Besides safety measure failures, a head-on train collision in Greece that killed 57 people also revealed how the country’s partisan media neglected to report on warnings that a tragedy was imminent, apologizing for it.
After Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis first blamed it on “human error,” media reports – most by foreign sites – reported on a series of failures to implement safety measures, leading him to say he was sorry for the disaster.
Writing for The Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalist Jon Allsop said a narrative to essentially defend and protect Mitsotakis from criticism was pushed by pro-government media before being dismantled by independent sites.
It’s a common practice in Greece where much of the media is tied to political parties or leanings to get lucrative government contracts that see criticism of those in power muted or set aside.
It was so embarrassing to journalism in the country as foreign media freedom sites said Mitsotakis had stifled the press that the Athens Journalists Union representing major daily newspapers also did a mea culpa.
It said that reporters were also responsible for not writing about railways problems for years, the union issuing a statement that major Greek news organizations had largely downplayed repeated warnings from rail unions that the system was unsafe.
They instead had blamed what it called “structural problems,” a typical boilerplate phrasing to indicate forces beyond control are at fault although negligence is an open secret in the country, especially to journalists.
“As long as the media distance themselves from their mission to serve as a check on power, as long as the prioritization of news is dominated by criteria unrelated to the defense of the public interest, as long as media companies are limited to operating simply as businesses and in terms of television ratings and traffic, as long as journalists are limited in investigating, then the institutional guarantees for the functioning of the state will be weakened,” the statement said.
But then, after a short mourning period for the dead, newspapers and news sites and broadcasters went right back to doing the same, taking sides with their favorites with elections coming in May.
There were warning signs on the rails ahead for years but they went largely unreported in the media despite railway workers unions predicting a tragedy coming – including a few weeks before the catastrophe.
After a relatively minor incident just weeks before the recent crash, one union wrote that it wouldn’t “wait for the accident which is about to happen to see everyone shed crocodile tears.”
There was some media coverage of these warnings prior to the crash. Almost exactly a year before the tragedy, journalist Eurydice Bersi published a series of stories about the state of the Greek rail system, including on its understaffing problem, for Reporters United, a Greek investigative journalism network – part of a transnational project coordinated by a collective called Investigate Europe.
Bersi’s stories ran on the front page of EfSyn, a left-leaning national newspaper – but they, along with other rail stories, were rarely picked up by bigger print titles or TV and radio networks, wrote Allsop.
“In Greece, we say that one cuckoo doesn’t bring spring: It’s not that there were no reports… it’s that the emphasis was not there,” Bersi told him. “When (the recent crash) happened, and the entire country was in shock, my reaction was, Oh, it did happen in the end.”
Added Allsop: “Greek journalists with whom I spoke for this piece told me that the relative lack of attention paid to the rail-safety story in recent years reflects a broader deficit of hard-hitting accountability journalism in the country’s mass media.”
Bersi told him that major outlets have never really invested in investigative journalism. “The first time I saw an investigative team inside a newspaper was in the movie Spotlight, and I’ve worked in the mainstream press for 24 years,” she said.
Greece’s media, like most sectors apart from the rich, Parliament workers, shipping oligarchs, big business and the politically connected, were adversely affected by a 2010-18 economic and austerity crisis.
That led to sharp cuts and spurred a further consolidation of media ownership among powerful business interests, many of them with ties to the political elite, the report said.
A delegation from the European Parliament investigating media freedom came to Greece but was shunned by the government and the lawmakers later said there was reluctance by the media to report on the powerful.
Greek investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz did, specializing in reporting on police wrongdoing, corruption and the mob and was gunned down outside his Athens home in April 2021, no reported progress in his case.
“Media ownership by a small number of oligarchs negatively impacts media pluralism, resulting in dramatic under-reporting on certain topics,” the EU lawmakers committee said, Greece ranking 108th in the world among 184 countries on Reporters Without Borders media freedom scale.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government passed a law criminalizing the dissemination of “fake news,” not only on public health but in matters of economics and defense and providing jail penalties putting journalists and independent media at risk.
The tragedy at Tempi on the Athens-Thessaloniki line was so devastating that it shook up the media and brought critical reporting of the government, even by Kathimerini, one of the country’s leading outlets that is reluctant to take a hard line on the ruling New Democracy.
“Because this was such a tragic story—because there were people who had just lost their children, their relatives, their friends coming live on TV and speaking to anchors back in Athens—it felt like that broke news anchors and journalists in Athens in a way that I haven’t seen in the past,” Lydia Emmanouilidou, an independent journalist who has covered the crash for NPR, told Allsop. “I saw an anger and frustration,” she added.
It also saw a backlash on social media not just against the government but timid media outlets who align themselves with politicians and political positions to protect their financial interests, many sites in the hands of the rich and shipping oligarchs who are untaxed and unchallenged.
“The people who are on our screens, sitting in their studios in Athens, are humans, too,” Emmanouilidou said. “They have to take public transportation sometimes. Me and my friends, we were looking at each other and thinking, as people who take the metro, Are we just alive out of luck?”