The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), on Wednesday expressed concern over excessive fines imposed on two Turkish-language minority publications in Greece, Gundem and Millet, which could result in the closure of the papers and even imprisonment for their journalists if they cannot afford to pay the stipulated fines: 150 000EUR for Gundem and 120 000EUR for Millet. On 6 May 2011, the Court of Appeal in Komotini, Western Thrace, is expected to revise both court sentences.
Gundem and Millet are minority publications with three journalists each and a circulation of about one thousand copies. Their readership is the Turkish-speaking minority concentrated in Western Thrace, northeastern Greece, bordering Bulgaria and Turkey.
In January 2011, both weeklies published a story about a local teacher who had volunteered to come from the capital, Athens, and work in the village of Mega Derio (Buyuk Derbent), and who allegedly asked her primary school pupils to draw a picture of God. Many of the children are Muslims, and since Islam prohibits the depiction of God they refused to comply with the teacher's request, and complained to their parents. Both newspapers reported on the incident and were subsequently sued by the teacher.
The incident gained nationwide publicity because of the excessive fines. Analysing Greek media laws, the Athens-based daily Eleftherotypia newspaper recalled that the court had based its ruling on the fact that the story´s impact went beyond the local community since it was taken up by the Greek national media.
Eleftherotypia noted that the law stipulates that for a national publication the minimum fine is 29,325 EUR while for a local one it is 5,865 EUR. In other words, the fines of 150 000EUR and 120 000 EUR go far beyond the stipulated legal amounts. They could result in up to ten months imprisonment for the journalists if they are unable to pay. In a related development, while waiting for the Court of Appeal session, the teacher´s lawyer asked for a partial advance payment of the fine: 32,600 EUR from Gundem and 22,300EUR from Millet. Since the papers did not pay, in April 2011 the personal bank accounts of four journalists were blocked.
SEEMO is concerned that excessive fines could silence the minority press in Greece.
"As a European Union country, Greece is expected to uphold the highest standards of minority rights and respect cultural diversity," declared Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General.