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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Press freedom is under attack in Europe. Greece is Exhibit A

Greece is the European Union's poster child for a troubling decline in press freedom across the bloc. Journalists there describe being tailed by government agents, having their smartphones hacked and being sued for defamation.

(CN) — When Eliza Triantafillou, a Greek investigative journalist, opens the door to her apartment in Athens, she feels trepidation: Maybe someone's rummaged through her house looking for her notes and other material behind her exposés into a scandal known as the “Greek Watergate.”

When Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a fellow Greek investigative journalist, goes to meet his most confidential sources, he leaves his smartphone behind. He doesn't trust bringing the device with him. Too many of his colleagues have had their phones hacked and spied on by the government.

This is the deeply disturbing state Greek journalists live in as they come under attack for their work investigating corruption, human rights abuses, organized crime and government mistakes and abuse.

Last year, Greece plummeted in the Reporters Without Borders annual world ranking on media freedom from 70th to 108th place – the worst ranking of any European Union country for that year. Among the EU's 27 member states, only Bulgaria has scored lower since the Paris-based journalism watchdog began releasing its index in 2002.

The fall in Greece's ranking comes amid a yearlong scandal over a widescale domestic surveillance program allegedly run by the conservative New Democracy government. At least 13 journalists have been among those targeted in a scandal dubbed the “Greek Watergate,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

But it's not just government spying that caused Greece to fall.

Nearly two years since Giorgos Karaivaz, a prominent crime journalist, was gunned down outside his Athens home by two men on a scooter, his murder case languishes unresolved. Karaivaz was known for investigating organized crime in Greece.

Greek journalists also have been hit by defamation lawsuits for reporting on the spying scandal and even faced criminal charges for reporting on a corruption scandal.

“In no country in the EU has the press freedom deteriorated so rapidly and so significantly as in Greece,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of the EU and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders.

“Clearly, the situation has deteriorated on the ground and we had an assassination of a journalist in a European, democratic country and this is extremely serious,” he said.

He said the investigation into Karaivaz's murder has been “extremely slow and inefficient” compared to probes into the killings of journalists in Slovakia, Malta and the Netherlands, other EU member states, in recent years.

Arrests and prosecutions have been made in the other killings: In 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb; in 2018, Slovakian reporter Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend were shot to death in their apartment; and Dutch journalist Peter De Vries was shot to death in 2021. These murders have shaken the EU, which as a whole has suffered a slide in press freedom in recent years.

“Almost two years into the killing of Giorgos Karaivaz and we know almost nothing about the killing,” Szalai said. “Killing a journalist is the most extreme form of censorship and we cannot let it go unpunished.”

The 2010 killing of Greek investigative journalist Sokratis Giolias also remains unsolved more than a decade later. He was shot multiple times outside his Athens home.

Add to these problems the fact that many of Greece's biggest private media outlets are concentrated in the hands of the country's oligarchs. Large media outlets have been lambasted for ignoring the surveillance scandal, leaving it up to reporters like Triantafillou and Chondrogiannos at smaller, often online, outlets to do much of the digging into government spying.

For Triantafillou, her life as a reporter took an ominous turn after she wrote a story with a colleague, Tasos Telloglou, about the discovery of the use in Greece of a new spyware program called Predator.

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The article appeared on Jan. 7, 2022, on the website of Inside Story, an online Greek media outlet she works for.

“We didn't have any idea where that would lead us,” Triantafillou said in a telephone interview from Greece. Telloglou did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Over the next year, that initial story became one of many others written by her and other journalists to reveal evidence the Greek government was allegedly spying on critics, political opponents, allies, government ministers and journalists.

As she and Telloglou explored deeper into the murky world of spyware, a government source tipped off Telloglou that the pair of Inside Story reporters were under physical surveillance, Triantafillou said.

For proof, the source provided photographs apparently taken by government agents of Telloglou meeting with another journalist, Thanasis Koukakis, who'd released details about being a victim of Predator, the spyware.

It got even more intimidating.

In May 2022, Telloglou suspected he was being followed. At one point, he confronted a man who appeared to be tailing him. The man ran away. After a source warned him to be careful about where he parked his car, Telloglou said he was told by a parking lot attendant in Athens that men introducing themselves as law enforcement agents had asked about his car.

“The guard sent them away,” Triantafillou said. “Maybe they wanted to bug the car.”

Then last November at the main airport in Thessaloniki, a northeastern Greek city, an unidentified man snatched Telloglou's backpack containing his laptop computer. Triantafillou said she and her colleague were at the airport as part of their investigations.

Airport security cameras showed a potential suspect entering with two bags and leaving with what appeared to be Telloglou's backpack, she said.

Last December, Euractiv, a European news agency, reported that Greek authorities had obtained permission to wiretap Telloglou's communications on national security grounds.

Triantafillou said Telloglou was allegedly wiretapped first in 2021 while he was reporting on Greece's flawed efforts to fight massive wildfires that summer.

“This also works as a pretext because when you say I want to wiretap him or her because of national security reasons, you don't have to explain why this person is a national security threat,” Triantafillou said. “This is a very easy way to hide under this national security carpet.”

Triantafillou said she too believed she was being followed and worried that her home might be broken into.

“It's a very disturbing feeling: each time you unlock your apartment door to check if someone has been inside it before you,” she said.

But she said she's not about to give up her investigations and now takes precautions, such as communicating through encrypted online platforms, regularly checking her smartphone for spyware infections and taking precautions to protect her sources.

