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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

IN GREECE, REPORTERS’ KILLINGS UNSOLVED, CRITICAL JOURNALISTS COMPLAIN OF GROWING THREATS

Date:

By Attila Mong

In Greece, two unsolved journalist killings over the last 12 years as well as threats of violence and physical attacks against reporters have contributed to a climate of fear and self-censorship. Adding to the sense of insecurity is the wiretapping of two reporters by Greek intelligence services; a phone belonging to one of the two reporters was also infected by spyware.

On a fact-finding mission to Greece from September 26 to 30, CPJ spoke with journalists on the ground about how the conditions to enable critical reporting have deteriorated in recent years. Here is what CPJ learned:

Unsolved journalist killings weigh on the Greek press corps 

Investigative journalist Sokratis Giolias, who was killed 2010, and crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, who was killed 2021, were gunned down in similar circumstances by professional hitmen in the streets and there have been no arrests in either case. It has been years since authorities provided updates on Giolias, and while authorities say they are looking into what happened to Karaivaz, his family and colleagues are dissatisfied by the pace of the investigation.

CPJ met with Karaivaz’s widow, Statha Alexandropoulou-Karaivaz, on the balcony of her Athens home overlooking the spot on the street where her husband was killed. She pointed CPJ to her emotional message on social media criticizing authorities for their sluggish work and for failing to update the family. “By no means will I accept silence,” she wrote, adding that she had heard rumors of the case being shelved. Soon after her post, Takis Theodorikakos, the minister for citizen protection in charge of overseeing the police met with Alexandropoulou-Karaivaz, and issued a statement that the investigation will continue “until the culprits are brought to justice.”

But the assurance has proved cold comfort to the many journalists closely following the case. “In Greece, where everything gets leaked, the fact that there are no leaks about this probe is very telling,” one journalist told CPJ on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivities involved. Other journalists told CPJ they were skeptical that the investigation would yield any answers, especially because Karaivaz covered organized crime groups and their alleged links to policemen, officials, and politicians. The Greek elite, they said, have little interest in seeing a thorough investigation to fruition.

The threat of violence has chilled reporting  

For many journalists covering issues like organized crimeprotests, refugee movements, the threat of violence is part of their everyday working lives. Extremists groups have also launched arson attacks against media outlets. Authorities in most cases have failed to identify the perpetrators, compounding journalists’ feelings that they put themselves in harm’s way simply by doing their jobs. “When Karaivaz was murdered, we were frozen. This feeling is still with us,” Eliza Triantafillou, a journalist with investigative outlet Inside Story told CPJ. Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a journalist with investigative outlet Reporters United said that as long as Karaivaz’s killing is not properly investigated, “we can assume that it can happen to any journalist, and sources can also assume the same.”

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Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis revealed that he had been targeted by Predator spyware in 2021. (Lefteris Partsalis/CNN Greece)

Journalists are concerned about surveillance

In November 2021, newspaper EfSyn reported that intelligence services’ wiretapped the cellphone of Stavros Malichudis, a journalist covering refugee issues. Then, in April 2022, Reporters United revealed government documents indicating authorities had similarly wiretapped a phone belonging to financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis in 2020. Koukakis also said that in 2021 his phone had been infected with Predator spyware, which can monitor a phone’s conversations, text messages, passwords, files, photos, internet history, and contacts. The company that sells Predator, Intellexa, says on its website that it markets its products to law enforcement agencies.

The government initially denied that it surveilled the journalists. But over the summer, when an opposition politician revealed his phone was targeted with Predator — igniting a political scandal that ended in the resignation of Greece’s intelligence service chief and the prime minister’s aide, who was also his nephew — parliament vowed to investigate the use of spyware and other surveillance tools. The investigation, however, ended in October with no conclusions as the parliamentary inquiry failed to interview key players.

Journalists predict more reporters will be surveilled  

Reporters who spoke with CPJ believe more members of the media have been targeted with wiretaps than is publicly known. “The process to get waivers for wiretapping is just so easy,” Malichudis told CPJ in an interview; in 2021, annual figures show that an official with oversight authority over the Greek secret service approved more than 15,000 wiretap requests on the basis of vague national security interests. Koukakis has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

While the government denied that it procured Predator, journalists are not so sure. Triantafillou told CPJ that the Predator spyware costs millions of Euros, a sum governments can afford. She pointed out that the firm Intellexa, which acquired Predator from its original developers in 2018, “continues its operations in Athens, undisturbed by the authorities” despite the scandal.

In September dozens of Greek and foreign correspondents in the country petitioned PEGA, an EU committee investigating spyware abuse, to probe the Greek surveillance scandal, concerned that their phones could also be infected. “The fear of being under surveillance is just as effective as being under surveillance: it makes it difficult for journalists to find and communicate with their sources,” said Triantafillou.

After CPJ’s fact-finding mission, another Greek reporter, Anastasios Telloglou alleged that security services had tracked him, as well as Chondrogiannos, Triantafillou, and Koukakis, using mobile data to identify their sources.

The new government is especially sensitive to critical reporting

When Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in 2019, he vowed to improve Greece’s public image, tarnished by years of corruption and financial mismanagement. But journalists told CPJ that the new government has made life harder for politics reporters who now face retaliation for reporting on issues deemed harmful to Greece’s reputation.

The government is especially jittery about unfavorable coverage in international media, reporters told CPJ. In September, German weekly Der Spiegel defended its correspondent, Giorgos Christides, after Greek government officials accused him of a breach of ethics over his reporting on the authorities’ treatment of refugees and migrants on the Greek-Turkish border. The reporter was vilified in pro-government media outlets as “anti-Greek” and his newspaper as “pro-Turkish.” In another case, after Politico Europe reporter Nektaria Stamouli, who heads the Greek Foreign Press Association, published an article in August on the country’s eroding press freedom, government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou accused Stamouli in a statement of opposition bias.

Lawsuits are another method to clamp down on critical reporting. In the wake of the government surveillance scandal, the prime minister’s nephew and former aide Giorgis Dimitriadis sued two media outlets, EfSyn and Reporters United, for a collective total of US$400,000 in damages over their investigations about Dimitriadis’ alleged business links with Intellexa. He has also sued Koukakis, demanding the withdrawal of a tweet about Reporters United’s and EfSyn’s reporting on the surveillance. The first hearings in the cases are scheduled for November.

A prominent critic of the government, Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of weekly Documento told CPJ his newspaper has faced more than 80 vexatious lawsuits for damages in the millions of Euros launched by state-owned companies, institutions, government officials, and ruling party politicians. Most of these lawsuits end up in the courts which Vaxevanis said often rule in favor of the journalists. But the lawsuits themselves serve as a kind of warning, Nikolas Leontopoulos, investigative journalist at Reporters United, told CPJ. “The lawsuits strangle us, squeezing us of two things we lack the most: time and money,” he said.

CPJ emailed questions to the office of the Greek government’s spokesperson, the press department of the Ministry of Citizens Protection and Intellexa but did not receive any reply.

Attila Mong is a freelance journalist and CPJ’s Berlin-based Europe representative. He is a former John S. Knight Journalism Fellow and a Hoover Institution research fellow, both at Stanford University. He was awarded the Pulitzer Memorial Prize for Best Investigative Journalism in 2004 and the Soma Investigative Journalism Prize in 2003.

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