The disciplinary council of the Athens journalists' union ESIEA is pursuing members of the media who called for a 'Yes' vote during the 2015 referendum in Greece. They are accused of peddling 'propaganda.'
Stamatis Malelis, director of Greece's Skai TV, is a politically conscious journalist known to be a ratings winner in the hotly contested Greek television market. Malelis is not without political ambitions - he is a co-founder of the social democratic DIMAR party. Yet, for the disciplinary council of the journalists' union ESIEA, his political commitment goes too far.
The council has expelled Malelis from the union for 18 months. The reason: He disseminated "propaganda for a 'Yes' vote" and spread "untrue facts" in the run-up to the referendum on the Greek austerity program in July 2015. Two more Skai journalists were punished with lesser sanctions. Four prominent representatives from other media outlets are to be "publicly reprimanded" - with a rebuke that is to be displayed on a black board within their editorial departments. The ESIEA disciplinary council's decision came to light before it was officially published, and has sparked a political debate in Greece.
Ruling party wants to examine media coverage
To review: In reaction to the Greek bail-out program, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras staged a referendum on the austerity measures put forth by lenders. Tsipras' "No" camp won the referendum with 61 percent of the vote. Subsequently, the ruling Syriza party asked the Greek broadcasting board (ESR) to retroactively review the objectivity of all media reporting on the referendum.
As a result, state prosecutors as well as the disciplinary council of the journalists' union ESIEA initiated legal proceedings against members of the media who were especially critical of the referendum. State prosecutors quickly shut down their investigation. However, the journalists' union remained steadfast and is now reprimanding journalists. Skai director Malelis - who bore the brunt of that punishment - has called the decision "authoritarian" and emphasized that it was "only arrived at by a slim 3-to-2 majority." Speaking with DW, Malelis went on to level serious allegations against the journalists' union, saying that, "The three that voted against us were indoctrinated by the ruling party."
The executive director of the disciplinary council, Angeliki Gypaki, declined to comment on the decision. When pressed by DW, she explained that she could not comment on it as the decision has yet to be officially released. She assured us that she supports the right to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion for all citizens, and especially for her journalist colleagues.
So who set the post-referendum proceedings in motion? "At the time, some 300 journalists and citizens lodged complaints with the ESIEA union. We had to take action as a result," said Gypaki.
ESIEA boss Stamatis Nikolopoulos also declined to comment. The disciplinary council acts as an independent body and is in no way subject to outside direction. In comments to DW, Nikolopoulos emphasized that the members of the disciplinary council are elected by journalists themselves. "I don't think that political parties are involved," he said.
'Welcome to North Korea'
Those affected see things differently, noting that the journalists' union only reprimanded colleagues critical of Syriza. Malelis says that the accusations against him and his colleagues are baseless. Those reprimanded are alleged to have broken journalistic principles almost exclusively to provide a stage for the "Yes" camp. "Actually the opposite was true," says the Skai director. "On many shows the 'No' camp received much more air time because they were better organized. There was no support committee for the 'Yes' camp but there was for the other side."
Malelis also thinks that the reprimand of Skai radio reporter Aris Portosalte is baseless. Prior to the referendum the host liked to greet his listeners with provocative opening statements. He occasionally started his morning show with lines like, "Welcome to North Korea." The journalists' union deemed such behavior to be outrageous, even if such ironic turns of phrase are not uncommon on Greek radio.
The rebuked accuse the journalists' union of taking political sides. "Not one journalist from the 'No' camp was reprimanded," says the Skai director. "Not one of those who labeled us traitors, decried us as watchmen for the Germans, that painted us as Schäuble's henchmen and threatened us with the gallows."
A 'Stalinist' mentality?
The debate over journalistic professionalism has now become a political fight. Paschos Mandravelis, a commentator for the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini, has gone so far as to accuse the journalists' union of having "a Stalinist mentality." The avowed liberal blasts what he says is the leftist ideology that has been holding journalism hostage in Greece for a long time.
And the reprimanded Skai director exclaims: "I have nothing to apologize for." He has no intention of being muzzled in the future either. "I will remain on the side of the people, of those who suffer, and I will continue to fight so that this administration steps down." Stamatis Malelis says he will appeal the disciplinary decision. "If need be, in front of the European courts."