Working in Greece should be every dirt-digging journalist’s dream. Intrepid sleuthing by reporters has found that official corruption has torn a huge hole in the country’s budget – leaving Greece at the mercy of its international creditors.
Reporters have found that before the crisis, shadowy offshore companies inflated the values of contracts made with the Greek public sector, enlarging the size of the Greece’s debt enormously. Just a year before the crisis began, Greece provided false debt figures to Brussels, in order to avoid the wrath of the markets and its European partners.
And even today, with the Greek Government drastically short on revenue, politicians have been unwilling to inquire about potential tax evaders with millions in Swiss bank accounts.
But trying to find out just where Greece’s elites messed up could get you arrested or worse.
Greek journalists delving for political and financial scandals have to do their jobs in an increasingly hostile environment. Media owners, businessmen and the justice system have all been used against those asking uncomfortable questions.
Journalists face obstacles to getting probing stories published. Most Greek media owners also have major interests in other fields of the Greek economy or are political players.
“In Greece the majority of mainstream media belong to business titans, who use them in order to promote [their]interests and make good business deals with the state and get involved in politics,” says Dimitris Trimis, a veteran investigative journalist who now heads up the Athens Reporters Association, a trade union.
“For the most part, [mainstream media]have demonstrated a very selective attitude when it comes to reporting on business and government. Independent reporters are defenseless owing to vested private and political interests.”
The strong men who dominate Greece’s economy may have even personally threatened journalists on occasion.
In January, Greek magazine UNFOLLOW ran a story by journalist Lefteris Charalabopolous on the smuggling of oil by two major Greek energy companies.
The report explained how authorities had not pursued collection of fines for illegal petrol sales issued to Aegean Oil and Hellenic Petroleum, both run by two prominent Greek oligarchs.
A day after UNFOLLOW published his story, Charalabopoulos says he received a threatening call at the magazine’s office from someone claiming to be Dimitris Mellisanidis, founder and president of Aegean Marine Petroleum (Aegean Oil).
“I could have you killed with no warning,” Charalabopoulos said the caller told him. “I will have you killed, you, your wife, your children, everyone you’ve got.”
When the reporter told the caller that he would alert the authorities, the caller said, according to Charalabopoulous: “Screw you and the authorities. I don’t need anyone, I am Melissanidis.”
Charalabopoulos told New Matilda that when he had the call traced, it was identified as a number registered as belonging to Aegean Oil.
“I have no doubts about the identity of the person I spoke with on the phone,” he says. “It’s interesting that the majority of mainstream Greek media ignored this incident of intimidation when we made the threat public the day after.”
It’s not just independent Greek journalists who have come to fear the power of the few who dominate Greece’s economy. Greek oligarchs have turned against one of the biggest news outlets on earth.
Last April, news agency Reuters reported that Michalis Sallas, executive chairman of Piraeus Bank, had misused funds of his bank for personal benefit.
In retaliation, the bank sued the news wire for defamation.
Still, Reuters’ investigative team continued looking into the Greek banking system. But its journalists found out they were being stalked when a picture of an internal meeting was published on a “scandal-sheet” website.
On another occasion, two Reuters reporters and Greek investigative journalist Tasos Teloglou managed to grab and pin down a man who was following them.
The man confessed he was working for an unknown security company that had hired him to take pictures of them for 100 euros per day.
Meanwhile, Greece’s leading media outlets have vilified those Reuters journalists.
The country’s top Sunday newspaper has called them “a fake branch of Reuters in Greece”. Other dailies owned by oligarchs have called the Reuters journalists “thugs”.
In most European nations, police and prosecutors typically investigate threats against journalists. But Greece’s legal system seems intent on stopping investigators.
Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis published the “Lagarde List” in his magazine, Hot Doc, last October. The list included over 2000 alleged tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde had given the list to Greece’s government in October 2010. Two successive finance ministers then sat on the list, until Vaxevanis sprang into action last year.
Vaxevanis’ publication of the Lagarde List made world headlines and forced the Greek government to call an inquiry into its own inaction. Nonetheless, he was arrested by Greek police a day after he published the list. He was put on trial for breaking privacy laws by publishing the names of HSBC account holders.
A judge acquitted Vaxevanis. But prosecutors are pushing for a retrial. It’s unclear whether they will get their way.
“In Greece, the law is abused by politicians who try to protect their tycoon patrons against anyone who dares to speak up against them,” Vaxevanis told New Matilda.
“Unfortunately this country is governed today by a closed group of professional politicians, business men and celebrity journalists.”
All three cases are hardly isolated incidents, journalist pressure groups say.
Greece is now less free than Kuwait for reporters, Reporters without Borders has found. The country has made a “dramatic, disturbing fall” in its 2013 Press Freedom Index, the NGO reports.
Journalist unions say restrictions on press freedom have reached a crescendo in Greece.
“Some months ago … two public television journalists were cut off while they were broadcasting live after they criticised the police minister for denying that protesters had been tortured by police,” said Trimis, from the Athens Reporters’ Association.
“It seems the government believes the only effective way left for it to control the media has become coercive manipulation.”