Reeling over the murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz and plummeting in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom rankings, Greece is now dealing with claims by another investigative journalist his life was threatened.
Kostas Vaxevanis, who publishes the site and newspaper Documento said that Menios Fourthiotis, a presenter for a fringe TV network, had tried to hire someone to kill him and a colleague.
Fourthiotis was taken into custody after being accused by authorities of faking an assault rifle attack on his home by two men seen on video surveillance firing at a wall there. They later fired at a police detail nearby and were arrested.
“The consequences will be grave for press freedom in both Greece and the whole of Europe, if it is confirmed that there is a direct connection between Karaivaz’s assassination and his journalistic work,” Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s EU/Balkans desk told Blueprint for Free Speech.
While no details have come out, police reportedly believe the killing was tied to a series of unsolved murders and a gang war between rival organized crime syndicates, although Karaivaz also was said to be looking into police corruption.
He wrote extensively about organized crime and allegedly corrupt police officers connected to it on his blog Bloko, where he said he had received death threats but didn’t seek police protection.
He also had been a key witness in a 2015-2017 National Intelligence Service probe into police corruption and sex and gambling rackets, said the newspaper Kathimerini, with two suspects known to him killed in 2010 and 2019.
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“One of the consequences could indeed be a chilling effect on European journalists. At the moment, the connection is not yet certain, albeit probable,” Szalai added of the Karaivaz case.
He said that even before the murder and Vaxevanis’ death threat claims that Greece’s record in protecting the media had been slipping since the July 7, 2019 snap election that saw New Democracy oust the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA.
“Press freedom in Greece has been rapidly deteriorating. With public advertising amounting to almost 40 million euros distributed without transparency and generous tax rebates, the Greek government risks to buy out mainstream media to impose tight control of information, combined with increasing police brutality,” he said.’
The report said that, “Investigative media and media critical of the government were either omitted or were given a disproportionately small share of the advertising resulting from a controversial 20-million-euro ($24 million) public information campaign about the virus,” in another indictment.
“The police have already blocked reporting on migration by arbitrary arrests and other obstructions … public broadcaster ERT and national press agency have continued to be controlled directly by the Prime Minister despite a court ruling,” added Szalai.
RSF also said that journalists had to get the government’s permission before reporting in hospitals about the COVID-19 pandemic while the Health Ministry banned medical staff from talking to the media as the crisis worsened.
In February, public TV channels were ordered not to broadcast video circulating on social media that showed him disobeying his own lockdown rules, said RSF, as he was pictured with a crowd on an island during a visit.
There were also scenes of police using violence and arbitrary bans to try to prevent coverage of what was happening in refugee and migrant camps on islands, according to the report.
That included a fire which destroyed the notorious Moria center on Lesbos, reportedly set by a few refugees unhappy with COVID-19 rules, who were arrested.
A group of German freelancers were briefly arrested while trying to cover the arrival of new migrants and on the island of Samos, a German documentary film crew was detained without charge and mistreated by police, said RSF.
International Press Institute (IPI) Advocacy Officer Jamie Wiseman told Blueprint that, “Greece’s accountability has really declined in the last year alone under the new government with a lot of arbitrary arrests of journalists, particularly those covering protests and on the islands covering refugee and migrant landings.”
Greece’s public broadcaster ERT, which Mitsotakis complained while out of power was a propaganda station for SYRIZA, is unlawfully being controlled, RSF said, though the country’s highest court ruled it unconstitutional.
ERT, the report said, tried to censor news about new migrant camps and alleged the government has tried to control the narrative on how it is dealing with refugees and migrants.
In Athens, police obstructed photo-journalists covering a commemorative event at the end of 2020 and roughed up a reporter for supposedly violating COVID-19 rules, detaining him, the report went on.
RSF said there’s also concern about government rules requiring demonstrators to get police permission for protests, which also bring big fines for violations and limits reporters to designated areas for their coverage.
Journalist Dimitra Kroustalli, who had been tracking reports of flaws in Greece’s system used to track COVID-19 cases, said she was forced to resign from her job at the To Vima newspaper after “strangling pressure” from Mitsotakis’ Cabinet, Al Jazeera reported.
IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said that, “The situation in Greece is becoming more and more worrying,” and that the Vienna-based group would monitor the cases of Karaivaz and Vaxevanis.
“The shocking murder (of Karaivaz) … was a tragic reminder of the grave dangers that journalists face while carrying out their work,” he said.
Alexandros Sakellariou, a Professor of Social and Political Sciences at Athens’ Panteion University, told Blueprint that, “Journalists are being targeted because of their close relations with the political power and on the other when they are trying to reveal scandals and stand against the government.”