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Greece: The government must not cover up “Greek Watergate”

Greece: The government must not cover up “Greek Watergate”

By The Manifold, an investigative media outlet covering Greece

Despite mounting pressure, the Greek government is still refusing to provide substantive answers regarding the revelations that two journalists and an MEP and leader of an opposition party have been targeted for surveillance by EYP (the Greek Intelligence Service), as well as by yet unknown operators using the spyware “Predator”.

The affair concerns two distinct operations. The first is EYP’s spying on two journalists, Stavros Malichoudis, a reporter with independent outlet Solomon, and Thanasis Koukakis, a freelance journalist investigating banking and business stories; and also Nikos Androulakis, an MEP and leader of opposition party PASOK. These surveillance operations were carried out through EYP’s “normal” procedure for listening in on a target’s communications, following approval by a prosecutor. The second was the hacking of Koukakis’s and Androulakis’s mobile phones with Predator, a spyware tool that is able to access even encrypted services.

 

Although the surveillance of journalists and political opponents by state services hardly seems like the hallmark of democratic governance, the first procedure can be legal, not only for “national security” reasons, but also in cases of serious crime like drug smuggling or human trafficking. The legal framework in Greece, however, lacks any provision for technically supervising the use of spyware, which in practice makes it illegal.

 

No conclusive link between the two operations has been proven — yet. The fact, though, that they took place one right after the other (in the case of Koukakis) or simultaneously (in the case of Androulakis) raises reasonable suspicions that they are related. Further suspicions about both the use of spyware and the ostensibly legal procedure used against two journalists and a politician are raised not only by the Greek government’s handling of the affair, but also a number of key decisions it has made in the last three years.

 

Legislating against transparency

Soon after being elected in July 2019, the New Democracy government implemented new legislation in two crucial areas regarding the intelligence service: first, it brought it under the direct purview of the office of the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis; second, it amended the required qualifications for the position of director of intelligence, so it could appoint the prime minister’s favourite, Panayiotis Kontoleon, who fell short of the previous criteria.

 

Less than two years later, in March 2021, it made another controversial move: it introduced a rushed legislative amendment, piggybacked on unrelated legislation, that changed the provisions which allowed citizens to be informed whether they had been under surveillance (provided such surveillance had been terminated), if their surveillance had taken place for reasons of “national security”. In other words, up to that point, ADAE (the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy) could, following permission from a prosecutor, inform a citizen who requested it that they had been under surveillance in the past, which meant that there was at least a theoretical possibility to seek redress in the courts, if one believed they had been targeted unfairly. Since the law changed, it is sufficient for EYP to claim reasons of “national security” and ADAE cannot divulge anything. What is more, the law applies retroactively, so all past surveillance is now effectively beyond scrutiny.

 

Members of the ADAE board, albeit in a non-official capacity, had protested at the time and had pointed out that such legislation contravenes the European Convention of Human Rights, as it practically deprives victims of illegal surveillance of access to due process. There is no indication that the government even considered their protests.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

From migrants’ rights to Predator

In November 2021, Efimerida ton Syntakton, a prominent left-wing daily, published a report which revealed that EYP had targeted numerous individuals for surveillance, apparently without legitimate reason. Among them, there were participants in anti-vaccination rallies, but also a civil servant who supported migrant workers’ rights, a lawyer who defended an immigrant in court, and a journalist who was trying to locate an unaccompanied minor in a refugee camp.

 

When Stavros Malichoudis, the journalist in question, recognised himself in the report, Solomon, the independent website where he works, published a scathing article, asking: “In which system of government does the state record the movements of journalists?” No justification for the surveillance was ever made public.

 

In December 2021, in a seemingly unrelated development, two reports, one by Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto and one by Meta (Facebook’s parent company), pointed out the threat of Predator, a new spyware developed by so-called “cyber-mercenaries” of the global surveillance-for-hire industry. Predator closely resembles Pegasus, a similar spyware tool implicated in illegal hackings across the world since 2016.

 

The reports did not exactly rock the Greek mainstream media’s news cycle. However, one independent, investigative website, Inside Story, picked up on the fact that the reports mentioned the possibility of Predator “customers” in Greece. It followed up on the reports and published a story showing that a corporate structure had been established in Greece to market Predator, and also most disquietingly that dozens of fake urls had been created to resemble existent Greek webpages, in an apparent phishing set-up for potential Predator targets. Despite the obvious implications for the security of communications, there was no official response from competent authorities.

