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How Greece became Europe’s worst place for press freedom

ATHENS — In late July, a team of German and French journalists landed a thunderous scoop: A classified report showing the EU’s border agency working with Greek authorities to turn away asylum seekers struggling to get ashore.

Reporters across Europe raced to follow up on the piece, which provided evidence of possible criminal behavior. Interview requests poured into Germany’s Der Spiegel, one of the outlets behind the story. One country, however, was noticeably quiet on the matter: Greece.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any reference to it in the pro-government press, which dominates, especially the airwaves,” said Giorgos Christides, a reporter at Der Spiegel. “In Greece, there’s two parallel media universes.”

The moment illustrated what journalists, media analysts, civil rights groups and EU investigators have been warning about for years. Greece, they say, is now seeing the troubling, violent and oppressive results of a years-long erosion of press freedom in the country.

It’s a problem, they say, born during the Greek financial crisis, which destabilized the country, polarized its politics and sapped media outlets of the profits that helped them stay independent. News organizations became increasingly partisan. Threats, attacks and surveillance targeting journalists rose.

The pandemic only made things worse. Press conferences were halted and essentially never came back. Questions arose over whether the government was favoring friendly outlets with taxpayer funds. A new law claimed to curb misinformation but is fueling concerns that journalists could be tossed in jail for critical reporting. And just last week, the spying web that had ensnared journalists blossomed into a full-blown scandal that forced two top officials to resign. 

“Due to the financial situation, media owners have handed over the keys of their businesses to the government,” said Tasos Telloglou, an investigative reporter in Greece. “This, combined with a government that believes that it does nothing wrong, is an explosive combination.”

The situation reflects a broader trend across Europe. Demonstrators going after reporters. Demonization from officials. Public funds withheld. Countries from Germany to Luxembourg to Slovenia, Poland and Hungary have all slipped in annual press freedom rankings. But Greece fell to the bottom of all European countries on the latest list.

The Greek government insists the fears are vastly overblown. Press freedom is enshrined in the country’s constitution and there is no press censorship, officials note, correctly.

“Greece is a country where everyone can write and publish whatever they want about anyone, without any censorship and no government control,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the European Parliament in a recent debate, holding up two newspaper front pages featuring negative articles about the government.

It started years ago … 

Greece’s darkening media outlook has stretched across several governments with divergent ideologies.

Before the current center-right government came to power, Syriza, a left-wing party, was in charge from 2015 to 2019. The party gained control amid a deep financial crisis and massive street protests. The mainstream media was seen as part of the elite that had brought the country to the economic brink. 

Syriza pledged to revamp the media sector as part of its efforts to upend entrenched political and business interests. The government tried to license TV broadcasters itself — taking the power away from an independent body. But it only auctioned off permits for four private channels, leaving several existing stations facing closure. Judges eventually stepped in, ruling the tactic unconstitutional. 

Yannis Palaiologos, a prominent journalist at the conservative newspaper Kathimerini, accused the current government, which took over in 2019, of threatening to return to such heavy-handed schemes if journalists become overly critical. 

“The current government is using Syriza’s excesses as a cudgel with which to beat down any voices of criticism,” he said. “The message is: ‘Stray too far from the government narrative and you’ll be doing the bidding of the opposition and the turbulent days of 2015-19 will return.’ Its interventions are more discrete, comprehensive and effective in controlling the media.”

Reporters described several tools they see the current government using, all backed up by media freedom analysts.

First, there are state funds the government can channel to media outlets with favorable coverage.

In the early months of the pandemic, aiming to assist the media, the government allocated €20 million for a public health campaign. But the International Press Institute said those funds were directed disproportionately to media willing to uncritically repeat the government line.

Second, the government can lean on reporters and editors who aren’t giving positive coverage. Such tactics, of course, are present in newsrooms worldwide. But journalists in Greece describe an exceptional level of coercion.

In 2020, journalist Dimitra Kroustalli resigned from the Greek newspaper To Vima, citing “suffocating pressure” from the prime minister’s office after publishing a censorious report on coronavirus case monitoring. 

“It turned into internal tension and brought me to the dilemma: personal and professional humiliation or resignation?” she posted on Facebook. 

