European Commission Vice-President for Values & Transparency, Věra Jourová, noted that during her recent visit to Athens she did not only receive firm assurances, but also confirmed herself, that the Greek government is sincerely intending to proceed with reforms in mass media, and also in protecting personal data, in full cooperation with the European Union.
Jourová was speaking in an interview to Athens-Macedonian News Agency’s (ANA-MPA) President & General Director, Emilios Perdikaris, held in the European official’s Brussels office.
Asked about her overall feeling after visiting Athens and holding several meetings there, she said that she returned to Brussels “convinced that we did good work together,” and that “due to the commitments made, I believe that we will move forward, which is good when pursued not through interventions, but through dialogue.”
Elaborating on the notion of dialogue and beyond it, she added that “it was very important that I spoke with Prime Minister [Kyriakos Mitsotakis] and also with the main opposition party leader [Alexis Tsipras] a day earlier, so that I could compare what I heard from both.”
Furthermore, she said that she spoke “with the justice minister, the government’s representative, the ombudsman and also with the media task force -which was my final meeting- and which was the ‘jewel in the crown’, because there I saw significant commitment and a broad platform [of considerations].”
Jourová noted that she “met people who can make changes and bring results, and the result I wish for Greece is for journalists to be more secure in their work. Furthermore, it is a matter of security that illegal surveillance software is not used against them, and that the media does not succumb to financial or political pressure.”
Talking more about the commitments she was given by the Greek side while in Athens, she said that these concern, first and foremost, “the rules and regulations regarding surveillance for reasons of national security, and the investigation of what exactly was illegal in recent cases; also about the Penal Code, which still contains the disinformation provision and the five years’ imprisonment, which I understand was adopted during the pandemic, but which now could have a negative impact on journalists, while I also heard the prime minister say that its abolition is being considered.”
She then pointed out that she would like to see the media task force “take concrete steps within a reasonable time frame, which can guarantee the safety of journalists.”
“So I came back, and I thought that if Greek authorities do all this, then we will see a real improvement in the situation, which will have a positive impact on how others see the country, because problems in media concern the country’s reputation. There is one more issue: the use of spyware and the protection of personal data. The prime minister told me that there are plans to integrate EU legislation into Greek law regarding data protection and technology, and I take that very seriously, because when we see illegal software being used in several countries, then it becomes a serious problem for democracy in Europe.”
“In other words,” she emphasized, “if you buy software to monitor political opponents or journalists, that is practically the end of democracy as we know it.”
Therefore, she observed, “the work has begun,” and “I want to be clear that there is satisfaction, but, at the same time, a lot of work still needs to be done on both sides, and we are partners in this. From this point of view, I am satisfied, because I feel that there is a [firm] will.”
Jourová was then asked about the broader aim regarding these issues, with the question posed as being based on a recent statement of hers in which she had said that the problem with mass media is not exclusive to Greece, and that this is the reasoning for presenting the Media Freedom Act.
To this question, Jourová replied that mass media “is under pressure everywhere, because advertisers give, say, their money to Google and all the other platforms. We see, everywhere, that citizens’ trust in the media is shrinking, which is happening in all countries but in varying degrees of intensity.”
“In countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, trust is high, because there is not as much pressure from politicians on journalistic content, and the media’s financial state is not that bad. But when we look at the map of Europe we see the media outlook getting worse as we move southwards and eastwards; this is a symptom of our times. And yes, all this is why we adopted the Media Freedom Act, which is not so much related to the financial state of the media, but it relates mostly to pressures from politicians, or from individuals, who seek political influence by purchasing media.”
Perdikaris then asked Jourová if it is financial and political pressures alone that create these problems, or misinformation is to blame too, and how the latter should be dealt with.
Considering this “a very good question,” she proceeded to answer it by saying that she sees “a very close connection between the empowerment of the media and our ability to fight misinformation: when citizens’ trust in the media decreases, disinformation increases, proportionally, even more, and this is dangerous. We need strong media and professionals who must work with-and-through evidence and truths, who must be present where it is happening, and also be able to identify and understand facts correctly, professional journalists who will fight misinformation. Sometimes I hear from journalists that they are reduced to mere fact-checkers.”
ANA-MPA’s Director Perdikaris then asked her if misinformation concerns only mass media or social media too, to which Jourová said that social media “belong with the platforms in the advertising industry,” and that she would not so much label these as ‘media’: “at the same time we push these [social media] to be more responsible for their content, and here the rules we have adopted are clear and must govern all types of media, that their ownership status be clean, that they should have moral standards, and therefore [be in a position to] enjoy a privileged treatment. The same applies to public media.”
Continuing, Perdikaris noted that Jourová recently said that there exists a digital ‘wild West’ upon which rules should be set, to which she replied that she could also “say the same about the ‘wild East’, before she added that “the digital world, for a long time, had no rules and standards, and in the last 20 years citizens turned to this world without any protection. This led to the production of money in the ‘absence’ of citizens, with which everything can be bought, even political influence. But this is very, very dangerous, and that’s what I mean by ‘wild West’.”
Europe, Perdikaris said, is experiencing a war, while the energy crisis births fears about the upcoming winter, asking Jourová if Russia’s attempts in misinformation could worsen the situation, and how this could be tackled.
To this, she said that “first of all, we, the democrats, must assure citizens that there will be no misinformation, and help them survive this winter, even with some sacrifices; that Europeans will stand by Ukrainians, and continue to strongly support them.”
“People are willing to sacrifice a lot, but they don’t want to freeze or starve. This is why I think that, above all, we have to guarantee their protection, safety, and a basic standard of living for them.”
“Putin is wrong when he says we are destroying ourselves with [our] sanctions [against Russia]. Sanctions are, indeed, successful, and we should explain to our citizens what we are doing, and assure them that they will be able to maintain a relatively good standard of living,” Jourová asserted.