 

A private citizens’ affair

Inside Story’s next feature, however, in April 2022,  launched the torrent of revelations that have been termed the “Greek Watergate” — a title repeated by no less an authority on the matter than The Washington Post. It showed that investigative journalist Thanasis Koukakis’s phone, analysed by Citizen Lab, had been hacked with Predator, the first such confirmed case in Europe. It also showed that Koukakis, alerted by a source that his communications might have been monitored, had submitted a request to ADAE to be informed if he had been a surveillance target in the past. ADAE replied that “no event that contravenes relevant legislation has been noted”. Inside Story pointed out that the “relevant legislation”, which could have compelled ADAE to inform Koukakis of his surveillance, had been hastily amended.

 

The publication provoked the first reaction from the government, which amounted to no more than a dismissal: the government spokesman Yiannis Oikonomou simply said there should be an investigation if “one private citizen had another private citizen under surveillance”.

 

The “private citizen” argument, though, was immediately questioned when, a few days after Inside Story, another independent investigative website, Reporters United, published a report that proved that EYP had Koukakis under surveillance, citing “national security”, under its “normal” procedure, for three months in 2020. EYP broke off the surveillance on the very day that Koukakis filed his request with ADAE. His phone was hacked with Predator immediately after that.

 

The government neither confirmed nor denied the “normal” surveillance of Koukakis by EYP, following the same pattern it had established a year earlier with Malichoudis, but it continued to deny any involvement with Predator. Moreover, EAD (the National Transparency Authority, created by the New Democracy government), which had been tasked with investigating Koukakis’s phone hacking, issued a report absolving the government of any wrongdoing, although it failed to even consider important evidence. This is not the only time that EAD has been criticised for incomplete and pro-government investigations. Its report on illegal pushbacks of refugees had met with international ridicule when it found no wrongdoing by the Greek authorities, based solely on the testimony of the police and coastguard.

 

Denials and resignations

Barely a few days after EAD had cleared the government, Nikos Androulakis revealed that according to the EU Parliament’s security experts, there had been an attempt to hack his phone with Predator. Under pressure for answers, EYP revealed in July that it had been spying on him under its “normal” procedure, for reasons of “national security”, during the time he was a candidate for PASOK’s leadership. This surveillance had taken place simultaneously with the attempted Predator attack.

 

Meanwhile, the two independent outlets, Inside Story and Reporters United, had persisted with their investigations, and through a series of stories had established that EYP and the Greek police services had been in the market for spyware in the past, and that Intellexa, the company that markets Predator, was active in Greece and was indirectly connected, through a web of corporate entities, with government contracts. The more recent of these reports, by Reporters United, also published in Efimerida ton Syntakton, indirectly tied some of these corporate entities to Grigoris Dimitriadis, the general secretary of the Prime Minister’s office.

 

Initially, Dimitriadis had defended his business activities as legal, and had denied any involvement with Predator or related corporate entities. After a few days, though, under the weight of the revelations, both Grigoris Dimitriadis and Panayiotis Kontoleon, the director of EYP, submitted their resignations. Dimitriadis, however, followed his resignation with lawsuits against Reporters United, Efimerida ton Syntakton and Thanasis Koukakis, demanding exorbitant sums for alleged defamation.

 

It is worth noting that during the four months since Inside Story’s revelation that Koukakis’s phone had been hacked with Predator, there has barely been a mention of the affair in Greek mainstream media, whose overwhelming pro-government bias we have analysed in a previous article. It has only been since Androulakis made the attempted Predator attack on his phone public that most mainstream media saw fit to cover the scandal to a limited degree — presumably because he is a centrist politician rather than an independent journalist.

Panagiotis Kontoleon Greece Surveillance Library

Greece: EFJ demands full disclosure on illegal surveillance of…

Greece: EFJ demands full disclosure on illegal surveillance of journalists

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) condemns the legal actions aimed at muzzling and intimidating the press in the context of the scandal of illegal government practices in Greece, in particular the tapping of journalists and politicians.

The EFJ condemns the abusive legal proceedings launched on Friday 5 August by Grigoris Dimitriadis, resigning adviser and nephew of Greek Prime Minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis, against journalists Thanasis KoukakisNikolas Leontopoulos and Thodoris Chondrogiannos, as well as against the website Reporters United and the newspaper EfSyn.

