ATHENS – New independent journalism sites in Greece are revealing state surveillance cases avoided by mainstream media sites but are facing being spied on themselves and facing so-called SLAPP suits to silence them.
The new journalism sites are aggressive in going after news that’s typically downplayed by traditional media groups, most having ties to political parties or leanings that see them veer away from news unfavorable to who they like.
In a feature, EuroNews said their work is being hindered by the threat of state surveillance and costly court cases, often through so-called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation suits.
They are brought by rich and powerful interests and governments with the intention to bury media companies and journalists under the weight of crushing legal costs to deter them from reporting.
The news sites have popped up as Greece has fallen precipitously in media freedom under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government, the country ranked 108th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index.
That’s the worst in the European Union and brought a barrage of complaints and retorts from Mitsotakis and some of his officials even though the government was also criticized for passing a law against fake news – aimed at COVID stories – that could see reporters prosecuted.
Mitsotakis said the ranking was “crap” and that, “We have a vibrant press, you can read everything you want in Greece,” even as he’s struggling to deal with unrelenting stories – mostly from the independent sites – about a phone bugging scandal and the use of Predator spyware, denied by his government.
Nikolas Leontopoulos, an editor at Reporters United, told EuroNews that, “We do have freedom of opinion, but there are some very sensitive issues that don’t even make it to the news,” a kind of de facto self-censoring.
“Although their silence was unimaginable, it was an opportunity for us,” Leontopoulos told the Global Investigative Journalism Network about the benefit of not being reliant on political parties or rich businessmen with vested interests.
“There are exceptional reporters in mainstream media who have the right connections that could grant them access to cover this story,” Leontopoulos adds. “But if they had been actually free to do it, we wouldn’t have a reason to exist.”
He said that, “For the first two years of our existence no one paid attention to us,” he notes. “We’re gradually seeing that public actors and authorities are not only starting to respond to our findings but they’re also attacking us”.
The Athens-based news outlet in January reported that a high-ranking police officer was promoted while being investigated in a corruption case which Leontopoulos said was known by other journalists but went unreported.
At the beginning of 2022, Reporters United revealed a change in privacy laws – tucked into a pandemic bill – which barred citizens from the right to know if they were being monitored.
CHECKING FOR BUGS
The National Intelligence Service EYP – after stories emerged – admitted it bugged the cell phones of 15,475 and it turned out some were government ministers as well as rivals, journalists and business leaders.
“Many jurists and well-networked journalists had known about the amendment for months, and we found out some had even informally protested with the government. But no one broke the story to the public” said Leontopoulos.
Giorgos Karaivaz, a senior reporter investigating police corruption and reportedly close to some underworld figures, was shot dead in front of his house in Athens in April 2020 and there’s been almost no progress in the case.
There are others like Reporters United who are unafraid of repercussions and don’t rely on government advertisements or connections and have ruffled a lot of feathers in the country, particularly in the government.
Editors at Reporters United were sued for hundreds of thousands of euros for a story about Mitsotakis’ nephew – and his then-advisor Grigoris Dimitriades, who quit after the phone bugging scandal was revealed.
The piece was about ties he allegedly had with the spyware industry that was allowed to have an office in Athens, further piling pressure on the government as it kept denying using Predator.
“Even if you are not going to lose the case, these lawsuits cost a lot, and take up your time and energy,” Stavros Malichudis, an investigative reporter at non-profit outfit Solomon, told Euronews.
He was the first journalist found to have been placed under state surveillance while reporting on migration issues on the island of Kos, and another – Thanasis Koukakis – said his phone was bugged and infected with Predator.
There’s an intertwining of political and business and media interests in Greece that a long-running economic and austerity crisis and then the pandemic saw news groups more reliant on political parties and advertisers, the report noted.
In Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report, Greece ranked lowest across 46 countries in terms of the share of citizens thinking that the press is free from undue political or business influence.
“From shipping to energy and the banking sector, self-censorship in the mainstream media has become systematic since 2010,” Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou, a journalist at investigative outfit The Manifold, which reports on police violence, told the news site.
InsideStory and Reporters United kept reporting on the surveillance scandal so much that mainstream media had to follow suit to keep any kind of credibility as the revelations emerged.
Reporters United operates on a yearly budget of 50,000 euros ($53,254) which is mostly self-funded and supplemented by revenue from collaborations with foreign media, but refuses any government money.
Eliza Triantafillou, a journalist at InsideStory said that, “The alleged disengagement of the public with the surveillance issue was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” although the independent sites have to rely on subscribers.
“It’s just enough money to stay afloat,” she said.