The International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) today welcomed the passage of legislation intended to strengthen protections for the Greek media in defamation cases.

Greek lawmakers on Dec. 22 overwhelmingly approvedcritical reforms to Greece’s Press Law, popularly known as the “press killer”, that were included in a bill legalising same-sex civil partnerships.

The reforms include:

· The repeal of minimum compensation limits for non-pecuniary (moral) damage in defamation cases. Previously, print media found liable for defamation faced paying a minimum of nearly €6,000 in damages. The reform also scrapped minimum compensation amounts applying to radio and television broadcasters under Law 2328/1995 on the Legal Status of Private Television. Those amounts had been set at 100,000,000 drachma (€300,000) and 50,000,000 drachma (€150,000), respectively.

· The introduction of a provision requiring courts to assess damages in a proportionate manner, taking into account, among other things, the publication’s impact, the nature and severity of the harm, the circumstances in which the harm occurred and the social and economic situation of the parties.

· An addition of a provision requiring all plaintiffs to allow the impugned media outlet 20 days to restore any harm done prior to filing any legal claim. If the media outlet retracts the offending content or otherwise remedies the harm done, plaintiffs are barred from pursuing damages in court except in the case of material harm, which is generally difficult to prove.

· The institution of a six-month deadline for filing claims for compensation in the case that a media outlet refuses or fails to publish a restoration.

· The enactment of a single-publication rule.

Greek Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos, who introduced the bill, told a joint IPI-SEEMO mission to Greece in November that the reforms were intended to combat the “ease” with which Greek journalists could be taken to court for defamation. He described the minimum compensation requirement – apparently unique in Europe, according to IPI’s research – as “not conforming to the proportionality principle”.

Both IPI and SEEMO had expressed support for the reforms publicly and in meetings with Minister Paraskevopoulos and the Hellenic Parliament’s Standing Committee on Justice, Order and Transparency.

The November mission to Greece was prompted in part by concerns that the country’s overly plaintiff-friendly defamation laws were allowing powerful figures to punish or suppress unwanted media investigations through the threat of financial ruin. Civil lawsuits claiming hundreds of thousands or even millions of euros in damages are not uncommon, journalists from various print and web outlets, as well as representatives of the country’s national federation of journalists’ unions, told the IPI/SEEMO delegation.

IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen, who led the mission to Greece, described the reforms as a significant first step toward protecting freedom of expression in the context of defamation and insult cases in Greece.

“We commend the Greek government and Greek lawmakers for taking concrete action toward combating vexatious defamation litigation as well as disproportionate compensation levels, both of which can lead to self-censorship at a time when Greece needs investigative journalism more than ever,” he said.

“Nevertheless, a great deal of work remains to be done. On the one hand, the media and civil society will need to monitor litigation against the press to evaluate whether or not these changes actually amount to an improvement in practice. On the other, any reform of Greek defamation law will remain incomplete without the repeal of all criminal defamation laws. We call on the Greek government to tackle such repeal without delay.”

The Greek Criminal Code maintains provisions on insult (Art. 361), defamation (Art. 362), malicious defamation (Art. 363) and defamation of a corporation (Art. 364). All are punishable with imprisonment, although sentences are usually converted into fines according to Greek criminal law.

Criminal provisions continue to be actively applied against journalists. In March 2015, a court sentenced investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis to 26 months in prison, suspended for three years, over an article that analysed a prominent businessman’s alleged involvement in the 2012 to 2013 Cypriot financial crisis. Notably, that sentence contradicted the European Court of Human Rights’s 2014 decision Mika v. Greece, in which the court found that even a suspended prison sentence for defamation was disproportionate and therefore constituted a violation of freedom of expression.