Third, the government last November criminalized “fake news.” The new law gave authorities the power to send people to jail for up to five years for spreading alleged false reports deemed “capable of causing concern or fear to the public or undermining public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health.”

Human rights and media advocates were aghast. Who determines what is “fake”? The government? Prosecutors? The potential for abuse was obvious, they said.

Mitsotakis, the prime minister, has since acknowledged the law may have been misguided — the measure, he said, “was not very successful, if I were to do that again, I probably would not.” But it remains on the books.

The end result, journalists argue, is a winnowing — and more homogenous — scope of what is deemed “news” in Greece. The agenda-setting is quite impressive: A scan of the country’s main news outlets often reveals stories in the same order with similar headlines and similar context. Several areas of reporting are considered “untouchable.”

“It might be an exaggeration to say that Greece has bigger problems compared to Poland or Hungary, but there is no doubt that the definition of the news that’s fit to print has gotten narrower and narrower,” said Palaiologos.

Annual press freedom rankings reflect this. Greece this year supplanted Bulgaria as the EU’s lowest-ranked country in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom list. Greece now ranks 108 out of 180 countries worldwide, down from 70 last year.

The domestic view is similarly bleak. In a Reuters Institute poll of 46 countries, Greece ranked last when citizens were asked whether their local press was free. Only 7 percent said Greek media was free from undue political influence, while a mere 8 percent said it was free from undue business influence. 

Last month, the EU detailed its own fears about the Greek media landscape in an annual rule-of-law report, a country-by-country compendium of potential democratic backsliding among members. The report echoed the same concerns journalists and media rights groups have been expressing: rising violence against journalists, a deteriorating professional environment, possible political influence in public media. 

A murder and a spying scandal

In April 2021, veteran crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was shot and killed near his home. His murder remains unsolved and has come to serve as a symbol of the growing problems for Greek media.

Surveillance and hacking revelations followed.

Greek police near the house of Giorgos Karaivaz, a veteran crime journalist who was killed in Athens | Yannis/Panagopoulos/Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

Last November, journalist Stavros Malichudis realized from a leaked report that the government had spied on him. The government denied the allegation and the media paid little attention to it.

Then, in April, a network of journalists with Reporters United revealed the government had spied on reporter Thanasis Koukakis, who was working in part as a contributor for the Financial Times investigating money laundering and corruption. The government admitted to the behavior during a closed parliamentary session, according to several lawmakers present in the session, but publicly denied it.

The independent outlet Inside Story also reported that Koukakis’ phone had been bugged by the intrusive Predator spyware, which gives hackers full access to a device. 

When Koukakis was initially alerted about the spying, he filed a request to the Greek authorities for information about his case. Yet shortly after that, the government passed a new law barring people from finding out if they had been under surveillance for national security reasons. 

“By changing the law, the government tried to hide the traces of a surveillance that was already happening,” said Nikolas Leontopoulos, an investigative reporter with Reporters United. 

Late last week, the dam finally broke. The scandal that a senior opposition leader had been bugged forced the resignation of the country’s No. 2 official, Grigoris Dimitriadis, and the national spy chief.

But in a sign that the landscape is still perilous for reporters, the journalists who reported on the Predator spyware scandal were swiftly hit by numerous lawsuits on the day of the resignations.

Until that moment, most Greek outlets had only cursorily covered the unfolding scandal.

“It is a shame that the methods of a group of individuals lead to the country’s vilification,” said Koukakis, who has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. Dimitriadis, who denies the accusations made against him in the press, sued Koukakis on Friday.

Opposition parties are now pushing the government to roll back its move to make state surveillance less transparent. But it has shown no signs of budging.

Palaiologos, the Kathimerini reporter, cautioned that democratic freedoms will only deteriorate further if such changes aren’t made soon.

“When the government is largely immune from media oversight, its reflexes are dulled and its incentive to misbehave increases,” he said. “It would be good for us to do things that require a little courage now, rather than face the need to show greater courage in the future.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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https://ift.tt/I3Lk0jZ August 08, 2022 at 10:30AM
Nektaria Stamouli

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