Greece is being accused of limiting press freedom after the government approved a law that introduces heavy penalties for spreading ‘fake news’.
The Greek parliament approved a controversial justice ministry bill on November 11, introducing tougher penalties for serious crimes and the spreading of fake news by news organisations and on social media.
Human Rights Watch warned of the risks of the bill, stating that it could be used to punish media professionals, civil society, and anybody who criticises government policies, creating a deterrent effect on free speech and media freedom.
The new law says “anyone who publicly or via the internet spreads or disseminates in any way false news that is capable of causing concern or fear to the public or shattering public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health,” can be punished by imprisonment of up to one year or a fine.
“In Greece, you now risk jail for speaking out on important issues of public interest, if the government claims it’s false,” said Eva Cosse, a Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The criminal sanctions risk making journalists and virtually anyone else afraid to report on or to debate important issues such as the handling of Covid-19 or migration or government economic policy,” she added.
The new law does not give a clear definition of what fake news is and it also does not introduce what standards should be used to determine if something is fake news.
It also makes no mention of respect for the right to freedom of expression when referring to the law.
Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide network of media freedom nongovernmental groups, called on the justice ministry to withdraw the law before the adoption of the amendment.
“We believe the draft law’s vague definition and punitive sanctions would undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece.. The passing of heavy-handed legislation by governments which grants regulators or prosecutors the power to decide true from false and levy punitive fines on the press is not the correct response and would result in more harm than good.”
The Greek Journalists' Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) also criticised the legal amendment on the "dissemination of false news" for being too vague.
The new measures come amid growing concerns about media freedom and the rule of law in Greece.
In early 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concerns that the freedom of media in the country has been deteriorating rapidly. It includes accusations of government censorship and harassment of journalists by the police during demonstrations.
In April, the media watchdog published its World Press Freedom Index which is released annually and ranks 180 countries in the world from “good” to “very bad”.
Greece dropped five places in the list, ranking third from the bottom out of European Union countries.
The proposed bill will criminalise the sharing of false information about "public health" during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Greek Justice Minister Konstantinos Tsiaras stated that Greece must "adapt to the realities" of today's world and seek to punish those people responsible for spreading false claims about Covid-19 vaccines.
A recent survey by the Media Literacy Index 2021 shows that fake news is on the rise in Greece, as it ranks poorly among countries in Europe as a result of underperformance in media freedom and education.
Greece comes in 27th place among 35 countries in the rankings on the metric of misinformation.
A cover for censorship?
Human Rights Watch also underlines that Greece has been facing international criticism over human rights concerns related to migration and asylum.
The government has moved to silence groups and journalists who were reporting human rights abuses, according to HRW.
EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson commented on the issue last month saying that the research showed systematic violence by member states at the external border of the EU and the situation needs to be investigated.
The European Commission noted in its EU-wide rule of law report in July that the space is being narrowed in Greece for groups working with migrants and asylum seekers.
Human Rights Watch also warned that the new criminal code article falls far short of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and international human rights law standards which Greece is bound to respect.
“The Greek government should stop pushing censorship on journalists, civil society and the public,” Eva Cosse, researcher at HRW said.
“If it is serious about tackling the spread of misinformation, it should demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and media freedom, not silence its critics through the threat of criminal prosecutions,” she added.