BRUSSELS—Europe’s anti-fraud watchdog is investigating the possible misuse of EU funds earmarked to provide food for refugees stranded in Greece, after allegations of financial mismanagement were reported by officials.
Investigators at the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) were called in by the European Commission after “alleged irregularities” were highlighted in information submitted to officials in Brussels last year.
On Sept. 25, it emerged that three Greek journalists had been detained by police over an article that alleged EU funds that were meant to improve the conditions of a migrant camp in the country had been misused.
The trio, from Greek daily Fileleftheros, spent Saturday night in the cells at an Athens police station after the country’s Defense Minister Panos Kammenos brought a defamation action against them over the story.
The article alleged some of the recipients of the EU funding, to provide food at a refugee “hotspot” near the village of Moria on the island of Lesbos, were businessmen linked to Kammenos.
It claimed that some of those businesses had overcharged for contracts providing catering services and had often not taken part in competitive tenders to secure the work.
Reporters Without Borders named the three journalists detained as publisher Thanassis Mavridis, editor Panayiotis Lampsias, and political reporter Katerina Galanou.
On Sept. 26, both the European Commission and OLAF confirmed that an investigation into possible misuse of funds is ongoing but declined to comment on specifics or directly link it to the newspaper article.
European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said officials decided to refer the case for investigation following allegations of misconduct that were “not made by us, but that we were made aware of.”
She added: “We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. The EU has very clear rules about how our funds are managed and a very strict monitoring system to ensure and verify that all funds have been correctly spent.”
Bertaud said the Commission representatives have visited the project on two occasions to verify the project is proceeding as planned, and didn’t find any evidence of misuse of funds.
However, she said that the Commission’s visits only determined the project in question existed and that food was being provided.
“We are not competent to investigate any allegations of illegitimate profits by catering companies,” she said, noting that OLAF is the only EU body that can investigate fraud related to EU funds.
In a statement, OLAF said it was conducting an investigation into “alleged irregularities concerning the provision of EU-funded food for refugees in Greece.”
The statement added: “As the investigation is on-going, OLAF cannot issue any further comment at this stage. The fact that OLAF is examining the matter does not mean that any persons or entities involved have committed an irregularity or fraud.”
The three Greek journalists were detained after voluntarily presenting themselves to police. Greek law regards defamation as a “flagrant” crime, meaning anyone who is accused of it is immediately arrested.
However, the decision to lock up the trio for the night drew sharp criticism both at home and abroad with press freedom campaigners urging Greece to change its “retrograde” law on libel.
“We condemn the disproportionate arrest of journalists for daring to criticize a government minister,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, head of the Reporters Without Borders EU-Balkans desk.
“The Greek authorities must repeal such retrograde provisions as use of the category of ‘flagrant’ crime to detain journalists in connection with their reporting.”
Domestic opponents also heavily criticized the move, with the conservative opposition party New Democracy accusing the defense minister of “thuggery” over the defamation action.