How Free Is the Press in the Birthplace of Democracy?

From a New York Times story by Lauren Markham and Lydia Emmanouilidou headlined “How Free Is the Press in the Birthplace of Democracy?”:

On a Saturday morning last November, Stavros Malichudis, a Greek journalist, made a cup of coffee and began scrolling Facebook, where he came across a bombshell exposé by the left-leaning news outlet EFSYN: According to the article, the centralized Greek intelligence service was closely monitoring the activities of people doing work related to refugees, and even tapping their phones. Mr. Malichudis was stunned.

As he read, he noticed that some of the details appeared strangely familiar. A journalist of interest to the intelligence services, the article revealed, had been reporting on a young refugee from Syria imprisoned on the Aegean island of Kos. Mr. Malichudis was in the process of reporting just such a story.

He contacted the EFSYN reporters, who confirmed that the unnamed journalist in the story was, in fact, him. According to their reporting, the Greek National Intelligence Service, or EYP — the equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency — was monitoring his activities for the news outlet Solomon and had wiretapped his phone. Having secured a two-month surveillance warrant from a prosecutor, authorities were free to listen to any of his personal or professional calls. (Government officials did not respond to a request for comment on the wiretapping.)

“I got really scared,” Mr. Malichudis told us. For months, he was in a precarious emotional place. “When I talked with my mother, with my friends, with my sources, I felt really exposed.” He largely stopped using his phone.

In the year since Mr. Malichudis first read about his own work in another news outlet, the scandal has snowballed. A financial journalist learned he had also been wiretapped. The government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitted that the state intelligence service was monitoring an opposition leader. Two government officials, including the prime minister’s nephew, have resigned.

It’s been called the Greek Watergate.

But allegations of spying are ominous for Greek journalists in a different way: It took a long time for legacy media outlets and the general public to pay much attention.

We have both reported extensively on the forced migration crisis in Greece, Lauren from the United States and Lydia from Greece, where she was raised. But migration is becoming an increasingly dangerous beat. Today, any journalist who covers refugee arrivals to the Aegean Islands or the Evros land border with Turkey risks arrest. Journalists avoid refugee landings, fearing that we, like several humanitarian workers currently on trial, could even be unjustly accused of human trafficking and espionage.

We’ve also watched with growing alarm as Greek officials have outright denied well-sourced reporting and have slammed fellow journalists in news conferences and online. “I won’t accept anyone pointing the finger to this government and accusing it of inhumane behavior,” Mr. Mitsotakis told a Dutch reporter last year — even, it appears, if the accusations are backed up by facts. Since the wiretapping scandal broke, reporters in Greece have become highly vigilant. We’ve had our phones checked for spyware, deleted conversations with sources from our phones for their protection, and now chat exclusively on Signal or in person for fear of being surveilled.

In response to questions about the state of freedom of the press in Greece, a government spokesman and deputy minister to the prime minister, Ioannis Oikonomou, rejected the idea that journalists there were operating in an increasingly repressive climate.

“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,” Mr. Oikonomou said. “To suggest otherwise is simply wrong.”

Despite that statement, by external measures the state of the media in Greece is clearly on a downward slope. 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.

Other recent events reflect the dire position of the media in Greece. In April 2021, for instance, the Greek investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz, who covered organized crime and policing, was fatally shot in broad daylight outside his home in what police experts later described as a “mafia-like death contract,” and the investigation seems to have indefinitely stalled. In 2022, 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 documenting a demonstration in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens, where residents have been protesting new development projects. Last week, Nikos Pilos, a photojournalist, was arrested while covering a police action in that city.

But the spying scandal, and how it unfolded in the public eye, raised a more fundamental question about whether a country known for its beaches and ancient ruins is struggling to uphold the its democratic values.

What happened to the media in Greece? How was even the suggestion of government spying on reporters and opposition leaders met initially with a shrug? For a long time, both ordinary Greeks and those with influence didn’t seem bothered by the government’s spying on journalists, or in much of a hurry to do anything about it.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelations, the reported surveillance of Mr. Malichudis received almost no mention in Greek mainstream media. It was not until months later, when several independent news sites revealed details about the surveillance of another, more established reporter, Thanasis Koukakis, and shortly thereafter the leader of an opposition political party, Nikos Androulakis, that the story spiraled into a scandal worthy of widespread coverage.

Mr. Koukakis, a financial reporter who had written a series of articles scrutinizing the Greek banking sector, said he heard from government sources that he was being monitored by the Greek intelligence service. Soon he discovered something else: His phone had been infected with Predator, a malicious spyware program far more invasive than a wiretap.

