The government of Greece has made interference with the independence of the Judiciary and the press a daily norm. The European Parliament has the opportunity to do something about it.
Brussels (Brussels Morning). The government of Greece has made interference with the independence of the Judiciary and the press a daily norm. The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) is set to investigate the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Greek journalist George Karaivaz, whose killers remain at large, as well as a multitude of incidents that cumulatively muzzle the press. That is a good start.
See no evil, or else
One hopes that this investigation will be extended to also cover the infamous Novartis case, quite possibly the biggest public procurement scandal in years. According to documents linked to the prosecution dated February 2018, this is a scandal that cost the Greek taxpayer at least €3bn, but the investigation ceased and none of those involved are facing charges. The case raises concerns over deep-seated structural challenges that relate both to judicial independence and the freedom of the press.
While the perpetrators of the scandal have not been charged, prosecutors have turned their attention to the lead anti-corruption prosecutor of the Novartis case, Eleni Touloupaki, who is now a defendant; her sole crime being using the meagre means of the Greek state and working with US authorities to trace public officials and politicians embroiled in this case.
Touloupaki is currently facing criminal charges, risking a referral to a Special Tribunal as an accomplice of former Deputy Minister of Justice, Dimitris Papagelopoulos. The former minister is in turn charged with alleged “conspiracy” against his political opponents, who were under investigation for their involvement in the Novartis scandal, based on evidence and documents provided by the FBI.
Touloupaki travelled to the USA to evaluate the evidence in person and is now being investigated and prosecuted. Meanwhile, a prominent Greek politician prosecuted for bribery and money laundering is staking a claim for the presidency of the third largest political party in Greece and publishing books, while his persecution (and all that led to it) is hardly mentioned anywhere in the Greek press.
Justice resists its subjugation
However, there are still judges in Greece with a sense of duty and public service and recently, events took an unexpected turn: the main witness against Touloupaki, the Supreme Court’s Deputy Prosecutor General, is now charged with breach of duty. According to the indictment, he refused to receive the account records of two key witnesses in the money laundering case – a politician and his close relative – that initially contacted the FBI. Touloupaki was the whistle-blower on her superior’s breach of public trust.
Nonetheless, the Greek Supreme Court’s investigation is not focusing on the public procurement scandal and the price fixing involved in a country whose public finances are notoriously poor; it is instead throwing the book at the alleged “conspirators” in a case that is treated as political slander. Witnesses are paraded, some of whom have no connection to the case, while US authorities have already settled with Novartis for €310 million euros, with the company essentially admitting that public officials in Greece were on its payroll. In sharp contrast, neither Greek justice nor the government have initiated proceeding to exploit this precedent and demand compensation from the pharmaceuticals giant, largely ignoring calls from leading opposition MPs (SYRIZA-Progressive Alliance).
Meanwhile, journalists who played their part in shedding light on the Novartis scandal are also now being charged. A year ago, the ruling majority in parliament summoned them to testify as suspects which, under Greek law, is one step away from prosecution. Fortunately, the move was averted by the Advisory Council of the Greek Parliament, which determined that such a move was in contravention of Greek law.
This is not simply a case of one or two instances that suggest the Greek press and Greek justice are not allowed to work independently.
Public campaigning during the pandemic provided the government with the opportunity to legitimately distribute €40 million euros – while the advertising market was in freefall – in a manner that clearly benefited it in terms of garnering friendly editorial coverage. Some of these funds were directed to media platforms set up during the pandemic, with a pro-government editorial line. One of the journalists benefiting from this public expenditure bonanza is now in prison on charges of issuing contracts on the lives of colleagues and publishers. An intended victim of this journalist has been summoned to testify to the LIBE Committee on June 24.
There is no doubt that the Rule of Law in Greece has received several blows lately.
Perhaps the most shocking of these is the assassination of journalist George Karaivaz who, as a crime correspondent, had access to corruption-related files and seems to have posed a serious threat to certain hubs of power in the “deep state”. The manner of his execution – a mob-like hit in broad daylight outside his home – suggests that this was as much an assassination as it was a message.
It is also important to pay due regard to the lack of transparency in party finances in Greece.
At a time when thousands of citizens are at risk of losing their homes because of high-interest loans they owe banks, the ruling party appears to have amassed debt to the tune of €340 million, while the third largest political party has accumulated debts of €240 million. SYRIZA is a relative newcomer in Greek politics, but has made sure to pay off all its debts to a dime, ensuring that it also abstains from the power bargaining that a bad debt can entail. Strangely enough, the Greek justice system has been investigating this case for at least six years, but no one knows where the investigation stands. In contrast, former government leaders around the EU are under investigation and often face imprisonment for illegal party financing.
There is, however, reason to be optimistic. The multitude of Rule of Law violations of the current government are now under the scrutiny of the Monitoring Group on Democracy, Fundamental Rights, and the Rule of Law (DRFMG) of the LIBE Committee.
The increased concern of the European Commission for our country, coming on the heels of the Karaivaz assassination, is a hopeful development. The scheduled LIBE Committee meeting of June 24th will focus exclusively on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists in Greece. That is a good start.