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Stun Grenades and SLAPPs: Greek Reporters under Fire

epa10138588 Demonstrators march to protest the revelations of the phone tapping of a political leader and journalists by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), in central Athens, Greece, 25 August 2022. The revelations, that already caused the resignation of two government officials, will be the issue of a debate in the Greek parliament on 26 August 2022. EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU

Greece is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for journalists, who run the risk of physical harm, state surveillance, and lawsuits designed solely to shut them up.

It was around midday on March 16 when an otherwise peaceful protest in Athens over a fatal train crash two weeks earlier turned violent. 

Nikos Hristofakis was one of several photojournalists clustered in front of the five-star hotels that loom over one corner of the Greek capital’s central Syntagma Square, when some in the crowd began lobbing petrol bombs.

Sporting gas masks, helmets, and big, professional cameras, Hristofakis said he and his colleagues were “clearly distinguishable” from the protesters. But that appeared to mean little to the police officers as they responded to the crowd with teargas and stun grenades.

“They chucked stun grenades at us, detonating them in the air rather than on the ground as they’re supposed to,” said Hristofakis, 43. One detonated right by his head.

“I felt something happen to me; there was a buzzing in my ears and then internal pain,” Hristofakis recalled. But it was not until he visited his doctor the next day that he was diagnosed with permanent 55 per cent loss of hearing. “The doctor told me it will only deteriorate, and at some point I’ll require a hearing aid.”

Hristofakis was one of four photojournalists who suffered injuries from police violence during days of protests and nationwide strikes following the train crash that killed 57 people and raised uncomfortable questions for the authorities about how they manage the country’s rail system.

One of them, 32-year-old freelance photojournalist Konstantinos Zilos, was struck by a stun grenade on March 5. “The grenade burned through my motorcycle jacket and caused me second-degree burns to my stomach,” he said.

At No 107, Greece is currently the lowest ranking European Union state on the annual press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.

But the threat of physical injury is not the only obstacle to Greek media workers doing their jobs; they also face intimidation from government officials and business moguls, surveillance by intelligence agencies, and the risk of lawsuits designed solely to deter negative coverage. And those are only the most obvious.

“There are a series of invisible and non-transparent but treacherous criteria that affect the conduct of journalism in Greece”, said investigative reporter Kostas Koukoumakas, citing government funding for aligned media during the COVID-19 pandemic, the tendency of “establishment media” to steer clear of sensitive topics until the implicated party has gone on record, and the “systematic refusal” of government officials to answer journalists’ questions.

“These are all small components of a reality that reports cannot register but which remains important because it affects the work of hundreds of journalists,” Koukoumakas told BIRN.

SLAPPing away investigators 

Last year, Greece tumbled to 108th place on the Reporters Without Borders index, from 70th in 2021, the year that well-known investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz was shot dead by two men on a motorbike outside his Athens home.

Two brothers with a history of involvement in the Greek criminal underworld were arrested last month in relation to the murder, which sent shockwaves through Greece. The killing is widely believed to have been the work of powerful figures seeking to protect their interests from prying reporters. 

Karaivaz had investigated a case in which senior police officers were caught selling protection to brothels, petrol stations, and gambling dens. 

“It’s a very serious case because the person in question was investigating corruption among high-level police officers, and relations between corrupt cops and government officials,” said Koukoumakas.

Shocking as Karaivaz’s killing was, however, it was not the first such attack on a Greek journalist.

The same year, controversial tabloid newspaper editor Stefanos Chios was shot and injured, while in 2010 investigative reporter and broadcaster Sokratis Giolias was assassinated outside his Athens home.

Punishment and intimidation can come in other forms, however.

In October 2021, 38-year-old journalist Stavroula Poulimeni and the independent media cooperative Alterthess were hit with a 100,000-euro lawsuit by an executive of the mining company Hellenic Gold accusing them of breaching data protection laws by publishing his full name and position when reporting in 2020 on a court ruling convicting him and another Hellenic Gold executive over the company’s alleged pollution of water sources in North Halkidiki.

