Alert published on Mapping Media Freedom on 28/09/2022 and accessible here
Veteran Greek journalist Ioannis Stevis, the director of local media outlet astraparis.gr, is being sued for €200,000 by the director of a public hospital on the island of Chios over his reporting on multiple issues related to her management of the public health institution. The two libel lawsuits are claiming damages for alleged moral injury and were filed by Eleni Kantaraki, the administrator of the General Hospital of Chios, as well as the president of the hospital’s board. An initial claim for damages of €100,000 was filed in May 2021 and the second, also for €100,000, followed in March 2022. The two cases, which are dealt with under civil law, are running concurrently at the Court of First Instance of Chios. In addition, Kantaraki has also filed a separate criminal complaint over the same reporting, which is subject to a preliminary investigation by a prosecutor, who will decide whether Stevis will face prosecution for libel under the Greek Penal Code.
The first lawsuit was received on 26 May 2021 and relates to a series of articles that Stevis published on his hyper-local online news platform about Kantaraki’s management of the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. These reports cover a period until March 2021 and involve the alleged mismanagement of public procurement procedures, alleged financial mismanagement and staffing issues including human-resources crises. While some of these stories were based on information provided by anonymous sources within the hospital, the majority were based on public documents published on Greece’s public sector procurement transparency portal. Multiple attempts were made by Stevis to seek comment from Kantaraki. These requests were repeatedly declined, and the director eventually blocked Stevis from contacting her. As a result of Stevis’ reporting, a prosecutor on Chios opened an investigation in 2022 into Kantaraki’s handling of procurement procedures, which is ongoing. The next hearing for the first lawsuit is scheduled for 2 November 2022.
The second lawsuit was initiated on 29 March 2022. It is also a civil lawsuit and again claims damages for alleged libel and “moral injury”. It involves a series of articles published by Stevis between June and September 2021. These also report on Kantaraki’s running of the hospital, including reports on statements by trade unions and social and political bodies on the island which were critical of her management. Kantaraki argued the articles caused reputational damage to her, the hospital, and its employees, and affected patients. The next hearing for this lawsuit is due to be held on 5 April 2023.
Separately from the claims under civil law, Kantaraki has also filed a separate criminal complaint over the articles published up until March 2021. This was initiated on 15 April 2021 and is ongoing. In the complaint, she claimed the articles were libellous and caused her moral injury and represented an attack against her moral character. According to Art. 368(1) of the Greek Criminal Code, prosecution for criminal defamation of public officials can be initiated upon complaint. A prosecutor is currently carrying out a preliminary investigation and will decide on whether the press criminal charges against Stevis. He was first summoned to testify in July 2021 and appeared on 4 October 2021. If convicted, he could face fines or potential imprisonment. While jail time is unlikely, the journalist could face financial penalties.
Stevis has stood by all of his reporting and described the lawsuits and their requested damages as attacks on public interest journalism which are aimed at financially destroying both him and astraparis.gr. In an article published in 2021 to report the first lawsuit, astraparis.gr said it had been launched “in order to stop us criticising and making revelations about the wrongs and reverses that are happening in the hospital”. While Stevis has to fund is legal costs himself, Kantaraki’s legal fees are reportedly being paid for by public money in the hospital’s state budget. The Board of Directors of the Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) has condemned the initial lawsuit in 2021 and international press freedom groups expressed concern about the combined legal attacks.
Stevis is a veteran journalist in Greece and spent nearly four decades working at national newspapers and radio stations in Athens before he retired in 2012. He was also the editor-in-chief of the financial newspaper Kerdos. After retirement, he returned to his native island of Chios and started a small local news site, astraparis.gr, which covers current affairs on the island. During this time, Greece became a focal point for the arrival of migrants and refugees into the European Union and astraparis.gr played a key role in the initial reporting on the increases in arrivals of asylum seekers. The news outlet provided on-the-ground reporting and was among the first media outlets in Europe to report allegations of pushbacks of boats by Greek law enforcement authorities, which are illegal under domestic and international law, and which have since become a highly sensitive and controversial topic in Greece. During this time, the news outlet became the target of pressure and intimidation. Stevis has faced hostility on the island for his journalistic work, including being physically attacked by people associated with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in 2016.
Since founding astraparis.gr, Stevis has said he also received warnings of legal action from the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, over his reporting on alleged pushbacks from Chios. When in October 2021 Stevis requested a postponement of the hearing, Mitarachi posted on his Facebook page, writing: “A quiz from Chios: who pretends to be a hero and a fighter on the internet, but asks for postponements in court?” While the post did not mention Stevis by name, it was clear who the Minister was referring to. This led to criticism from Greek journalists and local organisations in Chios about the Minister’s personalised attacks which have added pressure on the small independent media outlet.