Last week was a busy one, to say the least, for press freedom in Greece: two major libel cases brought by Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, made headlines in and outside the courtroom.
On Thursday, an Athens court heard evidence in Kammenos’ suit against well-known Greek political cartoonist Andreas Petroulakis over an opinion article Petroulakis wrote for the news site protagon.gr in March 2015. As the International Press Institute (IPI) previously reported, Kammenos sued Petroulakis for €1 million over the article, which argued that the coalition that Greece’s governing SYRIZA party formed with ANEL had altered SYRIZA’s leftist nature.
“We actually used IPI’s article in the court in order to enhance our main arguments, that political criticism and assessment of the activities of public figures is an established democratic right and an obligation of every journalist,” Petroulakis told IPI after leaving the courtroom.
Notably, Kammenos reduced his claim to €100,000 during the hearing – a move Petroulakis viewed with scepticism.
“It was obvious from the beginning that Kammenos had asked this huge amount just to terrorise me and my colleagues, suppress freedom of speech and implement a kind of preventive censorship in the newsrooms,” he said. “Once the case reached court, he reduced his claim, thinking that he had already succeeded in his primary aim.”
Both Kammenos and Petroulakis brought witnesses to testify on their behalves. Several journalists, politicians and members of the public also supported Petroulakis in court and on social media.
Petroulakis added: “I have no words for the solidarity I felt. It was very comforting when I listened to one of the main arguments of the plaintiff, that my article was part of a conspiracy, led by Martin Schulz, aiming to remove Kammenos from the government coalition!”
IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen urged the court to carefully weigh the right to freedom of expression in reaching its verdict.
“European human rights law protects the right of journalists such as Mr. Petroulakis to criticise, even harshly, those in power,” he noted. “The court should firmly push back against attempts by high-ranking public officials to threaten the press by means of exorbitant compensation claims.”
Petroulakis will have to wait two to three months to find out the verdict. Until then, he repeatedly emphasises, he will keep on doing what he knows best: criticising those in power with his own unique style.
Kammenos vs. Kourtakis and Tzenos
The second case, brought against Giannis Kourtakis and Panagiotis Tzenos, the publisher and director, respectively, of the newspaper Parapolitika, was scheduled to be heard last Friday, but was postponed until Feb. 2. Kammenos has accused the pair of criminal libel and attempted extortion through repeated attacks against him on the radio station Parapolitika 90.1 FM.
The ANEL leader claims that the two journalists tried to blackmail him in order to force him to withdraw accusations that Kourtakis and Tzenos allegedly received nearly €1.5 million in improper funding from the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO). Among other things, Kammenos alleges that the broadcasts insinuated links between Kammenos’ son and an infamous Greek terrorist, Pola Roupa.
Following the suit, approximately 10 police officers, accompanied by a prosecutor, raided Parapolitika’s headquarters on Jan. 10 and arrested Tzenos. Kourtakis was also later taken into custody, though the circumstances are unclear: Kammenos’ side claims Kourtakis was hiding in a nearby building and then arrested, while Kourtakis says he voluntarily showed up at the police station later.
Both Kourtakis and Tzenos were released the next day. Their lawyers requested and were later granted three days to prepare their defence, though the trial was ultimately postponed. The public prosecutor who investigated the lawsuit has reportedly since dropped charges of criminal extortion.
Various unions, political parties and institutions condemned the arrests and the way they were carried out as an attack on press freedom.
The Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers Greek (ESIEA) released a statement expressing deep concern about the intervention of law enforcement authorities in journalists’ offices.
“Journalism must be exercised with specific rules,” the statement read. “Everyone must also defend and protect Press Freedom.”
Exiting the courtroom, Kourtakis, who is about to publish a new newspaper called Freedom of the Press, told journalists: “When I chose the title, I did not believe the Tsipras-Kammenos regime would arrest a publisher and a director at their work.”