Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis recently heard someone was trying to have him killed. Days later, another well-known investigative journalist was assassinated in a mafia-styled execution in Athens. EURACTIV spoke to Vaxevanis to find out if press freedom is in trouble in Greece.
A source told Vaxevanis there were death contracts against him and another journalist just three days before fellow reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was shot dead on 6 April. The same source claimed the contract against Vaxevanis had been put out by TV presenter Menios Fourthiotis.
Vaxevanis had recently accused Fourthiotis of fabricating his journalistic credentials. Fourthiotis and two other men were arrested on 23 April over the alleged assassination plot against Vaxevanis. All three have denied all wrongdoing.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it had contacted Fourthiotis’ lawyers for comment but received no reply.
Vaxevanis told EURACTIV he does not know if Karaivaz’s killing is connected with the alleged contract against him.
“It is up to the police to investigate,” he said. “What I do know, however, is that journalism, and especially my newspaper Documento and I, have been targeted in an unprecedented way by the Greek government and the business elite.”
“When journalists are targeted by political and economic factors, when journalism is portrayed as the enemy, it is only a matter of time before someone pulls the trigger,” he added.
Vaxevanis has published several articles about Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis alleging that he received preferential treatment from banks and claiming that his wife was controlling undeclared offshore companies.
As a result, the journalist believes the prime minister is determined “to destroy me morally and financially. He portrays me as a monster of dirty journalism and he personally intervened, asking businessmen to withdraw their advertisements from Documento newspaper.”
Tensions between Vaxevanis and the Mitsotakis government seem to have arisen as soon as his government took office. Vaxevanis has been under police protection since 2015 following several death threats. In July 2019, protection measures were drastically reduced. Although Vaxevanis legally challenged the police decision, no official motivation was provided.
Only after Vaxevanis went public with the threats against him did the government agree to increase his protection. Nonetheless, Vaxevanis, who recently published reporting accusing several senior police officials of being part of the Greek mafia, does not trust Greek law enforcement to ensure his protection.
“What keeps journalists safe is not so much the police, it is mainly the institutionalised environment in which they do their job. In Greece, such an environment does not exist,” Vaxevanis added.
EURACTIV contacted the Greek authorities via the Greek embassy in Brussels but had not received an official response by the time of publication.
Vaxevanis is not alone in his assessment of the Greek media landscape. The 2020 Rule of Law Report for Greece also draws attention to concerns over the working conditions and safety of journalists. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also raised the alarm.
The media situation in Greece is in “rapid deterioration”, said Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s EU/Balkans desk, adding that media pluralism is under threat. This follows a common trend in the Balkans, where there is a general lack of protection and justice for violence against journalists, he said.
Szalai also mentioned the lack of transparency in the distribution of public funding to support the Greek media as one of the negative trends RSF has been monitoring in the region. Kostas Vaxevanis’ Documento was one of the main media outlets to be excluded from a €20 million financing scheme the government rolled out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked about the media situation in Greece, Vaxevanis told EURACTIV that “the majority of the media is concentrated in the hands of a handful of entrepreneurs who only have a business agenda, not a journalistic one. They raise and take down governments without even trying to hide it.”
Vaxevanis pointed towards efforts to delegitimise independent journalistic voices by labelling them as scandal-mongers or accusing them of promoting an unspecified secret agenda. Another form of intimidation frequently used is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Vaxevanis is currently facing more than 80 lawsuits.
Vaxevanis believes it is up to Europe to support free journalism. “To ensure free journalism, Europe must establish strict control with observatories and independent control mechanisms, which, when necessary, will have a direct connection to the journalists,” he said.
In April, the European Commission launched an open consultation for its recommendation on ensuring the safety of journalists in the European Union.
“The tragic murder of investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz reminded us once more that we need to step up efforts to protect journalists,” European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová told EURACTIV.
In a speech at the European News Media Forum, Jourová also announced that the EU is planning to launch an anti-SLAPP initiative by the end of the year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Josie Le Blond]