Can Europe Make It?

Press freedom in Greece is under pressure – from the government and itself

Abuses of power and attacks against the press by both the state and the police, are causing a feeling of ‘asphyxiation’ in public discourse

Matthaios Tsimitakis
12 April 2021, 2.07pm
Protesters in Athens show their solidarity with hunger striker Dimitris Koufontinas, 3 March 2021.
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved.

On Saturday 20 March, Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of the Athens-based newspaper Documento, tweeted that an arrest warrant had been issued against him. His newspaper had published the full text of a lawsuit lodged against him personally by 22 police officers, with their names on its front page. The policemen were under investigation for the torture of a young activist.

Vaxevanis was not arrested, but the event was an alert to the journalist community of Athens. Documento and Efimerida Syntakton (a cooperatively run newspaper not controlled by the mainstream media conglomerates that are almost unanimously in favour of Greece’s conservative government) have been reporting the stories of victims of police harassment and abuse.

Earlier, on 9 March, clashes had erupted between the police and some of the 5,000 protesters who had gathered in the middle-class Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni to demonstrate against police brutality during the coronavirus quarantine. The protest was prompted by a recent event in the neighbourhood, when a rapid response squad out on COVID-curfew patrol harassed a family and then attacked a young man who stepped in to argue in their defence. 

Three policemen were injured and one was hospitalised. The police arrested about 30 protesters, some of whom said they were mistreated and even tortured in police custody. Aris Papazaharoudakis, a 21-year-old student and activist, was ‘kidnapped’ the next day by masked men and taken to police headquarters where he was subjected to torture, according to the two newspapers. 

Twitter and Facebook were flooded with mobile phone videos of the protest, depicting numerous incidents of police brutality. The mainstream media failed to represent the events impartially or accurately. National TV stations focused on the attack against the police officer, but almost completely ignored the reported cases of police violence.

On at least two occasions, news channels repeated fake stories circulated by the police without checking them, and also added incorrect subtitles to a video, falsifying the meaning of the event. The video presented the head of the rapid response squad telling his men: “let’s go kill them” [protesters], which was subtitled as “they will kill him” [a police officer]. 

In the past year, there has been an alarming rise in violent incidents amid reports of unprovoked attacks by police officers against both protesters and bystanders. Internal investigations by the police into such incidents have rarely resulted in punishments for officers, or put an end to such methods. 

State propaganda and police harassment

Most Greek families – stuck in their living rooms for six months, out of work and with schools closed – knew that the reporting from Nea Smyrni was not truthful. Almost immediately, the hashtag #boycottGreekMedia started trending on Twitter, alongside documentation of the media’s role as a propaganda machine for the government rather than a source of unbiased reporting. 

In order to support the media industry during the first wave of the pandemic, the government allocated €20m to media outlets for a ‘Stay at Home’ public health campaign. But it didn’t distribute the money according to circulation, viewership or number of employees, but according to political affiliation.

It is common knowledge that Greece’s mainstream media (in particular, private television stations, but also most newspapers and radio stations) systematically violates the principles of journalism. Criticism of the government’s decisions and any attempt at investigative reporting are rare.

The media also tends to blame the people for any misfortunes, rather than government officials. A tragic example of this occurred in mid-March, when a vehicle owned by a member of the rightwing New Democracy party, a former government minister, was involved in a fatal collision with a young motorcycle courier. The incident happened right outside parliament, where a heated discussion on police brutality and abuse was under way.

Most mainstream media failed to report the collision that day, reacting only after social media picked up on it. The police only issued a statement three days later. Then the newspaper Kathimerini released a video of the final moments of the accident, taken from a parliamentary surveillance camera. Instead of asking questions about the role of the police, the MP’s behaviour or the retention of security material by a news organisation, high-profile journalists rushed to blame the victim – enraging the social media audience even further.

