conditions that are on the borderline of constitutional normalcy. In today’s situation, it is of course difficult to impose overt dictatorships in Europe. On the other hand, it is much easier for those in power to impose their will simply by undermining any institutions that annoy them, while keeping up some appearances. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayip Erdogan are masters at this.

Manipulating the news media is of primary importance toward this end. Recently I had the opportunity to deal with the case of Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The first step in this direction is the scrapping of public radio and television’s independence and its submission to tight control by the executive power. The second step is the application of indirect pressure on private news media through the selective distribution of state advertising (whose importance is even greater at times of recession, when the revenue pie is smaller) and all kinds of financial and tax inspections. Poland appears to have been following the same tactics since last autumn.

I don’t know if Alexis Tsipras harbors similar ambitions. The expectations which he raised among his friends before the recent parliamentary debate on the state of justice in Greece indicate that this cannot be excluded. On the contrary, it is certain that the education and experiences of many of his comrades inside and outside the government, in combination with their historically naive and politically suicidal wish to impose their will on reality, favors such arguments.

It is a shame that the supporters of such views find allies in ESIEA, the union which, normally, should be a bastion of freedom of thought and press freedom.

* Nikos Alivizatos is professor of constitutional law at Athens University.

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