“I am not afraid, I am just angry,” she said. “If the government feels that you are a danger, this means that you are doing your job well and you have to pursue the story further.”

Life turned spooky for Chondrogiannos too after he began reporting on the spyware scandal in January 2022. He works for a small Athens-based online investigative outlet called Reporters United.

Greek investigative journalist Thodoris Chondrogiannos, one of several Greek journalists who allege they have been targeted for surveillance by Greece's government. Greece has fallen in press freedom rankings because journalists have come under attack for their work investigating corruption, human rights abuses, organized crime and government mistakes and abuse. (Thodoris Chondrogiannos via Courthouse News)

He believes his smartphone was tracked by Greece's secret intelligence service, the EYP, and that he has been physically followed. Information about his surveillance was revealed in a news story from another reporter.

“The Greek security services used a system of antennas in order to track the position of my phone,” he said in a telephone interview from Greece. “Why did they do that? They wanted to track where I am in order to see where possible sources were.”

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As a precaution, he leaves his smartphone behind when he meets with confidential sources.

“We don't take our phones with us when we go to an appointment with a source we want to keep secret,” he said.

So far, he has not been able to confirm his suspicions that he was spied on by the government. He alleges the EYP likely obtained a surveillance order against him on the grounds that he posed a national security threat, the same ploy the spy agency allegedly used to monitor Telloglou. In recent years, the EYP has obtained an increasing number of surveillance orders and the number stands at more than 16,000.

“I don't think I am an enemy of the state,” he said. “I'm not putting at risk my country and I have not committed a felony. So, I don't know, I think it would be illegal to do that.”

He has filed a request to know if he was spied on to the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy, an independent agency that monitors government surveillance. He has not received a response.

The agency did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Chondrogiannos does not believe he was a victim of spyware based on diagnostics checks made on his smartphone. Still, he cannot be sure.

“I behave as though my phone has been hacked,” he said. “The only way to feel 100% safe is to go offline.”

Talking with sources now involves frequently changing meeting places and taking “measures so that we know we are not followed,” he said.

Additionally, he suspects the government divulged confidential financial data about Reporters United in a bid to undermine his outlet.

He and other reporters were also hit with defamation lawsuits after their reporting led to the firing of Grigoris Dimitriadis, a nephew of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

After being elected in 2019, the prime minister appointed Dimitriadis as his general secretary and liaison to the EYP, the national secret service. But Mitsotakis removed him after the spying scandal erupted.

Chondrogiannos and his colleagues have reported about troubling financial ties between spyware companies and Dimitriadis.

Dimitriadis is seeking damages that amount to a half million euros ($529 million), Chondrogiannos said. The journalists also face suits from business people linked to the scandal. He said nonprofit groups, including Reporters Without Borders, are helping cover the legal costs.

Such suits are viewed by critics as SLAPPs, an acronym for strategic lawsuits against public participation. SLAPPs are usually filed by wealthy people, politicians, corporations, lawyers and governments seeking to intimidate and silence journalists, activists, academics and others. In 2021, a European Parliament committee issued a report warning about an increase in SLAPPs across the EU.

Like Triantafillou, Chondrogiannos said he won't be deterred.

“We thought this story was so important that we could not permit ourselves to be afraid or intimidated,” he said. “Our job is not to be afraid.”

He added: “The best way to protect ourselves is to go on with publishing because if they understood that they could intimidate us and prevent us from reporting, this would have been a huge blow to us. The important thing to do is to write with your name and this is something that protects you as a journalist.”

Journalists around the world have become much more alert about the risk of coming under digital surveillance ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the United States government was running global spying programs, said Philip Di Salvo, a media researcher at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

In response, journalists are being forced to better protect themselves, but Di Salvo said “this is an unexplored territory for most journalists.”

“More needs to be done in education and awareness,” he said in an email. “Not every journalist has the needs of an investigative reporter working in national security or cybercrime, for instance, but every journalist has steps to take to better protect their work, sources, and colleagues.”

He said many journalists may not even know they've been hacked because spyware is designed “precisely for not being trackable.”

“This is why it is entirely possible that someone who has been targeted with a spyware will never find it out,” he said. “This ‘invisibility’ of spyware tech is also one of the elements that is most concerning journalists, who can be left with serious doubts about the confidentiality of their communications.”

So far, the Greek government has denied its use of the Predator spyware, though Mitsotakis has acknowledged mistakes in obtaining legal orders to wiretap opposition politicians.

A government spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a telephone interview that the Mitsotakis government has put in “more checks and balances” before wiretaps can be approved and recently banned the use of spyware by private individuals. Critics point out the the ban still allows the government to use spyware and they contend Mitsotakis is trying to bury the spying scandal.

Triantafillou said she wants the government to open up its files and come clean about what it is doing.

“We are not trying to ban the use of spyware altogether,” she said. “We understand that if you want to catch the actual bad guys, you have to use new technologies in order to see what they are doing.”

“But we think there must be a strict regulation on this use and total transparency,” she added. “They must reply to all the parliamentary commissions that are there to check what the national intelligence services are doing and who they are wiretapping and why.”

In Greece, state surveillance can stir up memories of the military dictatorship that ran the country from 1967 to 1974.

“During the dictatorship, Tasos and I couldn't have written what we are writing about now,” Triantafillou said. “We would have been put in prison. If we had a dictatorship now, we could not complain about being physically surveilled. There would have been censorship. They could have closed our media outlet.”

“We have a democracy now,” she said. “We have to have checks and balances that are working. The current government has to live up to the standards of a democratic state.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, International, Media, Technology

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