State surveillance and court cases: The lonely fight for press freedom of Greece’s independent media

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis holds a copy of a Greek newspaper's front page during his speech at the parliament in Athens, Greece, Aug. 26, 2022.
Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis holds a copy of a Greek newspaper's front page during his speech at the parliament in Athens, Greece, Aug. 26, 2022. Copyright AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
By Alessio Giussani
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Greece ranked 108th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index.

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A new ecosystem of small, independent organisations is bringing a breath of transparent, in-depth reporting into the Greek media landscape but their work is being hindered by costly court cases and the threat of state surveillance. 

This comes as media freedom is continuing to decline in Greece. The country ranked 108th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index — the worst-performing European country, triggering a furious response by the authorities.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis dismissed the ranking as "crap", adding: “We have a vibrant press, you can read everything you want in Greece."

Nikolas Leontopoulos, an editor at Reporters United, sees it differently: "We do have freedom of opinion, but there are some very sensitive issues that don’t even make it to the news”. 

Until recently, at least.

Greek 'mafia' and 'Watergate'

Athens-based investigative outlet Reporters United disclosed in January that a high-ranking police officer had been promoted while being investigated in a corruption case called “Greek Mafia” – something journalists in the field had known for a long time, Leontopoulos claimed

It was not the only time a major story remained unreported for months.

At the beginning of 2022, Reporters United revealed that a controversial change in the law on the privacy of communications had been made nine months earlier. The amendment, introduced last minute into a pandemic containment bill, prevented citizens from being informed if they had been placed under state surveillance for national security reasons. At the time, the wiretapping scandal that later became known as “Greek Watergate” was yet to emerge.

“Many jurists and well-networked journalists had known about the amendment for months, and we found out some had even informally protested with the government. But no one broke the story to the public”, Leontopoulos told Euronews. 

Giorgos Karaivaz, a senior reporter investigating police corruption, was also shot dead in front of his house in Athens in April 2020. Almost two years later, investigations into the murder have made little progress.

State surveillance

These new outlets, which include Reporters United but also Solomon and The Manifold, half-jokingly call themselves “marides”, Greek for “whitebait”, yet are catching big stories. But at a cost.

Editors at Reporters United were sued for hundreds of thousands of euros for a story they ran into the ties of the nephew and then-Secretary General of the Prime Minister Grigoris Dimitriadis with the spyware industry.

"Even if you are not going to lose the case, these lawsuits cost a lot, and take up your time and energy," Stavros Malichudis, who is used to facing legal threats as an investigative reporter at non-profit outfit Solomon, told Euronews.

But lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg.

Malichudis was the first journalist found to have been placed under state surveillance while reporting on migration issues on the island of Kos.  

"Stavros [Malichudis]’s surveillance deeply affected the mental health of the whole team," Solomon’s managing editor Iliana Papangeli said. Fearing for their personal safety and that of their sources, she and her colleagues decided to sublet their ground-floor office in Athens and switch to fully remote work. 

Things are not much better on social media, where journalists working on migration issues are often accused of being foreign agents.

Self-censorship

Troubles for press freedom in Greece started well before the conservative government came to power in 2019. 

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In a country with a tradition of political and business meddling in editorial decisions, the economic crisis made the press all the more reliant on political parties, tycoons and advertisers. This, in turn, further eroded journalistic independence and undermined public trust. 

In Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report, Greece ranked lowest across 46 countries in terms of the share of citizens thinking that the press is free from undue political or business influence.

"From shipping to energy and the banking sector, self-censorship in the mainstream media has become systematic since 2010," Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou, a journalist at investigative outfit The Manifold, told Euronews.

With members in Athens, Nicosia and London, The Manifold has published extensively on police violence and child abuse in Greece, facing reticence and ostracism. "We are often completely cut off from getting answers, both from company and government sources," Papadimitriou explained.

The legacy media – and TV in particular – may have lost credit in the eyes of a large section of the public, but it still sets the debate. 

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For months, InsideStory and Reporters United kept the spotlight on the surveillance scandal, until the story became too big for the big media to ignore. According to Eliza Triantafillou, a journalist at InsideStory, "the alleged disengagement of the public with the surveillance issue was a self-fulfilling prophecy".

'A long way to go'

Still, the revelations on the spyware industry and its ties to the Greek state brought InsideStory an increase in visibility and revenue – its paying subscribers now exceed 3,000. 

"But it’s just enough money to stay afloat," Triantafillou said.

Founded in 2016, InsideStory pioneered a new kind of ad-free, politically independent reporting in Greece. Its growth represents an encouraging trend for other investigative journalists, who still heavily rely on grants, media partnerships and side jobs to make ends meet.

According to Triantafillou, there is a contradiction in a significant part of the Greek audience: "They want impartial reporting, but they are not willing to provide their support."

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Greek investigative reporting regularly informs parliamentary debate at national and EU level, but its overall impact is still limited. If they are to defeat systemic hostility and intimidation, independent journalists desperately need the people to take their side.

Solomon’s Stavros Malichudis strikes a note of moderate optimism: "There’s a long way to go, but we are a bit after the middle of the road."

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