Say ‘media freedom in the EU’, and chances are you will think of Poland or Hungary and their rows with Brussels. But Greece has recently passed a draconian media law that should put the country on the Commission’s radar. Except no one really talks about it.
Under the guise of fighting disinformation during the pandemic, Greek authorities can now lock up any journalist it states is publishing fake news that may “cause anxiety or fear to citizens”.
While fake news in the time of COVID is quite often a matter of life and death, we are right to fear this new law will be used to intimidate critical journalists and suppress stories of public interest, something we associate more with autocratic leaders in not-so-democratic countries.
Furthermore, there appears to be little in the way of safeguards against it being wielded like the sword of Damocles over the head of investigative journalists.
Asked about the law, a European Commission source refused to be drawn. A total lack of any public response all but rubber stamps a law that will have a chilling effect on media freedom in Greece and beyond.
As an EU country, Greece almost automatically becomes a point of reference for its Balkan neighbours with EU aspirations. “If an EU country did this, it must be ok and in line with EU standards, right?”.
Wrong. This has already happened in EU candidate country Albania over the last three years, and the EU reaction was swift.
In 2018, the Socialist Party government proposed a law to bring all online media under the supervision of a state-appointed body. This body could shut down, block, order retractions and apologies, and impose significant fines on any online media that spread “fake news or “incites panic”, all without a court decision.
Portals would only be able to challenge the decision in court once penalties, in some cases more than a year’s income, had been paid up.
While the EU did not condition accession on the retraction of the proposed role, it called for it to be amended along with Venice Commission recommendations. The Council of Europe essentially said it should be scrapped, and self-regulation take its place.
EU officials added that the law did not meet the freedom of expression guidelines, and was not compliant with EU law.
So why is the EU going so easy on Greece? Why do rules that apply in some countries not apply in others?
My concern is not just the impact this will have on Greek media but the encouragement it will provide to autocrats in the Western Balkans, home to more than its fair share of leaders to whom media freedom is an inconvenience that should be squashed.
In the case of Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama regularly calls journalists “prostitutes”, “dogs”, “trash”, and recently compared online media to Nazis and paedophiles. The EU not coming down hard on neighbouring Greece, while having previously been tough on Albania, sends a confusing message.
If the EU cannot keep its long-term members in order and allows such laws to be passed with little remark, how can other countries look to them for stability?
Various recent reports have highlighted declining media freedom and an increase in attacks on journalists within the EU. The same reports have also repeatedly highlighted that leaders use the pandemic as a pretext to gag and silence the media that challenge the official narrative.
Instead of doing something to combat this issue, the EU has become complicit in its silence.
If the EU wants to be taken seriously on its pledges to safeguard media freedom and protect journalists, it needs to get its own house in order.
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