 

“We demand the immediate withdrawal of these complaints, which are only intended to intimidate the press and prevent the exposure of the illegal and undemocratic practices of those in power in Greece”, said EFJ President Maja Sever.

 

On 29 July, the Director of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), Panagiotis Kontoleon, who also resigned after the scandal was revealed, admitted to a parliamentary committee that his services had been monitoring journalist Thanasis Koukakis from 15 May to 12 August 2020. It was learned that the journalist had also been monitored by Predator spyware from 12 July to 24 September 2021.

 

“We call on the Greek judicial authorities to activate judicial investigations into private and public actors, including those close to the Prime Minister, who use Predator software to spy on journalists,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. “We call on them to shed light on the illegal tapping of journalists by the intelligence services and to identify and convict those responsible. Journalism is not a crime, but obstructing the work of journalists is a crime against democracy.”

This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Greece: Real Group media offices targeted in arson attack

Greece: Real Group media offices targeted in arson attack

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today join the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (JUADN) in condemning the arson attack on the offices of newspaper Real News and the radio station Real FM in Athens on 13 July 2022.

13 July 2022

Our organisations call on the Greek law enforcement authorities to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the motive and circumstances behind the fire and to bring the perpetrators and masterminds to justice. This case is yet another worrying example of the deteriorating press freedom in Greece, which requires immediate attention from state authorities.

 

On 13 July 2022, at 3:30am, at least four gas canisters exploded in the exterior stairwell of the offices of the Real Group headquarters in the Maroussi district of the capital. Three of the canisters had been taped together and placed with flammable liquid in the stairwell between the ground and first floors, while a fourth had been placed under the stairwell, according to reports.

 

Following the explosion, a fire broke out and damaged a large part of the building while employees working inside had to be evacuated. No major injuries were reported but a number of people were taken to hospital with respiratory problems. Photos and videos of large flames were shared on social media showing the extent of the fire, which was brought under control after 18 firefighters battled the blaze for two hours, according to media reports.

 

According to Real Group, surveillance cameras captured two masked individuals who were present at the scene shortly before the explosion. The authorities have not ruled out the possibility that a support group helped them and waited for the perpetrators at some distance from the building.

 

The Journalists’ union JUADN condemned the attack on press freedom and called for a transparent investigation: “When the media is set on fire, when the state cannot solve crimes against journalists and the media and bring perpetrators to justice, when groups aiming to intimidate, silence or control the media act without restraint, democracy is at risk.”

 

The situation of press freedom in Greece is of increasing concern to the MFRR organisations, which carried out a fact-finding mission last year amidst a deteriorating climate for free and independent journalism. Today, the European Commission echoed these significant concerns in its 2022 Rule of Law report on Greece and recommended that Greece “establish legislative and other safeguards to improve the physical safety and working environment of journalists”.

 

The quick condemnation of the attack by government officials, including Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is welcome and sends a clear signal that such intimidation will not be tolerated. However, this latest attack underscores the urgent need for the Greek government to effectively and swiftly implement the recently signed memorandum aimed at strengthening the protection and safety of journalists.

 

More widely, the lack of any tangible progress in bringing the killers of veteran Greek crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz to justice only emboldens those aiming to silence the press and encourages similar attacks. Identifying and prosecuting those behind this arson attack, and ending impunity for other cases of violence, will be vital in the coming months for improving the landscape for media freedom in Greece.

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Kostas Vaxevanis Library

Greece: MFRR partners welcome acquittal of journalists in Novartis…

Greece: MFRR partners welcome acquittal of journalists in Novartis criminal case

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today welcome the resounding exoneration of four Greek journalists and publishers who faced criminal charges and potential lengthy prison sentences linked to their media outlets’ investigative reporting which unveiled the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. The acquittals represent an important validation of watchdog journalism in Greece and a vital – yet costly – victory for the rule of law and press freedom.

On 30 June 2022, the Judicial Council of the Supreme Court ruled that all allegations made against the journalists were baseless and declined to send them to full trial at the Special Court. The four journalists were: Kostas Vaxevanis, a veteran investigative journalist and publisher of Documento newspaper, Ioanna Papadakou, a former investigative journalist for To Vima newspaper, Ioannis Filippakis, publisher of newspaper Dimokratia and Alexandros Tarkas, a reporter at Dimokratia.

