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Greek government attacks freedom of press to stop alleged fake news

By Helen Barber

Last month, the Greek Parliament passed a new law that will make it a criminal offense to spread “fake news” and which could lead to journalists being jailed for up to five years. Human Rights Watch is calling on the Greek government to immediately revoke the provision, which is a violation of freedom of expression and media freedom.

The new criminal code makes it illegal to spread fake news that is “capable of causing concern or fear to the public or undermining public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health”. In practice, this means that media professionals, civil society, and anyone criticising or opposing government policies are at great risk of being punished.

The law states that those found to be in breach of the new code “shall be punished by imprisonment of at least three months and a fine.”

Speaking about the risks posed by the new provision, Eva Cossé of Human Rights Watch, said: “The criminal sanctions risk making journalists and virtually anyone else afraid to report on or to debate important issues such as the handling of Covid-19 or migration or government economic policy.”

Greece has an obligation to recognise and uphold the right to freedom of expression under article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which it is a party.

The adoption of this law comes at a time when civil society and press are already subjected to a shrinking space of action in Greece. In its July EU-wide rule of law report, the EU Commission marked on the ‘narrowing space’ in Greece for activists and civil society organisations working with refugees and displaced people. Freedom of press and action are particularly limited when criticism over the Greek practice of pushing back refugees to Turkey is involved.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders raised these concerns after hearing testimonies of humanitarian workers and activists and said she was alarmed to hear the extent to which the fear of arbitrary arrest had resulted in some activists feeling deterred from carrying out human rights work and providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable people at the EU borders, despite exercising their right to freedom of association, also known as Article 11 of the Human Rights Act.

Recently, a Dutch journalist was forced to flee the country due to personal attacks and a hate campaign after she confronted Geek Prime Minister Mitsotakis for lying on pushbacks performed by the Greek coastguard.

Under international law, the only case in which governments may impose freedom of speech restrictions is if those restrictions are wholly necessary in order to achieve a legitimate aim such as the protection of national security, public health, or to protect the rights of others. Any restrictions imposed must also be written clearly so that those subjected to the law can understand what is banned.

Human Rights Watch has noted that this, however, is where the new provision fails to meet the standards set out by international law. Not only do the restrictions fail to require that the “fake news” must cause actual harm and to define the prohibited content, but, and more problematically, the new amendment fails to make reference to the need to adhere to the right to freedom of expression. For these reasons, the Greek Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA), on November 10th 2021, pushed for the law to be withdrawn on the grounds of it being too vague.

We at Europe Must Act voice the concerns of human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch that this provision is in breach of international human rights law by punishing journalists for speaking out about pressing issues that the Greek Government claims to be false.

We strongly condemn the new amendment and urge the Greek Government to recognise its obligation to adhere to the right to free expression and to commit to immediately revoking the new criminal code article.


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