As Elections Loom in Greece, Press Freedom on Back Burner

As Greece gears up for uncertain parliamentary elections Sunday, the country’s media landscape is as polarized as ever and press freedom remains in crisis, experts say.

Against a backdrop of political tension and hemorrhaging media freedom, Greeks will vote May 21 to fill all of parliament’s 300 seats for the next four years. The election — which analysts say is unlikely to bring about an outright winning party in the first round — is among the country’s most unpredictable in years.

This election will also take place against a backdrop of general frustration with the Greek government — in particular, frustration over issues of rule of law and government spying, polarized media and a slow-moving justice system that doles out unduly lenient punishments, analysts told VOA.

“The rule of law includes an independent judiciary and an independent media landscape. And at this point, it seems that both are problematic,” Greek freelance reporter Matthaios Tsimitakis told VOA from Athens.

To Tsimitakis, the plight of press freedom is intimately linked to broader threats facing the rule of law in Greece.

The upcoming elections in Greece will be a big test for Greek democracy and the Greek political system on whether it can ensure political stability in the aftermath, according to Thanos Dimadis, executive director of the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the United States.

“I am afraid that the lack of political unity and extreme polarization fed by the opposition political parties may result in a new circle of political instability in the country, which can create a dangerous cocktail along with its fragile economy, the inefficient judiciary system, and the partisanship of the media,” Dimadis, who previously worked as a journalist in Greece, told VOA.

For the second consecutive year, Reporters Without Borders this month ranked the birthplace of democracy last in the European Union in terms of press freedom. The press freedom group ranked Greece 107 in the world out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom.

By publication, Greece’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s queries regarding media freedom and the rule of law.

In an emailed statement, Greece’s Washington embassy said, “For Greece, free and independent media constitute a foundation of peaceful, inclusive and resilient societies; journalists and media professionals speak truth to power and hold those in power accountable.”

“Greece attaches high priority to the protection and promotion of media freedom and the safety of journalists and media actors at the national and international levels,” the statement continued.  

“The Greek media has always been partisan,” said Nick Malkoutzis, co-founder of the Greek think tank MacroPolis.

The media landscape is heavily tilted in favor of the ruling conservative New Democracy party, Malkoutzis said. The three main parties are the ruling New Democracy party, the main leftist opposition Syriza party, and the socialist party Pasok.

“It’s certainly been the case over the last few years that Greeks have really low trust in their media,” Malkoutzis added.

“The vast majority of the Greek society does not care — unfortunately — for the status of the freedom of the press in the country because,” Dimadis said, “people dismiss media and journalists as partisan elements affiliated with the parties in the left and the right of the political spectrum.”

But the relatively niche issue of media freedom is connected to broader questions of rule of law that Greek people do care about, experts on Greek politics and media freedom told VOA.

In 2010, Greek reporter Socrates Giolias was shot and killed outside his house. More than a decade later in 2021, another prominent Greek journalist named Giorgos Karaivaz was shot and killed outside his home in an Athenian suburb.

At the end of April, two brothers were arrested on suspicion of having helped to carry out the hit on Karaivaz, but little progress has been made in either investigation.

“It’s completely outrageous that two years later, no one has been brought to justice,” Tsimitakis said about the killing of Karaivaz.

Greece’s Washington embassy told VOA that Athens “has been doing everything to shed light” on Karaivaz’s brutal assassination.

“The Minister of Citizen Protection of the Hellenic Republic, Mr. Panagiotis Theodorikakos, has repeatedly emphasized that no criminal act will remain unsolved and this certainly applies to the assassination of a journalist,” the embassy statement continued.

Meanwhile, the Greek government has also come under fire for its use of spyware to target more than a dozen journalists and politicians.

Even though these are serious problems, press freedom isn’t weighty enough to have a real impact on the outcome of the elections — in part because press freedom is a political issue in Greece, mainly because of what it means for Greece’s international reputation, some analysts said.

“Journalists murders and journalists under surveillance — is not really beneficial to the image of the country,” said Attila Mong, who covers Greece at the press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Chrysanthos Tassis, a Greek political scientist at the Democritus University of Thrace, said that “freedom of the press is a very critical issue that helps to provide an alternative political agenda.”

A lot more is at stake than whether a second round of elections will need to take place later in the summer.

“Greece faces a problem of democracy and of freedom of the press,” Tassis said. “I think it’s in critical condition.”

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