 

If eventually convicted of the four criminal charges – which included alleged membership of a criminal organisation which conspired to fabricate news stories about the Novartis scandal and three separate counts of conspiracy – each could have faced prison sentences of up to 20 years. All four maintained their innocence throughout the proceedings in the face of intense pressure.

 

Over the last six months our organisations have been closely following the hearings, called for guarantees of independence in the process, registered our concern on the Council of Europe’s safety of journalists platform, carefully assessed the evidence presented by prosecutors, and have been in contact with the journalists to provide support.

 

In our view, the evidence presented against the journalists lacked substance or legitimacy from the outset. Each of the journalists has expressed concern that the charges against them were a politically motivated attempt to criminalise them and punish their media outlets for years of hard-hitting investigative reporting.

 

The criminal nature of the charges, their connection to reporting on corruption, and the potential imprisonment of journalists in an EU Member State, raised major concerns amongst our organisations and at the European level, all at a time when Greece was already in the spotlight over a decline in press freedom under the New Democracy government. These criminal charges were among the most serious levied against members of the press anywhere in the EU at that time.

 

While the news of their acquittal is welcome, we are deeply concerned by the pressure faced by the journalists during the proceedings. Comments made by certain politicians and in particular Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – who referred to some of the journalists as a “gang” in parliament – were deeply regrettable. This pressure has taken a serious psychological toll on all of those involved. Meanwhile, an MEP who spoke out publicly against the criminal charges and raised concern about the freedom of the media was expelled from the party.

 

In our view, this case is emblematic of far wider issues facing media freedom and the exercise of independent journalism in Greece. As outlined in our recent MFRR mission report, legal threats against the press are just one of a multitude of pressures which have created a hostile environment for watchdog reporting and undermine media freedom. While the signing of a memorandum aimed at strengthening the protection and safety of journalists is – if implemented properly – a welcome first step forward, the Greek government has a long way to go. Moving forward, steps must be taken to foster a media landscape in which the kind of brave watchdog journalism exemplified in this case is allowed to flourish.

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis Library

Greece: Letter to government after spyware surveillance of journalist…

Greece: Letter to government after spyware surveillance of journalist Thanasis Koukakis

The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response are concerned about surveillance measures hitting journalists in Greece.

Dear Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece

Panagiotis Pikramenos, Deputy Prime Minister,

Takis Theodorikakos, Minister of Civilian Protection,

Konstantinos Tsiaras, Minister of Justice,

Dimitris Galamatis, Secretary General Communication and Information,

Panagiotis Kontoleon, Commander of the Greek National Intelligence Service

cc.

Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice

Sophie in ‘t Veld, MEP, Rapporteur of Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware

Jeroen Lenaers, Chair of Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware

 ———————————————————–

The undersigned European and international press freedom and journalists’ organisations are writing to express our serious concern over the recent surveillance of Greek financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis using a powerful new spyware tool, Predator.

Our organisations are equally alarmed by state documents which reveal that one year prior to the spyware surveillance, the same journalist’s private communications were intercepted by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), a body which is overseen by the office of the Prime Minister.

In light of these revelations, we urge Greek authorities to first provide further information about the source of the spyware attack and second to immediately explain the state surveillance of a journalist, and to indicate clearly whether these two incidents are linked.

On April 11 it was first revealed that Koukakis, an investigative journalist for CNN Greece who writes for multiple international publications including Financial Times and CNBC, had his mobile phone infected between July and September 2021 by Predator, an advanced spyware tool developed by a North Macedonian company called Cytrox.

In the wake of the initial revelations, on April 12 government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou suggested the Predator hack had been carried out by an “individual” or private actor and denied that the Greek government had any role in monitoring Koukakis using the spyware tool.

Days later, however, it was revealed that the EYP had itself been carrying out surveillance on Koukakis in June, July and August 2020 for what it said were “national security reasons”. Documents show that when the journalist asked the independent Authority for Ensuring the Confidentiality of Communications (ADAE) to confirm whether his phone had been tapped, the EYP stopped the surveillance the same day.

When Koukakis sought to confirm his suspicions about being wiretapped, he did not receive a response from ADAE for a year. During this time, in March 2021 the Greek government passed an amendment which blocked the ADAE, with retroactive effect, from informing citizens if they had been surveilled if it had been carried out under national security grounds, meaning the journalist was blocked from knowing whether or not his phone had been bugged.