This year, an Athens court partially accepted the lawsuit and ordered Alterthess to pay 3,000 euros in damages. They are appealing, with financial support from the International Press Institute, IPI. The mining executives’ convictions were overturned in May 2022.

“It enraged me, because I wasn’t accused of writing something that was wrong or defamatory, but just the reputational damage suffered from reporting the truth about a public court decision,” Poulimeni told BIRN. “What happened to me is the definition of an intimidatory lawsuit aimed at scaring us away from continuing to report on issues of public interest.”

Lawsuits that appear designed solely to intimidate and burden small media with court proceedings and legal fees are known as SLAPPs, or ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’.

Poulimeni said such tactics risk leaving local residents uninformed about the impact on them and the areas where they live from the business practices of local and foreign investors, often pursuing lucrative ventures in tourism, sustainable energy and mining.

“If courts cannot consider our work as issues of public interest and freedom of expression, then we journalists will no longer be able to call things by their name, and be forced into generalisations, resulting in citizens being increasingly disconnected from the reality of the environment in which they live.”

State surveillance

Demonstrators march to protest the revelations of the phone tapping of a political leader and journalists by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), in central Athens, Greece, 25 August 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU

Journalists have also been targeted by Greek intelligence services.

Since 2021, when digital forensics experts found an Israeli-made spyware called Predator on the mobile phone of Greek financial reporter Thanasis Koukakis, at least 12 other Greek journalists have discovered the same or similar malware on their devices or seen their names published on a list of surveillance targets leaked to the Greek investigative weekly Documento.  

One of them, Spyros Sideris, found out when Documento called him for comment while on a reporting trip to Ukraine.

“I said that I found it unacceptable and that – were it to be proven – I would move legally against them,” Sideris told BIRN. “Since the lists have not been officially denied by the government, there’s no reason not to believe their contents.”

Investigative journalist Tassos Telloglou was behind some of the biggest scoops of the surveillance scandal, so he was not surprised when he discovered he was being followed in the streets.

Telloglou confronted the person tailing him and said that a senior intelligence official later confirmed that he had been placed under physical surveillance.

The scandal claimed the scalp of intelligence chief Panagiotis Kontoleon and the government’s general secretary, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s nephew Grigoris Dimitriadis, but the government has all along denied any wrongdoing and even passed legislation banning the Greek privacy authority from informing surveillance targets of their status for three years after the monitoring ceases. 

Media reports say employees of the Israeli manufacturer trained Greek intelligence officers in how to use the spyware and that the Greek Foreign Ministry issued export licences for its sale to Bangladesh, Madagascar and Sudan. 

Sophisticated media management

Mitsotakis, who has described his country’s press freedom ranking as “crap”, was once widely seen as socially awkward but now presides over an effervescent social media presence from Twitter to TikTok and writes weekly advice columns to the nation via Facebook.

Seemingly random encounters with supportive citizens – from a farmer in a lush field to a Greek taxi driver in Manhattan – look a lot like carefully-staged PR events.

Indeed, in 2021 it was revealed that the government had signed a million-euro deal with communications giant Edelman to manage its image; the contract officially remains under wraps, despite a law requiring its content be published on the government’s transparency website.

The government has also been accused of trying to curry favour with the mostly oligarch-owned broadcasters and print media by buying ad space for its COVID-19 prevention policy.

And then there’s the less subtle means of media management.

Koukoumakas, the investigative reporter, told BIRN that in 2021 he was warned by an official within the Ministry of Migration and Asylum against investigating how an NGO came to receive  millions of euros in EU asylum-related funding from the ministry just days after it was founded.

“A ministry representative unofficially told us that, should we continue, we would get sued by a real estate company and the NGO we were investigating,” he recalled. “How did he know? And why did the Migration Ministry care that we don’t discredit them?”

Poulimeni, the journalist sued by the Hellenic Gold executive, said the goal in each case was “to intimidate us”. But she, for one, would not be bullied.

“We are not going to be cowed into abandoning in-depth research to merely reproduce company press statements.”

Source: Balkan Insight