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Politics

Mitsotakis’ Ex-Aide Hits Journalists With Spyware SLAPP Suits

ATHENS – A former top aide to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – his nephew Grigoris Dimitriadis – who stepped down over the Predator spyware scandal, has sued media outlets in an attempt to silence their reporting over the story.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was concerned that what amounts to SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuits were brought to chill journalists and scare them away from writing about the scandal.

Dimitriadis, sued two media outlets, said RSF, after National Intelligence Service (EYP) chief Pangiotis Kontoleon, said Reuters, reportedly admitted to a parliamentary committee that Predator was put on the phone of financial reporter Thanasis Koukakis.

The media outlets being sued reported the Koukakis case and said that Dimitriadis had dealings with Intellexa, an Israeli company that sells the Predator spyware that was manufactured in North Macedonia and sold to Greece.

In his suit against the Reporters United website and Nikolas Leontopoulos and Thodoris Chondrogiannos, the two journalists who wrote its article, Dimitriadis is seeking 150,000 euros ($152,640) in damages and a retraction.

The suit against the newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton (EfSyn) is seeking 250,000 euros ($254,400) in damages for its 4 August story about the Predator scandal.

He has also sued Koukakis, the target of the spying, demanding the withdrawal of a tweet about the Reporters United and EfSyn revelations in what seemed to be a further attempt to quash the story.

“The decision to sue Thanasis Koukakis and the journalists who investigated the surveillance to which he was subjected instead of trying to shed light on the surveillance itself is deplorable,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.

“We call on Grigoris Dimitriadis to immediately withdraw his abusive lawsuits against Reporters United, EfSyn and Thanasis Koukakis, the sole aim of which is to intimidate journalists, and we urge the government to reestablish a relationship of trust with the journalistic community,” he added.

He also said the government should speed investigations into spying on journalists and the role that EYP had in it as well.

“An analysis of the financial transactions of companies selling the Predator spyware, and their potential relations with companies that are state subcontractors, is also essential,” said RSF.

Dimitriadis said he quit as Mitsotakis’ General-Secretarys to “disconnect the surveillance case from the Prime Minister’s environment,” a few hours before Kontoleon said he quit “after wrongdoing was found in the legal wiretapping procedure,” said a statement from Mitsotakis’ office.

Kontoleon admitted to a parliamentary committee that the EYP spied on Koukakis in 2020 but did not say why, said Reuters, citing two unnamed members of the panel about his testimony.

“The lack of transparency about the reasons for placing Koukakis under surveillance has raised questions about the measure’s legality. In the absence of solid grounds for suspecting a national security threat, such surveillance would constitute a serious press freedom violation,” said RSF.

Koukakis is an investigative reporter who has covered financial issues and banking scandals. He conducted a major investigation into the Piraeus Bank and its former director, the banker Michalis Sallas, and was working on this case at the time of the surveillance, the media freedom site added.

Citing national security grounds, EYP reportedly asked telephone operator Cosmote to suspend the confidentiality of his communications to permit the surveillance, which ended when he asked the Authority for the Security of Communications and the Protection of Privacy (ADAE) to investigate potential illegal tapping.

IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST

In his request, which RSF has seen, he said he had been told “by a third party” that there existed transcripts of his private conversations and Kathimerini said EYP got phone privacy lifted for 15,700 people not identified.

Following Koukakis’s request, the law allowing anyone placed under surveillance to be notified was amended in March 2021 to eliminate this transparency requirement for surveillance conducted on national security grounds.

Koukakis said that the government used this amendment so that the ADAE would not have to notify him about his surveillance and that the privacy agency then told him that, “No event was found to constitute a violation to the law.”

It was after this initial surveillance that Koukakis became a Predator spyware victim, with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab in March 2022, analyzed by InsideStory revealing that a Predator infection of his phone violated the confidentiality of his communications.

Predator turns a victim’s phone into a sophisticated surveillance tool that can record messages and calls, including those made by means of encrypted apps, turn on the phone’s microphone and camera, and access passwords, files, browsing history and other data.

Nikos Androulakis, a Member of the European Parliament and leader of Greece’s center-left PASOK-KINAL party that is surging after he was elected in December, 2021, said EYP bugged his phone and that an attempt was made to install Predator.

He said that was discovered by the European Parliament’s research lab and he has sued trying to get to the bottom of who was behind it and why, and spurned Mitsotakis’ offer of a briefing although the Premier denied knowing about the bugging, apologized for it and said he never would have allowed it.

Androulakis said he believes it was done by EYP and not a private individual because Predator costs 14 million euros ($14.27 million) to obtain, making it available only to governments or the super-rich who want to spy on people.

“The Greek authorities have not rushed to identify the private individuals who might possess this spyware and have yet to verify the bank accounts of the companies linked to Predator in Greece, Intellexa and Crickel,” said RSF.

Koukakis said: “Revelations are expected in the coming days, directly showing that people close to the prime minister’s immediate circle have relations with representatives of Intellexa, which for four years has signed contracts with the Greek state for security systems for the police and the Ministry of Citizen Protection.”

Another journalist, Stavros Malichudis, who has covered the “migrant crisis” that’s especially sensitive because the governent has been accused of unlawful pushbacks, was being spied on by the EYP in 2021, said RSF.

He said he discovered that from from an EfSyn article about the surveillance of persons working on migrant issues including International Organisation for Migration personnel and reporters.

In response to that article, Mitsotakis’ spokesman said in November 2021 that the EYP’s role was to monitor “threats to the security of citizens and the proper functioning of society.”

Greece is ranked 108th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest position in the European Union – even worse than Hungary, which is a near dictatorship and where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is openly trying to silence all critical media.

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