These two cases of surveillance are troubling on many levels. Our organisations urge the Greek government to first provide greater clarity and answers about how, and by whom, Predator was abused to target Koukakis. Intellexa, which owns Cytrox, maintains that it sells its services to law enforcement agencies – not private individuals. Moreover, like other advanced spyware products, Predator is extremely expensive to acquire, making it unaffordable to many private actors. The Greek authorities should take all steps to determine if a private actor or individual was responsible, ensuring a full and independent investigation with a view to bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice.

However, our organisations note that the confirmed state surveillance of Koukakis just one year before the Predator attack undermines the claim that state intelligence agencies had no role in the recent surveillance. It is deeply concerning that an agency under the control of the office of the Prime Minister spied on a journalist investigating corruption in the business and financial world.

The grounds for the surveillance in 2020, which were approved by an EYP prosecutor, appear to be completely groundless and point to potentially unlawful monitoring by the agency. We therefore welcome the preliminary investigation launched by the head of the Athens Prosecutor’s Office, which must establish why the decision to surveil Koukakis was approved and whether it violated telecommunications privacy legislation.

At a wider level, the timing of the retroactive legislative change in 2021 regarding the EYP also poses questions about whether the government changed the law in order to block Koukakis’ surveillance from becoming public. We note with concern that this is not the first time that potential evidence has surfaced that the EYP has intercepted the private communications of journalists and their sources. These cases have had a chilling effect on public interest journalism in Greece and pose serious questions about the mandate of the EYP, its closeness to the PM’s office, and the rule of law in Greece.

Moving forward, we believe it is important that Greece take immediate steps to better regulate spyware technology so that it cannot be abused in the future. As we have seen over the past year, governments around the world, including those in the EU, have used this kind of spyware to snoop on journalists, posing serious threats to source confidentiality and journalists’ safety. We therefore urge the government to clearly confirm or deny whether its own law enforcement or intelligence agencies have acquired Predator or other privately developed spyware products, now or in the past, including the Pegasus spyware sold by Israeli company NSO Group.

Greater transparency about the trade of these technologies inside the EU is also vital for understanding the scale of the surveillance-for-hire industry inside the bloc and for providing accountability when abuses occur. In light of these allegations in relation to Intellexa, a Greek company, the national authorities must also ensure full compliance with the EU’s new Recast Dual Use Regulation, which seeks to prevent human rights harm resulting from digital surveillance by establishing controls on exports of surveillance technology by EU companies, including by providing transparency around export licenses and full human rights assessments to target countries for export.

As questions about the surveillance mount both in Greece and in Brussels, our organisations believe it is important to add greater clarity to this case. We look forward to your response.

Signed by:

  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Image via Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis Library

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Lack of transparency from government poses challenges for journalistic reporting. Among the many challenges faced by independent journalists in Greece, the failure — or, at times, refusal — of authorities to provide information is arguably one of the most disquieting.

By The Manifold

Despite some progress in the last decade or so with respect to the online publication of state contracts and various administrative documents, many decision processes that should be transparent are obfuscated by lack of access to the relevant paper trail, or by the administration’s failure to offer a reasoning for them.

To cite but a few examples, in the context of stories we have been researching in recent months, our investigative team has addressed requests for information to various authorities, including: the Ministry of Energy, regarding measures to address Greece’s rising energy prices and specifically the results of the Minister’s meetings with private energy producers, as well as apparent moves to delay permits for renewable energy storage technologies; the Ministry of Health, regarding wording in recent legislation that appeared to promote a pseudo-scientific approach to prenatal care; the Office of the Prime Minister, regarding an announcement by the PM, in March 2021, that a special assistant ombudsman would be appointed to oversee police violence complaints; the Ministry of Citizen Protection, regarding legislation to modernize police training that was announced a year ago, but has not as yet been introduced; the police, regarding the progress of specific disciplinary proceedings against officers accused of unlawful violence; and the Greek Ombudsman, regarding their role as overseer of the police disciplinary process.

Out of these authorities, only the Greek Ombudsman answered our questions fully. The police took four months to process our request. After repeated reminders and phone calls to the spokesperson, we received a partial reply with no explanation as to why the rest of our questions went unanswered. Despite, again, sending repeated reminders and talking to responsible press officers, neither the ministries nor the prime minister’s office ever replied.

Lack of communication

Solomon, an independent online outlet that focuses mainly on migration management issues, has faced similar problems. “Every time we address the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with questions or ask for some data”, says Solomon’s director Iliana Papangeli, “they assure us they are ‘working on it’, but weeks later we have still not received any answer.”

