Yannis Kotsifos, Director of the IFJ-affiliated Journalists Union of Macedonia and Thrace in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, says an increasing number of alerts have come to the attention of the media community over the past year. One of the most concerning, he says, is the recently implemented “fake news law” criminalising the dissemination of disinformation in a controversial way. The legislation vaguely states that those spreading information that could cause “concern or fear for the public or undermining public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defence capacity or public health” could face jail terms.
“The new legislation is the most worrying concern as it now can be enforced,” Kotsifos says. And while he doesn’t believe it would be directly implemented against journalists, “I think that it’s a very threatening situation”, he says.
The law attracted European countries’ attention. Kotsifos, who is also a steering committee member of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ, the European branch of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)), noted that journalists' unions rang the alarm, worrying that it would set an example for other countries to follow. “It might create a domino effect, it might give the impression that now the door is open and such clauses can be integrated into different legislations,” he explains.
In November, a heated exchange took place between Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis about the pushbacks of refugees. During the press conference, Beugel asked the PM to take responsibility for the dire situation refugees live in, and the pushbacks that are reportedly being carried out close to the Turkish border. In response, the PM accused the reporter of “insulting [him] with accusations”. Soon after, she faced a wave of online harassment and was physically attacked in the streets of Athens, the Greek capital. As a response, Beugel decided to leave the country.
A few days later, migration reporter Stavros Malichudis found out he had been under state surveillance for preparing an article on a child refugee jailed on the island of Kos.
The IFJ and EFJ reported the Malichudis’ case to the EU Commission and EU Parliament: “This surveillance would constitute a clear interference in the freedom of the press and a serious violation of the confidentiality of journalistic sources, which is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights."
Sound working conditions rebuild media trust
Over the past year, journalists organisations received an increasing number of alerts in which they noted safety issues and pressure against journalists. “I think that overall there are quite a few signals that the conditions in which journalists are supposed to perform are getting worse in many ways,” says Kotsifos.
“There has been extreme pressure on journalists to deliver during the pandemic,” he adds. Journalists face very challenging working conditions, and haven't received specific support nor been prioritised as a target group since the Covid-19 pandemic began, as happened in other countries. “There have been no specific measures to support journalists or the media: no financial support, not any other kind of support,” he mentions. “If [the state] doesn't care enough, that’s already a problem,” he adds.
"Journalists working for online media sometimes have to deliver up to 4 or 5 stories per hour, earning 300 or 400 euros per month. This is not a healthy situation, you cannot have quality journalism produced under these conditions,” Kotsifos regrets.
However, he remains optimistic, and underlines the potential some journalists are showing despite the situation: “There are journalists, quite a few of a younger generation, who perform very well under these difficult conditions, so imagine what they could do if they had a better working environment provided.”
The increasing break down of trust between the media and the public has also affected journalists’ safety. Kotsifos believes that if the media’s credibility was in better shape, it could reverse the audience’s distrust and bring back the Greek people’s support. But again, working conditions need to change for the press’ reputation to improve. "It’s a vicious circle", he concludes.
This month, the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a mechanism monitoring press freedom violations in Europe, is starting a fact-finding mission assessing the media freedom landscape and looking into safety concerns for journalists.
- Comments reported by Angela Timmermans