Abusive lawsuits against journalists amid political tension in Greece
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned for Greece’s journalists in the wake of the abusive lawsuits that the Greek prime minister’s nephew brought against two media outlets amid tension resulting from an admission by the National Intelligence Service (EYP) that it spied on journalists and opposition politicians.
Grigoris Dimitriadis, a close adviser to the prime minister as well as his nephew, sued the two media outlets on 5 August over stories about allegedly illegal practices by the government. They reported that the phone of the journalist Thanasis Koukakis had been spied on and that a company owned by Dimitriadis had dealings with Intellexa, a company that sells the Predator spyware in Greece.
In his suit against the Reporters United website and against Nikolas Leontopoulos and Thodoris Chondrogiannos, the two journalists who wrote its article, Dimitriadis is seeking 150,000 euros in damages and the article’s withdrawal, while his suit against the newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton (EfSyn) is seeking 250,000 euros in damages for its 4 August story about the Predator scandal. He has also sued Koukakis, the target of the spying, demanding the withdrawal of a tweet about the Reporters United and EfSyn revelations.
“The decision to sue Thanasis Koukakis and the journalists who investigated the surveillance to which he was subjected instead of trying to shed light on the surveillance itself is deplorable,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “We call on Grigoris Dimitriadis to immediately withdraw his abusive lawsuits against Reporters United, EfSyn and Thanasis Koukakis, the sole aim of which is to intimidate journalists, and we urge the government to reestablish a relationship of trust with the journalistic community. To that end, we call on the authorities to speed up their investigations into the spying on journalists and, in particular, to shed light on the reason why the EYP, an agency under the prime minister’s direct control, spied on two journalists. An analysis of the financial transactions of companies selling the Predator spyware, and their potential relations with companies that are state subcontractors, is also essential.”
Dimitriadis suddenly resigned from his position as the prime minister’s general secretary on the morning of 5 August in order to “disconnect the surveillance case from the prime minister’s environment.” And, a few hours later, Panagiotis Kontoleon resigned as head of the EYP "after wrongdoing was found in the legal wiretapping procedure", a statement from the prime minister’s press office said.
Two distinct surveillance methods
There has been a great deal of political tension in Greece ever since the closed-door meeting of the parliamentary commission on institutions and transparency on 29 July at which Kontoleon admitted that the EYP spied on Koukakis in 2020 but did not say why.
The lack of transparency about the reasons for placing Koukakis under surveillance has raised questions about the measure’s legality. In the absence of solid grounds for suspecting a national security threat, such surveillance would constitute a serious press freedom violation.
Koukakis is an investigative reporter who has covered financial issues and banking scandals. He conducted a major investigation into the Piraeus Bank and its former director, the banker Michalis Sallas, and was working on this case at the time of the surveillance.
Koukakis was subjected to two distinct forms of surveillance. The first, a phone tapping operation, began on 15 May 2020. Citing national security grounds, the EYP reportedly asked the telephone operator Cosmote to suspend the confidentiality of his communications on 1 June 2020 to permit the surveillance. It was to last for two months from that date, but was renewed and was therefore to continue until the end of September 2020. However, it ended on 12 August 2020, the date on which Koukakis asked the Authority for the Security of Communications and the Protection of Privacy (ADAE) to investigate potential illegal tapping. In his request, which RSF has seen, he said he had been told “by a third party” that there existed transcripts of his private conversations.
Following Koukakis’s request, the law allowing anyone placed under surveillance to be notified was amended in March 2021 to eliminate this transparency requirement for surveillance conducted on national security grounds. Koukakis says the government used this amendment so that the ADAE would not have to notify him about his surveillance. The ADAE's reply, which he finally received in July 2021, simply said that “no event was found to constitute a violation to the law”
It was after this initial surveillance that Koukakis became a Predator spyware victim. A report published by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab in March 2022 and analysed by InsideStory revealed that a Predator infection of his phone violated the confidentiality of his communications from 12 July to 24 September 2021. The possibility of other infections could not be ruled out, Citizen Lab said. Developed by the North Macedonian company Cytrox, Predator turns a victim’s phone into a sophisticated surveillance tool that can record messages and calls (including those made by means of encrypted apps), turn on the phone’s microphone and camera, and access passwords, files, browsing history and other data.
Serious doubts have been voiced about the government spokesman’s claim on 11 April 2022 that this Predator surveillance had been carried out by a private individual. Nikos Androulakis, a member of the European Parliament and leader of the PASOK-KINAL opposition party, who was himself the target of a surveillance attempt in 2021, points out that a Predator licence costs 14 million euros, a sum that only governments can afford. The Greek authorities have not rushed to identify the private individuals who might possess this spyware and have yet to verify the bank accounts of the companies linked to Predator in Greece, Intellexa and Crickel.
Koukakis said: “Revelations are expected in the coming days, directly showing that people close to the prime minister's immediate circle have relations with representatives of Intellexa, which for four years has signed contracts with the Greek state for security systems for the police and the Ministry of Citizen Protection.”
Routine spying on journalists in Greece
Koukakis is not the only journalist to have been subjected to surveillance in Greece. Stavros Malichudis, who has covered the “migrant crisis” – a very sensitive story in Greece – for many foreign media outlets including AFP and Investigate Europe was spied on by the EYP in 2021. He learned this from an EfSyn article about the surveillance of persons working on migrant issues including International Organisation for Migration personnel and reporters. The article did not mention him by name but he recognised himself in its portrait of a journalist working on the island of Kos. Leaked documents prove that the EYP asked its agents to gather information about his sources.
In response to this EfSyn article, the prime minister’s spokesman said in November 2021 that the EYP’s role was to monitor “threats to the security of citizens and the proper functioning of society.” RSF deplores this treatment of journalism as a threat to national security.
Greece is ranked 108th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest position in the European Union.