At one point, Papangeli recalls, “after several unanswered requests, we wrote to them (that) we would finally publish a piece about their lack of accountability, and asked for a comment on this at least. We received an angry response claiming they had never received any questions from us, so we simply sent them the screenshots of all email exchanges. But this was the only time they replied within an hour or so.”

Reporters United, a network of reporters who publish investigative stories on Greek topics, but also do a lot of cross-border, collaborative work, has likewise been up against the Greek authorities’ refusal to engage with independent journalists. In a characteristic case, while researching a collaborative story with Investigate Europe on how the Greek government blocked an EU directive to promote gender equality in the labour market, they addressed questions to the government and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which went unanswered for months. Only after publication did the government issue a statement denying the report.

According to Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a reporter with Reporters United, the government discriminates between media that support it and media that could expose “wrongdoing”, to which it denies information. “Ignoring them”, he says, “is intended to delegitimize their investigative journalism, by signaling that ‘they are not serious enough to talk to’.”

However, once a story becomes widely known, says Chondrogiannos, “the government is often forced to speak out publicly, in order to refute the report for which they refused to answer before publication, in an effort to satisfy their political audience and avoid looking weak.”

Transparency issues

Journalists with non-Greek media are hardly better off when seeking information in Greece. Ingeborg Eliassen, a journalist with Investigate Europe who covered migration for many years, says that she often found it difficult to “establish any meaningful communication with the state authorities in this field”, though she has at times been helped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There may have been an English-language website”, says Eliassen, “but no contact info for a press office. If there was a press office and a contact number, it did not necessarily answer calls. If it did, I would be told to send an e-mail, which was rarely answered. If answered, after repeated reminders, it was mainly to say they were not the right ministry to address. On one occasion, the switchboard gave me a phone number, but hung up when I asked whom it would lead to. No one picked up on the given number. On another occasion, a person I reached that worked on the issue, said he was not allowed to talk with journalists. He had no suggestion of whom I should speak with instead.”

Eliassen has found these experiences discouraging from a public interest and press freedom point of view. “I also find them remarkable”, she says, “from the point of view of perception: they make Greek authorities seem indifferent and unprofessional, regardless of whether that is true or not. In several of the stories I have worked on, I have had to do without perspectives from the Greek government that would have enriched the understanding of the issues.”

To be sure, Greece has the trappings of transparency that one is entitled to expect in a democracy. In fact, the obligation of the government, and public authorities more generally, to disclose public interest information is enshrined in the constitution and various laws. In practice, however, decision makers are often less than forthcoming with all but the most innocuous information.

Vouliwatch, a parliamentary watchdog that also provides journalistic coverage of the legislative process, has at one time or another been refused access to data on political parties’ misappropriation of parliamentary funding, on presents received by parliament members from private individuals, and most famously on the criteria behind the disbursement of public funds to the media for Covid-19 “stay-at-home” campaigns. Vouliwatch has had to go as far as taking legal action in order to obtain documents that should have been speedily made available.

“Decision-making transparency and access to information constitute two fundamental elements of a healthy, democratic system of governance”, says Stefanos Loukopoulos, director of Vouliwatch. “Unfortunately neither of them seem to be viewed as a priority by Greek governments, who systematically and stubbornly fail to meet their obligations set by existing legislation and the Greek Constitution. This essentially renders the exercise of public oversight by journalists and civil society organizations a quasi-Herculean task, which more often than not discourages the pursuit of otherwise important investigations at the expense of transparency and political accountability.”

Transparency laws and constitutional protections are indispensable. What is also necessary, however, is for state authorities to forge a culture of accountability that includes engaging with independent journalists instead of pretending they don’t exist.

 

The Manifold is an investigative outfit with members in Athens, Nicosia and London. They run The Manifold Files.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR
Greek crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, who was killed outside his home in Athens on Friday 9 April, 2021 Library

Remembering Giorgos Karaivaz: One year later, targeted killing remains…

Greece: Remembering Giorgos Karaivaz, one year later, targeted killing remains unresolved 

April 9 marks the one-year anniversary of the killing of veteran Greek crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz in Athens. Ahead of the date, the partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) honour Karaivaz’s memory and call on the Greek authorities to urgently bring to justice all those responsible for this abhorrent murder and to provide more transparency about the investigation.

