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Politics

Mitsotakis Says Media Freedom Criticism “Crap,” Defends Handling

LONDON – At an event in London where he was grilled over Greece’s phone bugging and spyware scandals, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said criticism of media freedom in the country was “crap” and that the Greek press is free.

He was being interviewed by Kevin Featherstone, Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies and Director of the Hellenic Observatory at London School of Economics on a range of issues, including a spyware and phone bugging scandal.

Mitsotakis defended his handling of what became a mini-crisis for his New Democracy government that’s facing a challenge in mid-2023 elections from SYRIZA, the party it unseated in July, 2019 snap elections.

Pressed by Featherstone, he said, “we are pretty certain that sort of illegal spyware has been active in Greece for quite some time, even before we came into power,” taking an indirect shot at SYRIZA, which ruled for 4 ½ years.

“What we are doing in Greece is we’re going to be the first European country to completely ban the sale and use of any illegal software that gives you access to your phone without your permission. Is this going to completely solve the problem? No, but if someone is caught using the software in Greece, he could face jail,” he said, after previously denying his government was using it.

Media freedom groups don’t buy that argument, especially after admissions from the National Intelligence Service EYP that it was bugging the phones of 15,475 people on national security grounds.

That included a rival political leader, Nikos Androulakis of the rising PASOK-KINAL center-left movement who’s also a Member of the European Parliament where he said analysts found an attempt to put Predator spyware on his phone.

Mitsotakis said while the monitoring of Androulakis was legal that he didn’t know about it, wouldn’t have allowed it, and pointed that he forced out his own nephew and key advisor and the head of EYP for not telling him.

But it was a question from the audience that really rankled the Greek leader who broke his cool briefly, when Master’s candidate student Michael Russo said that the news site Politico called “Greece the worst place in Europe for media freedom.”
Mitsotakis snapped back that, “there is no issue in terms of freedom of press in Greece … Greeks in the audience know that we have a vibrant press. You can write anything you want in Greece. We have many TV channels. There’s always two views presented, the government view, the opposition view.”

DANGER SIGNS SEEN

He then said that, “there was one report by a non-governmental organization that ranked Greece 108th in press freedom, behind many dictatorships. Chad was 105th. Sorry, but that is just crap. Excuse my language.”

That was in reference to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), although a number of other media freedom groups as well as a key member of a European Parliament spyware investigative committee also indicated belief that the government was spying on people.

Mitsotakis said, “freedom of the press is not an issue in Greece. If you just look at the daily newspapers, probably three quarters are against the government, very harshly criticizing the government, as they have a right to do,” his office’s website reported in a transcript of the event.

“I would argue Greece has rather weak libel laws. I’ve personally never taken any journalist to court as a matter of principle. I’m not doing this. But some of the things that have been written in Greece about me and my family I mean, if you tried to write these in the UK, I could tell you, you’d be in serious troubled,” he said.
RSF immediately fired back and warned that Greece faced a “truly dangerous cocktail” of press freedom threats, its ratings taking into account the murder of investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz in April, 2021 with no reported progress in the case by police.

Greece has fallen 38 places under Mitsotakis’ rule and “surveillance is a stain on Greek democracy that keeps spreading,” said Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans office.

“Greece is a European country that combines all press freedom problems that exist in other European countries,” he told Agence France-Presse as the issues shows no signs of going away for Mitsotakis with elections next year.
Szalai said Mitsotakis’ government had taken no significant steps to improve press freedom since the ranking was published in May. “There is a real danger that press freedom will deteriorate,” he warned.

He said a key problem in Greece was a lack of pluralism, as media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few prominent businessmen and shipping oligarchs, one of whom is in a running battle with Mitsotakis over who is using spyware.
Regular arson and vandalism attacks against media “perceived as pro-government” are also a concern, however, said Szalai.

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