At the end of July, a group of German and French journalists recorded a major journalistic success. They brought to light a classified report that revealed the EU's border agency was working with Greek authorities to turn away asylum seekers who were struggling to get ashore.
Δημοσιογράφοι σε όλη την Ευρώπη έσπευσαν να δώσουν συνέχεια στην υπόθεση, καθώς έφτανε μέχρι τα όρια εγκληματικής συμπεριφοράς. Τη σκυτάλη πήρε το Spiegel που δημοσίευε συνεντεύξεις αιτούντων άσυλο. Μία χώρα ωστόσο φαινόταν αισθητά ήσυχη στο συγκεκριμένο θέμα. Η Ελλάδα.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find any mention of this issue in the pro-government press, especially on the air," George Christidis, a journalist at Der Spiegel, told Politico.
"In Greece, there are two parallel media universes".
This "snapshot" illustrates what journalists, media analysts, civil rights groups and EU researchers have been warning about for years. Greece, they say, is now seeing the disturbing, violent and oppressive results of a year-long erosion of press freedom in country.
It's a problem, they say, that was born during Greece's financial crisis, which destabilized the country, polarized its political life and stripped the media of the profits that helped them remain independent. News organizations became increasingly partisan. Threats, attacks and surveillance targeting journalists increased.
The pandemic made things worse. The press conferences stopped and basically never came back. The new law that was passed to supposedly limit fake news, fed the journalistic world with concern that they could be sent to prison for critical reporting. And just last week, the spy web that had ensnared journalists blossomed into a full-blown scandal that forced two top officials to resign.
"Because of the economic situation, media owners have handed over the keys to their businesses to the government," said Tasos Telloglou, an investigative reporter in Greece. "That, combined with a government that believes it is doing nothing wrong, is an explosive combination."
The situation reflects a wider trend across Europe. Protesters chase journalists.
They are demonized by officials. Public funds are withheld. Countries from Germany to Luxembourg, Slovenia, Poland and Hungary have fallen in the annual press freedom rankings. But Greece fell to the bottom of all European countries in the latest ranking.
The Greek government insists that fears about the free press are overblown. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the country's Constitution and there is no press censorship, officials note. Correctly.
"Greece is a country where anyone can write and publish whatever they want about anyone, without any censorship and any government control," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the European Parliament in a recent debate, holding up two newspaper front pages with articles critical of the government.
This dark path of the media in Greece has passed through various governments with divergent ideologies. The previous SYRIZA government tried to "rein in" the television landscape with a law that finally went to the CoE.
The tools of government
According to Politico, there are tools at the government's disposal for the media, all with the support of press freedom analysts. First, there are government resources that the government can channel into media outlets that give it favorable coverage.
In the first months of the pandemic, with the aim of helping the media, the government allocated 20 million euros for a public health campaign. However, the International Press Institute reported that these funds were disproportionately directed to media outlets willing to uncritically repeat the government line.
Second, the government can rely on journalists and editors who do not give it positive coverage. Tactic that of course exists in press offices worldwide. But journalists in Greece describe a compulsion.
In 2020, journalist Dimitra Krustalli resigned from the Greek newspaper To Vima, citing "suffocating pressure" from the prime minister's office after publishing a report regarding the monitoring of coronavirus cases in the country.
"It turned into internal tension and brought me to the dilemma: personal and professional humiliation or resignation?" he had written on Facebook at the time.
Third, the government last November criminalized "fake news". The new law allows authorities to sentence journalists to up to five years in prison for spreading alleged false news that is deemed "likely to cause public concern or fear or undermine public confidence in the national economy, the country's defense capability or public health".
Advocates of human rights and freedom of the press were upset. Who determines what is "fake"? The government; Prosecutors? The potential for abuse was obvious, they say.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis finally acknowledged that this law may have been flawed – the measure, he said, "wasn't very successful, if I did it again, I probably wouldn't". But it remains on paper.
Journalists argue that after all, "news" in Greece is ultimately a profitable and homogenous situation. How the news agenda is set is quite impressive.
If one takes a look at the central news in the media, one will see that they are released in the same order and with similar titles, while many topics are not touched.
"It may be an exaggeration to say that Greece has bigger problems compared to Poland or Hungary, but there is no doubt that the definition of news that is fit for publication is getting narrower," says Yiannis Paleologos, a journalist at Kathimerini.
The annual press freedom rankings reflect just that. Greece this year fell below Bulgaria in the annual press freedom list among EU countries. on the Reporters Without Borders list. Greece is now in 108th place out of 180 countries worldwide, up from 70th last year.
But the opinion that prevails in the country about the freedom of the press is equally gloomy.
In a Reuters Institute poll of 46 countries, Greece ranked last when citizens were asked if they thought the media in their country was free. Only 7% said that the Greek media is not under political influence, while only 8% free from business influence.
Last month, the EU detailed its fears about the Greek media landscape in an annual report on the rule of law. The report echoed the same concerns that journalists and media rights groups have voiced: increasing violence against journalists, deteriorating work environment, potential political influence on public media.
A murder and an espionage scandal
Politico also refers to the murder of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz which remains unsolved and which "has become a symbol of the growing problems for the Greek media".
Since then, the article says, revelations about surveillance and wiretapping have followed.
He then cites the case of journalist Stavros Malihoudis, who accused the government of spying on him. In turn, the Mitsotakis government denied it and, according to Politico, the media paid little attention to his complaints.
The case of journalist Thanasis Koukakis could not be missing from the article, which was the reason for the wiretapping and surveillance case to break out. As he mentions, there was an admission that he was being watched during a closed session of the Parliament, with several MPs present, but the public denied it.
Independent outlet Inside Story also reported that Koukakis' phone had been hacked by Predator, which gives hackers full access to a device.
"When Koukakis was alerted to the spying, he submitted a request to the Greek authorities for information about his case. However, shortly after, the government passed a new law that prohibits people from knowing if they were under surveillance for reasons of national security," writes the international Media.
"By changing the law, the government tried to cover up the traces of a surveillance that was already happening," said Nikolas Leontopoulos, an investigative reporter for Reporters United.
Συνεχίζοντας το Politico αναφέρει ότι τελικά το σκάνδαλο έσκασε έπειτα από την αποκάλυψη της παρακολούθησης του Νίκου Ανδρουλάκη, αρχηγού κόμματος της αξιωματικής αντιπολίτευσης, γεγονός που έφερε την παραίτηση του υπ’ αριθμόν 2 αξιωματούχου της χώρας, Γρηγόρη Δημητριάδη, και του αρχηγού της ΕΥΠ.
But, despite this, Politico points out, the landscape is still dangerous for journalists in Greece. After all, those who reported on the Predator spyware scandal saw lawsuits on the day of the resignations.
By that time, most Greek media had only covered the unfolding scandal superficially.
"It is a shame that the methods of a group of individuals lead to the slander of the country," said Koukakis, who has filed a lawsuit at 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 reverse its move to make state surveillance less transparent. But something like that is not on the horizon, comments Politico.