ATHENS – While the New Democracy government said national security requires phone bugging – but denied using Predator spyware – some Greek journalists said they believe they’re being tracked, and they are especially anxious in the wake of the unsolved murder of investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz.
In a piece for The New York Times, Lauren Markham and Lydia Emmanouilidou, who write about Greece’s ongoing struggles to deal with refugees and migrants, outlined their case that journalists are at risk. It includes allegations about spyware, surveillance, police arresting reporters, violence against journalists, and the media’s reliance on government ads, which works to keep it in line to prevent criticism of the government.
They also noted a so-called ‘Fake News’ law that was passed ostensibly to bar the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-vaxxers conspiracy theories but which could see journalists jailed if stories cause “concern or fear to the public or shattering public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity, or public health.”
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said surveillance is necessary and in the national interest where warranted and added that his government has become the first to move to bar the sale of spyware.
Government spokesman Ioannis Oikonomou said that growing media reports about a so-called spy scandal aren’t warranted by the reality of what is needed to protect agencies and the public, rejecting assertions of improper surveillance.
“Democratic values like the rule of law, freedom of speech and transparency are at the very heart of what the government of Greece stands for,” Oikonomou said. “To suggest otherwise is simply wrong,” he added.
Oikonomou shrugged that off and told the paper that, “Greece has a vibrant, diverse, and open media,” adding, “a cursory look at any newsstand in Greece shows a vast plurality of titles, many of which hold the government and public officials to account on a daily basis, and in the strongest possible terms.”
But the story isn’t going away although a parliamentary panel controlled by ruling party members that was designed to probe surveillance barred any revelations of its discussions or findings, under the penalty of prosecution.
That, said the report, has left reporting not to mainstream media shying away from the story but smaller, independent investigative sites as well as the real thorn in the side of the government, Documento.
That’s a news site run by journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, which is said to be close to the major opposition SYRIZA that has picked up the cudgel against New Democracy as the two dominant parties will square off again in 2023 elections.
Journalists have complaints and told them to a European Parliament panel investigating the use of spyware that came to Athens and to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists during a media freedom mission to the country.
What’s most chilling for reporters though is the broad daylight gunning down of Karaivaz outside his Athens home in April, 2021 with no reported progress in the case and media freedom groups lamenting it.
GOING AFTER THE MESSENGERS
Karaivaz was said to be close to both police – whom he was said he was investigating for corruption – and to underworld gangster figures, but it didn’t protect him and police said he was killed in a “Mafia-like death contract.”
This year two Greek journalists discovered makeshift bombs outside their homes, and in early October, the American photojournalist Ryan Thomas was physically attacked by riot police while covering a demonstration in the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia in Athens, protesting plans for a new Metro top.
Just recently, Nikos Pilos, a renowned photojournalist, was arrested while covering police hunting for a suspect of a firebomb attack on the offices of a media company, adding to reporters anxiety.
Stavros Malichudis, who specializes in covering migration stories, said he found out from the left-leaning EFSYN site earlier that EYP was tapping the phones of those doing work related to refugees and discovered he was one.
“I got really scared,” he told the newspaper. “When I talked with my mother, with my friends, with my sources, I felt really exposed.” He largely stopped using his phone, he said.
Since then, financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis said his phone was bugged – which EYP admitted after it was found the service was also listening in on the phone calls of PASOK Socialist leader Nikos Androulakis. He’s also a Member of the European Parliament and said analysts there also found an attempt was made to put Predator on his phone. That’s made by a North Macedonia company but now operated by Intellexa, which has offices in Athens.
The surveillance against journalists has caused Greece to drop from 70th to 108th place in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom report – the lowest ranking in all of Europe, the story noted.
It pointed to the irony of what it said was clamps put on media freedom in country which established democracy and now accused of trying to stifle it for political purposes, and the disinterest among Greek society.
Eliza Triantafillou, an investigative journalist for Reporters United, who broke spyware stories, told the EU lawmakers on their visit that major Greek media are staying far away from it.
“Two very small media outlets, with very limited resources … And for all the big media – newspapers, radio, TV – the story did not exist,” she said of the efforts of her site and Documento.
It has frightened reporters, along with so-called SLAPP suits aimed at strangling them financially to defend accusations of libel. Malichudis told the paper that, “when I meet someone at the bar and, over a beer, and I say I’m a journalist, I feel that I need to explain: but I’m OK. You know? I’m OK.”
According to a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only 27 percent of Greeks said they felt they could trust the news generally and only 7 percent said it’s free from government influence.