On April 9, 2021, Karaivaz, an experienced reporter who worked for the TV channel STAR and ran a news website focusing on crime and policing, was gunned down by two men on a scooter outside his home in broad daylight. After the killing, police said the “professional” style of the hit indicated the involvement of organized crime groups, which have carried out a number of targeted killings in recent years and which Karaivaz was known to have investigated.

Karaivaz’s assassination represents a low point for press freedom in Greece and has drawn international attention to the country’s significant problems with journalists’ safety, many of which were highlighted in our recent MFRR mission report.

No signs of progress

Troublingly, over the last year the Greek authorities have not announced any significant progress in the investigation. Despite the collection of substantial amounts of data, security camera footage, and forensic analysis, no suspects have been publicly identified and no arrests have been made. Despite multiple requests from the MFRR partners and other press and media freedom organisations, information about the status of the investigation has been kept secret, relying on an unwarrantedly restrictive interpretation of the Greek Code of Criminal Procedure. Contrary to the authorities’ promises, progress in the investigation appears to be slow.

Although we acknowledge that a murder investigaton requires a certain level of discretion, we emphasise that transparency and public scrutiny are essential to monitoring progress and preventing impunity. Given the fact that the killing took place a year ago without any visible progress, we urge authorities to provide an update on the status of this case, which is a matter of high public interest.

The European Commission Recommendation on ensuring the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists in the European Union states that “Member States should investigate and prosecute all criminal acts committed against journalists, whether online or offline, in an impartial, independent, effective, transparent, and timely manner, making full use of existing national and European legislation – to ensure that fundamental rights are protected and justice is swiftly delivered […] and prevent the emergence of a ‘culture’ of impunity regarding attacks against journalists.” The Council of Europe’s 2016 Recommendation on the protection of journalists in this regard says that “Investigations into killings, attacks and ill-treatment must be effective and therefore respect the essential requirements of adequacy, thoroughness, impartiality, and independence, promptness and public scrutiny”.

Although this lack of transparency means we cannot assess the extent to which the recommendations regarding an effective investigation have been met, it is clear that the lack of transparency entails that the European Commission and Council of Europe Recommendations are not adequately followed at the moment.

The uncertainty and the lack of communication by police and prosecution service have a chilling effect on the work of other journalists, which was confirmed by MFRR’s recently published report on the safety of journalists in Greece.

The longer that these kinds of attacks go unpunished, the higher the risk of long-term impunity. Moreover, others thinking about silencing journalists are more likely to act, as they see that attacks on the press carry no consequences.

On the one-year anniversary of the brutal murder of Giorgos Karaivaz, we renew our call for all those responsible to be identified and prosecuted. We will continue to honour Karaivaz’s memory and push for justice for both him and his family.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Today, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publishes the report “Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece”, which details the findings and recommendations of its online fact-finding mission to Greece. The mission, involving interviews with more than thirty local stakeholders, was implemented by the MFRR together with Reporters Without Borders in December 2021. The partner organisations conclude that challenges to the independence of the media and the safety of journalists are systemic in the country. While the problems are not unique, their intensity is highly problematic and sets it apart from most other EU Member States.

The result of this crisis is that news that is inconvenient or unflattering for the government, which includes reporting on serious human rights violations, does not get reported in many outlets. This creates a significant obstacle for the public’s access to information and, subsequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.

Understanding the political polarisation and fragmentation of the media landscape requires taking the long view. The current situation has been shaped by more than a decade of severe financial and political crisis which has harmed the way journalism is understood. At the same time, there has been a deterioration of press freedom since Nea Dimokratia’s electoral victory in 2019, who are “obsessed with controlling the message” and minimising critical and dissenting voices, as we heard again and again during the fact-finding mission.

The murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz represents a low point for media freedom in Greece and drew international attention to the significant problems with journalists’ safety. The investigation progress appears slow and lacks basic transparency, which has had a chilling effect and leads to mistrust about the authorities’ ability or willingness to protect the journalistic community.

Migration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation including pushbacks, and the humanitarian crisis that the refugee stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Reporting on the issue is increasingly difficult, as journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment.

Reporting on protest is another particularly problematic area of journalistic practice in Greece. Journalists face aggression and harassment from law enforcement and from protesters. Overall, there is a lack of political will to ensure that journalists can safely report from demonstrations, which translates to a lack of adequate protection at the operational level.

