Rights Court Backs Greek Journalist on Wrongful Conviction

Image of Greek journalist Stratis Balaskas via Courthouse News

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — At a time when dozens of members of Greece’s neo-Nazi party are going to jail, the European Court of Human Rights slammed the country on Thursday for having convicted a journalist who railed against one of the party’s supporters.

Greek journalist Stratis Balaskas was given a three-month suspended sentence for his screed against the principal of the 6th High School in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos.

Identifying the administrator only by the initials, the ruling notes that B.M. had for years run a personal blog where he wrote about race loyalty and other Aryan themes.

“We, as parents, must strive for racial purity,” the headmaster wrote in one post on Aug. 8, 2010.

But it was a post on Nov. 17, 2013 — a day schools are closed to mark the anniversary of a 1973 student uprising that ended Greece’s military dictatorship — that inflamed Balaskas.

B.M. on his blog referred to Polytechnical School uprising as “the ultimate lie (tο απόλυτο ψεύδος).”

Two days later, Balaskas slammed B.M. in an opinion piece for the Lesbos daily newspaper Empros, of which he was editor-in-chief.

Taking affront to being called a “well-known neo-Nazi headmaster,” and “theoretician of the entity ‘Golden Dawn,’” B.M. brought a criminal complaint that accused Balaskas of slanderous defamation. A Greek court agreed and, after Balaskas exhausted his appeals in Greece, he brought a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court found on Thursday that the journalist’s conviction violated the freedom of the press enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights. 

“The domestic courts failed to pay heed to the essential function that the press fulfils in a democratic society,” the seven-judge-panel wrote. 

It directed Greece to refund Balaskas the 1,603.58 euros ($1,900) he paid to avoid serving his jail sentence, plus 10,000 euros ($11,000).

The court was created by the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and hears cases on political freedom and human rights. It is a court of last resort, so applicants must first complete all legal options in their home country before bringing a complaint. 

“There is no worse thing for a journalist than to sit in a courtroom and hear that he has been sentenced to prison for doing his job,” Balaskas told the International Press Institute in 2016, after losing his appeal.

Thursday’s ruling notes that the Greek courts “did not take into account in their assessment: the applicant’s duty as a journalist to impart information on a matter of public interest and the contribution of his article to such a debate.”

B.M.’s fascist views were already well documented by the time Balaskas wrote about him, earning him denouncements by both the Primary School Teachers’ Union and the High School Teachers’ Union. 

“The court accepts that the language used by the applicant could have been considered provocative and that the article was caustic, containing rather serious criticism; however, contrary to the government’s allegations and the domestic courts’ conclusions, it sees no manifestly insulting language in the remarks,” the court found. 

Thursday’s ruling notes that B.M. had “posted twenty‑three articles on his website concerning the Aryan race, national-socialism and the Zionist Jews, and had saved the organisation and editions of Golden Dawn in his favourites.”

A Greek court labeled the Golden Dawn party a criminal organization on Oct. 7. The landmark ruling included lengthy prison sentences for multiple party leaders convicted of hate crimes and murder. At least one of the party leaders is evading arrest.

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