The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned the arrest of prominent Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis on charges of libelling the wife of the head of Greece’s central bank.

Vaxevanis was detained yesterday morning after appearing voluntarily at a police station in Athens. A prosecutor later ordered his release pending preliminary investigation.

According to Greek media and information provided by Vaxevanis, the charges relate to a report published on April 9 in the newspaper Documento alleging that Stavroula Nikolopoulou-Stournara had taken advantage of her husband’s influence to secure public funding for organising medical conferences without going through a public tender. The report also raised questions about Nikolopoulou-Stournara’s links to the pharmaceutical industry as well as the involvement of her husband, Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras, in the conferences.

This is not the first time that Nikolopoulou-Stournara’s activities have drawn scrutiny. Last September, prosecutors raided her home as part of an investigation into possible corruption involving the Greek Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) and an advertising company she owns.

In a letter sent to international press freedom groups, Vaxevanis stood by the report’s claims and blasted Nikolopoulou-Stournara’s decision to press charges.

“They’re aiming to achieve two goals,” Vaxevanis wrote in reference to Nikolopoulou-Stournara and her husband. “First, to cover themselves in the eyes of the public and of the European institutions that supervise them. Secondly, they aim to scare me.”

IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said Vaxevanis’ arrest highlighted the urgent need to repeal criminal libel laws in Greece.

“The arrest of a journalist for libel is a clear violation of European human rights standards and sends the wrong message to other reporters investigating alleged corruption and abuse of power in Greece,” he commented.

“We repeat our call on Greece to repeal the offence of criminal libel in line with the recommendations of numerous international human rights bodies. Those who feel that their right to reputation has been violated are free to pursue their cases in Greece’s civil courts and under the framework of Greece’s reformed press law.”

Vaxevanis is no stranger to Greece’s criminal libel laws. In March 2015, a court sentenced him to 26 months in prison for defaming a prominent Greek businessman, Andreas Vgenopoulos, as part of an investigation into the 2012 to 2013 Cyprus financial crisis. A three-judge panel of the Athens Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the conviction in September 2016.

An IPI series over the past year revealed numerous examples of the abuse of Greece’s criminal libel laws by politicians and others in positions of power in response to criticism and scrutiny in the media.

On the island of Lesvos, journalist Stratis Balaskas was sentenced to six months in prison – later reduced to three on appeal – for having called a local school official a “neo-Nazi” in an editorial. Balaskas wrote the editorial after the official had called on parents to support the fight for “racial purity” and vote for the extreme-right Golden Dawn party.

In January of this year, a Golden Dawn MP filed criminal libel charges against a television presenter, Tatiana Stefanidou, who criticised the MP for having led an attack on a primary school in northern Greece in an attempt to prevent refugee children from attending the school. Police searched Stefanidou’s home and office in an attempt to arrest her.

During an IPI mission to Greece in November 2015, both the then-justice minister, Nikos Paraskevopoulos, as well as members of the Standing Committee on Justice of the Greek Parliament, defended criminal defamation laws as necessary to protect the right to reputation and noted that no journalist had gone to prison in Greece for defamation in recent memory.

Asked recently in parliament whether he planned to modify criminal defamation provisions regarding journalists, current Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis replied that the law was sufficient as is.