Ignoring the many protests from national publishers and international press freedom NGOs, including RSF, the Greek parliament approved an amendment to the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure on 11 November which – by extending the definition of “false information” and reinforcing the penalties – violates the right of journalists to disseminate information of general interest.
Under article 191 of the Penal Code, the dissemination, in public or online, of any information that “causes concern or fear among citizens” or “disturbs public confidence in the national economy, defence or public health” is now punishable by a prison sentence ranging from three months to five years. If the offence is committed repeatedly in the media or online, the minimum sentence increases to six months in prison. These penalties are not limited to the person who is the source of the information. They also apply to the owners and directors of the media that publish it, or simply publish links to it.
The previous version of the Penal Code provided for a prison sentence ranging from six months to three years for disseminating false information that had “the effect of causing fear” or entailed “a risk of harm” to society. Public health was not included in the list of sensitive sectors.
Promote reliable news and information
“We call on the European Commission and European Parliament to firmly denounce this new Criminal Code as an attack on press freedom, and to ask the Greek government to overhaul it,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “While it is legitimate to combat false information, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, prison sentences have no role to play in the quest for the truth. The Greek authorities should instead promote reliable news and information at the national, European and international level. The necessary tools are already available to them.”
Instead of guaranteeing journalistic freedom, the amendment has a chilling effect on media personnel, who now face the possibility of up to five years in prison. Since “false information” is not defined by law, the Greek authorities are free to prosecute any journalists whose reporting is not to their liking.
RSF’s concerns also stem from the fact that the Greek government has already demonstrated a willingness to influence and control what the media report by distributing public funds to pro-government media and by placing public television under its control. These press freedom violations, together with the obstacles that journalists covering the migration crisis routinely face, is the subject of a mission to Greece by several NGOs, including RSF, in the first half of December.
At the national level, RSF calls on the Greek government to engage in a structured and permanent dialogue with the media and journalists on combatting disinformation. This can be helped by promoting the Journalism Trust Initiative, a self-regulatory tool developed by RSF that facilitates identifying and supporting trustworthy journalistic sources of news and information.
Furthermore, as part of of the ongoing Digital Services Act negotiations on regulating digital platforms – platforms that are currently used to disseminate false information on a massive scale – the Greek government can demand that the platforms themselves promote reliable sources of journalistic news and information.
Finally, as a signatory of the Partnership for Information and Democracy, an RSF initiative backed by several Nobel laureates, Greece should take heed of the Forum on Information and Democracy’s 250 recommendations for combatting the “infodemics” that are threatening democracies and respect for human rights, including the right to health.
The criminalisation of false information is already a reality in the European Union. It was hastily adopted in Hungary at the start of the coronavirus crisis and remains in effect under a different name. In Poland, the government has proposed legislation that allows for arbitrary restrictions on the right to information and freedom of expression under the guise of protecting them. Its proposed law defines “illegal content” too loosely, and lacks sufficient judicial oversight for the body that would regulate such content.
A political will to control information also exists in Italy and could endanger the traditionally strong legal framework for the protection of press freedom. In the context of the many protests against public health measures, the very influential former prime minister and now senator-for-life Mario Monti said on 27 November that, “in a war situation, we must accept restrictions on freedoms” and that “less democratic modalities must be found with regard to the dissemination of information.”
Greece is ranked 70th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Hungary is 92nd, Poland is 64th and Italy is 41st.