Predator was developed by a company called Cytrox, based in North Macedonia, and is sold in Greece by Intellexa, a company with offices in Athens. As Mr. Koukasis learned, it could be used to listen to his calls, read his texts, and even had the capability to monitor his in-person conversations by remotely turning on the microphone or camera on his phone.

Government officials have denied deploying the Predator spyware.

No decisive link has been made between the wiretapping and spyware infections, but two journalists with Reporters United, a small, investigative outfit in Athens, uncovered close connections between a businessman who had dealings with Intellexa, and Grigoris Dimitriadis, then general secretary of the prime minister’s office, as well as the prime minister’s nephew. Mr. Dimitriadis resigned from his position in August after the news reports. He immediately sued the news organizations and journalists behind them, a move that was widely condemned by international press freedom watchdogs.

“The stories are still up — not withdrawn,” said Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a journalist with Reporters United and one of the people Mr. Dimitriadis sued. “We’ll go on with our investigation. We will not be intimidated or afraid.”

But pursuing such stories is becoming increasingly difficult in Greece’s current media climate. In spite of the newsworthiness of the wiretapping and spyware scandals, it continues to be covered mainly by the newer, smaller Greek news outlets and the international press.

“For seven months, we were alone,” Eliza Triantafillou, an investigative journalist, told a European Parliament committee investigating the use of spyware during a hearing in September. She has broken several stories about Predator and spyware in Greece for Inside Story. “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.

In an interview, Ms. Triantafillou said that she believed the key challenge in contemporary Greek media was a lack of financial independence, which “year by year is deteriorating.” Longstanding media companies in Greece tend to receive government funding, and are owned by wealthy businesspeople with other interests — like those who run a shipping company, a telecommunications company and a bank. In the view of independent journalists, that means it’s difficult to report any story critical of the government, these businesses or their close associates.

The financial precariousness of journalism in Greece compounds the problem of journalistic independence. During the Greek debt crisis beginning in late 2009, and again during the pandemic, newsrooms faced significant budget cuts and mass layoffs. During the Covid pandemic, the federal government allocated 20 million euros for a public health advertising campaign and distributed the funds largely to news organizations that championed their causes, excluding others.

“Many outlets perceived as ‘opposition’ media received disproportionately lower levels of advertising revenue compared to more government-friendly media, despite the fact that many had higher circulation and readership,” the International Press Institute, a press freedom nonprofit, wrote in a letter to the Greek government at the time.

In a recent poll of the country’s journalists, 28 percent of respondents reported making less than 800 euros (about $797) per month from their journalism work, and 29 percent reported being paid fewer than 1,200 euros (roughly $1,195) per month.

While many Greeks seem to believe journalism is essential for democracy, few seem willing to pay for it. In the aftermath of the economic crisis in Greece, average circulation of national political newspapers dropped dramatically, to 216,500 in 2011 from 400,000 in 2005. Between 2011 and 2021, sales of daily newspapers declined by 74 percent, according to annual data published by the Hellenic Statistical Authority.

In response, several small, independent news organizations — such as Reporters United, Inside Story and Solomon — have begun operating in Greece in recent years, funded by grants, subscriptions, reader contributions and partnerships in order to ensure more independent reporting.

Threats to a Greek free press are so dire that European Union Parliament members recently convened a round table discussion in Athens to, among other things, get to the bottom of the surveillance allegations. As Stefanos Loukopoulos of Vouliwatch, a nonprofit government monitoring and transparency watchdog, said, the state of traditional media in Greece also threatens the state of democracy in the country.

“What has happened with Greek mainstream media is, the corporate and government capture of the press,” he said. The prime minister, he added, placed the national broadcaster ERT under his direct control when he assumed office in 2019.

Mr. Oikonomou, the government spokesman, rebuts that criticism, writing in a statement: “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.”

And yet last year, the New Democracy government passed a law making it even easier to arrest journalists. Ostensibly targeting “fake news,” this law threatens prison time to “anyone who publicly or via the internet spreads or disseminates in any way false news that is capable of causing concern or fear to the public or shattering public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health.” According to Human Rights Watch, the sweeping language of this law means that journalists could face jail time for even appearing to criticize the government.

It doesn’t help matters that Greek journalists are also working in a landscape of massive public distrust — which also tanks advertising revenue and circulation numbers, further destabilizing the industry. 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.

Yet just 7 percent of Greeks said the country’s media were free from undue government influence, and 8 percent from commercial interests — the lowest rates in the 46 countries the report surveyed. A 2016 European Commission survey found that only 12 percent believe Greek media provide information free from political or commercial pressure. According to a recent report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response network in Europe, “Press freedom in Greece continued its marked deterioration” this year.

Because of this negative perception of journalism, Mr. Malichudis told us, “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.”

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