Legal threats are also a significant problem for media freedom in Greece, including criminal prosecutions as well as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Such threats can lead to self-censorship.

In light of these findings, the MFRR has issued a series of recommendations to the Greek authorities and to the European community, including the institutions of the European Union and the other EU Member States.

The fact-finding mission to Greece was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Report launch: “Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting…

Report launch: “Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece”

The MFRR has conducted a media freedom mission in Greece and the report consisting of findings and recommendations will be launched on 28 March, 2022 with an online event.

On 28 March 2022, the Media Freedom Rapid Response will publish the report of its online fact-finding mission to Greece that took place in December.

Under the title ‘Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece’, the report reflects the mission’s findings and recommendations on:

  • The assassination of Giorgos Karaivaz;
  • Polarisation of a fragmented media landscape;
  • Reporting on migration;
  • Reporting on protests; and,
  • Legal threats.

The report will be launched with an online panel on 28 March at 2pm CEST (=3pm EEST) with:

  • Laurens Hueting, Senior Advocacy Officer of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Iliana Papangeli, Managing Director of Solomon
  • Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Nikos Smyrnaios, Associate Professor at the University of Toulouse
  • Anne ter Rele, Advocacy Officer at the International Press Institute

Please register for the event.

The report will be made available on mfrr.eu and the websites of the MFRR partner organisations at the time of the launch event.

For interview requests and media inquiries, please contact laurens.hueting@ecpmf.eu.

The fact-finding mission to Greece was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Greece: Concern over criminal charges against investigative reporters

Greece: Concern over criminal charges against investigative reporters

The undersigned international media freedom and freedom of expression organisations today register their concern over the serious criminal charges levelled against two investigative journalists in Greece linked to their reporting on a major corruption scandal. Our organisations are following these two legal cases with utmost scrutiny given the obvious concerns they raise with regard to press freedom. Authorities must issue guarantees that the process is demonstrably independent and free of any political interference.

On January 19, Kostas Vaxevanis, a veteran investigative journalist and publisher of the newspaper Documento, testified at the Special High Court on four criminal charges of conspiracy to abuse power through his newspaper’s reporting on the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. Under the penal code, Vaxevanis faces five years of imprisonment if found guilty, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. His newspaper has condemned the criminal charges as a politically motivated attack aimed at silencing a media critic which unveiled the scandal.

Ioanna Papadakou, a former investigative journalist and television host, is set to appear before a court on January 25 on separate but similar charges of being part of a criminal organisation which conspired to fabricate news stories about the Novartis case and the so-called “Lagarde list”, including the alleged extortion of a businessman through critical coverage. Papadakou has rejected the case as “blatant violation of the rule of law”. A Greek MEP from the ruling party and the Board of Directors of the Panhellenic Federation of Journalists’ Union (POESY – PFJU) have both expressed concern about the prosecution of the journalists. Neither journalist has yet been formally indicted.

The summons of Vaxevanis and Papadakou to testify are part of a wider parliamentary investigation into allegations of political conspiracy and abuse of power involving Greek judge and politician Dimitris Papagelopoulos, a former deputy minister in the previous Syriza government. Papagelopoulos is accused of falsely incriminating political opponents through the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. The probe, launched by the current New Democracy government, has in turn faced accusations of politicisation.

Our organisations are closely following this case. The criminal charges against Kostas Vaxevanis and Ioanna Papadakou are extremely serious and carry heavy prison sentences. The nature of the charges, their connection to investigative reporting on corruption, and the potential imprisonment of two journalists in an EU Member State, raise legitimate concerns regarding press freedom and demand utmost scrutiny. Until commenting further, we await more detailed information from the Special Investigator about the specificities of the charges against both journalists.

What is absolutely clear is that judicial authorities examining this matter must act with full regard for press freedom standards and the function of investigative journalism in democratic societies. Moreover, given the politicisation of the wider affair, it is essential that guarantees are in place to ensure that judicial authorities act with complete independence in this case. We will continue to closely monitor both cases and have submitted alerts to Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) and the Council of Europe’s platform for the safety and protection of journalists.

In the coming weeks, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is due to publish the findings of our recent online press freedom mission to Greece. Our organisations are already increasingly concerned about the challenging climate facing independent journalism in the country, including vexatious lawsuits against journalists. Greece is firmly in the spotlight in terms of threats to media freedom. We sincerely hope these cases will not become a matter of major international concern.

Signed by:

  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Index on Censorship
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.