According to #boycottGreekMedia, the list of failings by the mainstream media is endless. Recent examples include the use of misleading poll graphics to show the goverment’s New Democracy party in a stronger position than the left-wing opposition party Syriza, and diminishing the extent of public disapproval of the government. They also ignore certain stories – such as the horrendous living conditions in refugee camps on Lesbos and Samos, and accusations of ‘pushbacks’ of refugees into the Aegean Sea by coastguards. 

At the end of last year, journalist Dimitra Kroustalli resigned from the daily newspaper To Vima, citing “suffocating pressure” from the prime minister’s office following a story she had written on the government’s flawed monitoring of COVID-19 cases.

Reporters have also been repeatedly attacked by police officers at protests. There was even a proposal (later dropped) to confine the press to designated areas during police operations. The international media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has called for an inquiry into the numerous cases of police violence against journalists and photojournalists. 

Last but not least is the media’s almost complete lack of coverage of the large rallies held in support of Dimitris Koufontinas, a convicted terrorist (from the ‘Revolutionary Organization 17th of November’) who went on hunger strike in early January in defence of his legal rights. Koufontinas had requested a transfer from a prison in central Greece to Korydallos Prison in Athens, where he was originally incarcerated 18 years ago, but was denied amid a shady process of administrative failures and angry statements from Ministry of Justice officials.

A new form of censorship?

For the past 15 years, the mainstream media’s overt propagandising has been balanced by reporting from the international press, small-scale publications and social media. According to a report from Reuters Institute at Oxford University, Greece is one of the few European countries where people trust social media (70%) much more than they do traditional media. Only 28% trust ‘the news’ overall. 

So there was widespread concern about the Facebook’s politicisation when the platform started banning journalists, lawyers and rights activists from talking about the human and legal rights of Dimitris Koufontinas or even mentioning his name. Facebook’s moderation was proactive, persistent and seemingly biased.

Prominent lawyer and human rights activist Yanna Kourtovik (representing Koufontinas in his case against the government) was blocked, along with a panel of legal experts, from going live on Facebook to present their arguments to the public. Marios Lolos, former president of the Association of Greek Photojournalists, was banned (temporarily) from the platform for posting photos of a large rally in downtown Athens in support of Koufontinas. 

Greece is one of the few European countries where people trust social media much more than they do traditional media

Thanasis Kampagiannis, a lawyer who represented victims of fascist violence in the 2020 trial against the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, was also banned from posting on the issue, as were many others. All received warnings that their posts were against Facebook’s community standards and had to be removed.

However, this turned out to be incorrect. Facebook later restored some posts, explaining that its moderation algorithm pre-emptively removes posts that contain keywords relating to terrorism, and that mistakes do happen in the process.

In truth, Facebook failed spectacularly to recognise that most of the posts it targeted were in support of human rights and the rule of law – not in support of terrorism. Facebook’s moderation process is not transparent and users cannot hold the network accountable for its decisions when matters of public interest are at stake, such as freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Furthermore, the social media giant’s slow and inadequate response sparked all sorts of theories.

Ten years ago, the anti-government protests of the Arab Spring were described by some as “Facebook revolutions’’. Social media gave people the power to mobilise without the help of state-controlled structures and unaccountable political entities. In 2011, it was used to mobilise people across southern Europe in anti-austerity movements.

Today, it looks as if social media platforms are reinforcing the opposite process, supporting governments against the people. Addressing parliament in the aftermath of the events in Nea Smyrni, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attacked social media for the polarisation of public debate. But he didn’t pause in his vast programme of advertising for his own personal Facebook accounts, or that of his New Democracy party.

Considering that New Democracy is notoriously indebted, to come third in political spending online in Europe is seen by many as yet another scandal. Having actively supported – and benefited from – a system of intertwining interests between politicians and the media, Mitsotakis’s conclusion sounded more like a threat of yet another authoritarian turn, rather than a desire to restore genuine dialogue to the public sphere.

Greek media owners believe that they can exercise power without any responsibility. But changes in the industry and in media consumption will eventually affect them too, especially when the country’s youth doesn’t watch TV news or buy newspapers and doesn’t trust websites that reproduce the same narratives. The demand for a fair and impartial press is deeply democratic and must be met.

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