The courthouse in the town of Volos, in Magnesia, Greece, is housed in an old white building with a front courtyard full of small trees and bushes. Some of the most well-respected journalists in Volos have gotten to know this building all too well over the last three years, having been repeatedly forced to defend their right to report freely and criticize the local authorities in the face of numerous legal cases initiated by the local mayor, Achilleas Mpeos.
“I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that the courthouse has started to feel a lot like my second home”, Dimitris Kareklidis, a well-known journalist and owner of the local newspaper Magnisia, said in a recent interview with the International Press Institute (IPI).
In 2014, some months before Mpeos’s election, Magnisia featured an article suggesting that perhaps it would be better for him to first settle his pending legal cases – at the time Mpeos was under investigation for fixing football matches and forming a criminal organization while he was president of OLYMPIACOS, a Greek football team – and only then try to win the public’s vote.
“We feared that, if he were sentenced, then the governance of the municipality would be seriously at stake”, Kareklidis recounted. Kareklidis’s concerns and fears came true after a year: In December 2015, Mpeos was suspended from his duties until the court’s final judgement, which is expected at the end of this month.
In the meantime, however, Mpeos unleashed an unprecedented attack against him and some other journalists that tried to criticize his actions and shed light on the way he governed the municipality.
“If I remember well, up to now he has filed three lawsuits against me for defamation”, Kareklidis said. “Two of them were rejected and the third one is at a stage of preliminary investigation by the prosecutor of Volos.”
Kareklidis described the subject of some of the cases as “profoundly insignificant”, which he said proves that Mpeos is merely trying to intimidate him and force him to stop writing about things of which he does not approve.
He explained: “His first lawsuit for defamation was filed [in criminal court] in March 2014. Mpeos accused us of publishing slanderous statements that the then-mayor of Volos had made in a TV broadcast. But we were only reporting on those statements he made on TV and those same statements were also republished by almost all local media. But he just targeted us.”
The lawsuit was rejected, but that did not mark an end to Kareklidis’s judicial adventures.
“Apart from that, he also filed three civil suits for slander that were again either rejected by the judge or withdrawn by the applicant”, he noted.
A ‘declaration of war’
According to Kareklidis, his newspaper, established in 2007, is one of the very few local media that are independent and criticize Mpeos.
“I feel that he has declared a war against us”, he said of the mayor.
The battle has already cost Kareklidis thousands of euros in legal expenses, as well as numerous precious hours spent within the premises of the Volos courthouse.
“Our readers’ moral and financial support is what keeps us going. Our readers count on our independence; that is why we are the second-biggest newspaper in terms of circulation in the region”, he pointed out.
Has it ever crossed his mind to lower the tone on some issues in order to protect himself and his newspaper?
“Of course we have thought that we can’t just run to the court all the time, struggling to provide evidence about self-evident matters”, he said. “What we have decided is to lower the tone when we are writing about minor issues, but still raise our voice for every scandal or inappropriate behavior that we may detect.”
‘Attack on the essence of democracy’
Kareklidis is not the only person who has faced Mpeos’s distate for critique. In December 2016, Mpeos, who is still in a “non-active”, or suspended, status, filed a defamation lawsuit against Katerina Tassopoulou, a columnist at the newspaper Thessalia.
Tassopoulou, who last year received the prestigious Journalism Prize of the Botsis Foundation for the Promotion of Journalism for raising awareness about issues that have to do with the wider region of Thessaly, was arrested, driven to police headquarters and then taken to the prosecutor, who ordered her release.
“The problem in Volos is that there is an overall attack on the essence of democracy”, Tassopoulou said in an interview with IPI. “Whoever is working in the remaining independent media and tries to write and reveal the truth is targeted and publicly disgraced.’’
According to her, Mpeos has publicly stated that his aim is to lead the journalists who criticize him to financial exhaustion.
“It bothers him, and the people close to him, that there are journalists like me who don’t belong to anyone and all of these years have been doing their job freely” she noted.
Even those who had stood up for journalists’ rights have not been spared legal trouble. Dimitris Hortargias, president of the Union of Editors of Daily Newspapers of Thessaly, Central Creece and Evoia, went to the court the day that Tassopoulou was arrested in order to show the Union’s support for her. After a quarrel with Mpeos, Hortargias himself was also arrested.
After these unprecedented events, the Union issued a statement that was also signed by the Hellenic Federation of Journalists’ Unions (POESY) emphasizing,“We will never allow these dark and inadmissible conditions to become an established situation against the local press. The latter is currently being attacked by Achilleas Mpeos and the municipal authorities. Those who think or act in such an inadmissible way against fundamental and constitutional rights are going to find us opposed.”
“Since the 2014 election, Mr. Mpeos has begun a smear campaign against specific journalists, suggesting that they were bribed by former mayors”, Hortargias told IPI. “But he has never provided any evidence to support his claims.”
In order to set the record straight, the Union even asked the municipal authority to make public its financial records, which showed that no member of the union had received any funding.
“This [type of smear campaign] is a well-known tactic followed by many powerful people who don’t want to have anyone, especially journalists, bothering them”, Hortargias explained.
A final ruling regarding Mpeos’s future is expected at the end of February. Observers are holding their breath, hoping that the court will write the last chapter of a very dark period for local journalism in Volos.