The case of Kathimerini newspaper, which led to the resignation of its director Andreas Paraschos, is a typical example of the existing relations and roles of journalists, media owners and the authorities. The role of the government, overtly or under cover, was rightly pointed out as a major issue of concern, given its negative effects, which go as far as silencing journalists and cancelling the role of the media. The case, however, reveals more issues and raises important questions about journalistic independence, the owners’ interference in journalistic work, but also the owners’ relationship with the authorities. In this article I will limit myself exclusively on analysing the announcement of the newspaper, what is mentioned in it or left to be understood.
From the announcement we learn that the “publisher and the legal advisor of the newspaper” sought to check the accuracy of, or rather, whether there could be any evidence to substantiate the allegation that the President of the Republic referred to profits of 300 million from the Golden Passports, a reference that the newspaper described in its announcement as ‘charges’. Of course, there is a significant gap between a claim or allegation and an ‘accusation’.
The first question to answer is whether this intervention is an interference with journalistic work, or even, more specifically, in editorial independence. Can media owners interfere with the work of journalists? Definitely, the owners cannot interfere in the production of content and its publication. It is important, however, in this case that the intervention was not made during the process of content production, it was done a posteriori, for verification purposes. Strictly speaking, similar, even post-production, intervention has a negative effect on the journalist’s future work, and therefore on his or her independence. Responsible media assign the role of control and compliance with ethical standards to a dedicated quality and ethics audit team, which should consist of editorial staff, not administrators or third parties. Otherwise, interference by administrators or third parties is a violation of editorial independence. In this case, the intervention to confirm whether allegations could be documented are considered as legitimate, however, up to this point.
Beyond this line, the intervention of the media owner and the legal advisor has acquired another meaning, becoming an act that openly neutralises and cancels the journalist, who also happened to be the newspaper’s director. Multiple questions are raised at this point, the main one being that the owner runs towards the political power to declare that they were wrong to have the article published. They did not say whether any demarche by the President was made before, or that the letter was sent by the owner of his own initiative. Whatever the case, this suggests a subservient behavior.
If no protest, of any kind from the person concerned, had preceded, the action of the owner is a clear paradox for the fourth power, to apologize proactively. This, on the one hand, means that it takes the floor on behalf of the journalist (s), which does not belong to the owners, on the other hand, it leaves its director irreparably exposed.
But what if the person concerned intervened and protested? In such a case the owner could point out the options he had, ask for his views to be published, refuting the allegation, or even demand an apology from the media. Even in the case these two actions were done, the person concerned had the right and the opportunity to bring the case before the courts, for defamation, had he considered that he had a case. Of course, similar actions are not recommended, because they are considered to lead to a ‘freezing’ of free expression (chilling effect).
Instead of acting I the ways described above, the interference took the form of pressure and coercion on the journalist to apologize. This is an even more paradoxical approach, for a media owner to intervene in order to impose on a journalist an action of a purely journalistic nature, an action which clearly violates editorial independence. Let us not forget at this point that while a media, as an organization, is responsible for everything that is published, on the one hand, it cannot impose on a journalist what to say or deny, while, on the other hand, an apology published by journalists does not exempt the organization from the responsibility for the specific publication.
What could be the solution? As I have already mentioned, there could be a publication of the position of the person concerned, the President of the Republic, but also of the owner of the media, in which he could state that he does not share the views expressed. I clearly state “does not share”, not another term. Obviously, such actions do not invalidate the right of the person concerned, if he deems that he has a case of libel / defamation, to file a lawsuit with the courts. Not recommended, as already said, but the right remains valid!
An important point in this case is the position of the owner, the argument on which he based the whole issue: He asked whether there was any “evidence”, while at the same time adopting the assumption that an allegation, such as the one made by the journalist, constituted “accusations”. Starting from the second point, it is clear that a claim in a report that something took place can be either valid or unfounded. There is a long way to go before the claim can become a charge. It is also important that the allegation was published in an opinion article, in the form of a comment, not in a reportage and in the form of an acceptable fact. At this point lies the erroneous requirement for evidence, which is essentially a legal presumption, but not one that applies in the exercise of journalistic work, in the production of material for publication. Otherwise, no ‘off the record’ news would be published, no “information from an official source”, no information by “competent sources who requested anonymity” could find their place in the media without proof.
The culmination of the paradox: The media and the newspaper itself, invoked a refutation of the allegation reported by the news agency KYPE-CNA, coming from a “SYRIZA source”. But, can we accept information with source A or B or C, without proof, a statement, a name, specific and documented? This was followed by a statement from Alexis Tsipras, who clearly denied that such comments (as in the published article) were made, concluding that “such a discussion could not have anything to do with reality.” It seems that the “SYRIZA sources” were not sufficient enough for rejecting the allegation, there was a need for a stronger testimony!
Four days after the article was published, the reaction of the interested party, the President of the Republic, took place. His statement referred to an “orchestrated attempt to tarnish” his name, even warning that “tolerance has its limits”. A clear threat to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. It is, at least, paradoxical that such a very serious incident, an “orchestrated attempt to tarnish” the reputation of the President, took four days to trigger his reaction, with a public statement.