ΑΤΗΕΝS – These are tough times for Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ embattled government with elections coming in 2023 – dealing with record inflation, Turkish provocations, soaring electric and food bills and households struggling to make ends meet while tourists frolic freely and spend wildly.
But the toughest perhaps is trying to deal with a burgeoning spyware and phone tapping scandal involving a political rival and a financial journalist at the same time, finding himself accused of trying to hold down dissent and stifling media freedom.
In a feature, POLITICO pointed out the dilemma he’s facing, noting the country’s free press record since he took office in July, 2019 snap elections in ousting the Radical Left SYRIZA is now the worst in the European Union.
Worse than Hungary, where there’s a near-dictatorship and Prime Minister Viktor Orban is trying to stamp out any media not friendly to him, Greece in Reporters Without Borders rankings falling behind Bulgaria in EU ratings.
That showed Greece 108 out of 180 countries, sliding precipitously by 38 places in a year, after the government rammed through the Parliament it controls a vague ‘Fake News’ law that could jail reporters and editors.
That was aimed at preventing wrong information about the lingering if waning COVID-19 pandemic, but critics and media groups said it’s so vague that it could be applied to virtually anyone – especially those critical of the government.
The news site noted that Mitsotakis has since admitted it was a law too far and that it “was not very successful; if I were to do that again, I probably would not.” But it remains on the books, it was pointed out.
Mitsotakis said the complaints about media freedom dangers are wrong and the government has said that freedom of the press is in the Constitution, but critics said there’s a way around it – doling out state ad money to favorable media for one.
Trying to put that criticism to rest, Mitsotakis addressed the European Parliament and held up two newspaper front pages critical of his administration and said that, “Greece is a country where everyone can write and publish whatever they want about anyone, without any censorship and no government control.”
Greeks don’t believe it though. A Reuters Institute poll of 46 countries showed Greeks trust in a free press was the lowest, with only 7 percent believing there’s no political interference and 8 percent saying businesses squeeze journalists and media to restrain them.
A REAL POWDERKEG
“Due to the financial situation, media owners have handed over the keys of their businesses to the government,” Tasos Telloglou, a noted investigative reporter told the site. “This, combined with a government that believes that it does nothing wrong, is an explosive combination,” he added.
Media freedom and civil rights groups and EU investigators, it was said, warned that Greece has been backsliding for years, the country’s 2010-18 financial and economic crisis leaving newspapers and media dependent on government ads.
For journalists, it’s become personal and worrying as they face social media and online threats and even assaults, the April 2021 murder of investigative reporter Gioros Karaivaz not only unsolved but no apparent progress in the case after Mitsotakis vowed to get to the bottom of it.
What’s behind the media freedom decline?
The report cited the Fake News law, government funding for ad programs for friendly media – the International Press Institute said it wasn’t given to critical media outlets – and journalists complaining of being squeezed.
In 2020, journalist Dimitra Kroustalli resigned from the newspaper To Vima, citing “suffocating pressure” from the prime minister’s office after publishing a censorious report on coronavirus case monitoring.
“It turned into internal tension and brought me to the dilemma: personal and professional humiliation or resignation?” she posted on Facebook, the report also noted about the chilling effect on reporters.
The EU, always reluctant to be aggressive with member states, did however note in its annual Rule-of-Law report that there were concerns about media freedom in Greece, more so under the Conservatives government.
All that comes as Mitsotakis said he was never informed about the National Intelligence Service (EYP) tapping the phone of PASOK Socialist leader – and Member of the European Parliament Nikos Androulakis.
The Socialist leader also said the European Parliament found an attempt to put Predator spyware on his phone – blaming EYP – after the spy service admitted hacking into the phone of journalist Thanasis Koukakis, who writes about money laundering and corruption.
Mitsotakis forced out then EYP chief Panagiotis Kontoleon and the Premier did the same to his office’s General-Secretary – and nephew – Grigoris Dimitriadis, for also keeping him out of the loop about the phone tapping and spyware embarrassments.
Enmity is ongoing. Dimitriadis denied any wrongdoing and filed suits against media outlets reporting the story, ironically keeping it alive while most Greeks in August are away at their villages or islands.
But the Parliament is being called back early from summer recess to debate the spyware and phone tapping issues and Androulakis – who went to the country’s highest court seeking answers – demanded an investigation that’s coming.